In conversation with Creative Director Kashiwa Sato

Kashiwa Sato

“In every object there is an archaic function. I follow this design principle. And I know that Walter Knoll does too.”

The Tokyo-based creative director talks about naturalness and the archaic play between the four classical elements. A portrait.

Kashiwa Sato likes to keep it simple – just as long as it’s not boring. The designer sits in the conference room of his agency, Samurai Inc., in Tokyo, in the middle of a long table made of fine, light-colored wood. The table is so wide that people sitting opposite one another can barely reach each other’s hands. Apart from that, the room – framed by sliding glass walls – is empty. No pictures, no objects, nothing that could be a distraction. “Whoever comes in here should focus on the discussion,” says Sato and smiles mischievously.

The 53 year old Tokyoite, dressed in a dark T-shirt and light pants, is one of the best known Japanese creative directors. Global companies such as the clothes designer Uniqlo, the car manufacturer Honda and the fashion label Issey Miyake treasure his talent for omission. When working on flagship stores and corporate headquarters, he boils down the design so dramatically that only the essence of the brand can shine through – and be understood the world over. “By leaving things out, priorities become clearer,” says Kashiwa Sato, pushing aside imaginary weight with his hands for emphasis. “What remains is stronger and lasts longer.”

He has just designed the new headquarters of the pharmaceutical company Pharma Inc.* in Tokyo – with chairs, armchairs and sofas by Walter Knoll. He found a kindred spirit in the furniture maker 9,000 kilometers away in Herrenberg: “Walter Knoll has managed to tread the fine line between linearity and finesse perfectly,” says Kashiwa Sato. When, like him, your core principle is minimalism, you need high-quality furniture that makes an impact in a room and pleases the senses with its perfection.

“What’s important to you?” – This is Kashiwa Sato’s favorite question to ask his clients face-to-face. After twenty years as head of an agency and graphic designer, he never gets tired of sitting at the drawing board. But above all, he likes to discover through dialog what a company needs and how it sees itself. “A pharmaceutical company wants to restore health, i.e., promote vitality. That’s why I chose vitality as the basis for the entire concept.” The source of vitality is found in nature, as is the source of medicine. It therefore seemed obvious to use natural materials, especially wood.

“In design, there is always the question of how much to preserve and how much to change,” says Kashiwa Sato, while turning a handleless Japanese ceramic cup over in his hand pensively. In every artefact there is a basic function, an archaic form that must always stay the same. “People are the same all over in the world. As living beings, we function according to a basic biological rhythm. We have the same taste in music, colors and smells. There is something archaic that connects us all.” Walter K. also works with time-honored, tried-and-tested design principles. Staff there take archetypes very seriously. “And when new developments come along, they masterfully go about finding a balance.”

His guiding principle: someone who wants to create something eccentric while disregarding the archetypes is bound to fail. “A concept must not stray too far from the known path, otherwise people feel overwhelmed and it is immediately rejected.” If just ten percent of an object is new – that is already very good. “It’s enough to provide that small stimulus. Like a muscle,” says Sato and pinches his upper arm. “Without any stimulus it cannot grow either.”

Kashiwa Sato created inspiring stimuli at Pharma Inc. in the form of eight Japanese characters, which stand for different areas of the building. Stylized in the form of kumiki, the traditional three-dimensional wood art, they adorn walls and lights. That is how a simple and remarkably effective design was produced. Clear and warm thanks to the light Japanese cypress wood and soft lighting. Valuable thanks to lovingly executed Japanese craftsmanship. Reduction, innovation and quality in perfect balance: “That’s how minimalist design works,” says Kashiwa Sato. And how it eventually becomes a source of power.

* The company wishes to remain anonymous, so we have changed the name.

Sofa Foster, Pharma Inc.


Kashiwa Sato is one of the most sought-after creative directors in Japan. He shapes the brand identity of his clients from logos to company buildings. In addition, he teaches at various universities and writes books, such as the bestseller Kashiwa Sato’s Ultimate Method of Reaching the Essentials. He has been running his agency, Samurai Inc., in Tokyo, since the year 2000.