The biggest moment of any Olympic opening ceremony happens when the torch, first lit in Olympia, Greece, makes its way into the Olympic Stadium and lights the caldron to officially start the Games. The opening of the Tokyo Games was no exception, as tennis sensation Naomi Osaka ascended a flight of stairs to approach a seamless white orb. The orb then bloomed open to reveal a captivating, mirrored burner inside, which accepted her flame, keeping the fire going with hydrogen energy.
But who designed the Olympic caldron? That honor went to Nendo—a Japanese design firm that’s reimagined almost every product under the sun. The only thing predictable about Nendo’s work—which is primarily in industrial design, but ranges from furniture to interior design—is that it’s unpredictable.
The studio is helmed by the 43-year-old Canadian-born Japanese designer Oki Sato. Sato is a self-described workaholic, who alongside a few dozen designers, puts out a staggering number of products every year.
Nendo’s work ranges from luxurious to plebeian, with zero distinction between the two. The company approaches each of its projects with two key principles, Sato told us in a 2016 interview. The first is that each design needs to be so simple that a viewer can understand its unique approach instantly. The second is that, whatever the design is, “it has to be done in a very fun way,” said Sato. “That’s something that a lot of designers forget about, enjoying the process. When we don’t enjoy designing things, people won’t enjoy them when they’re done.”
Nendo has redesigned all sorts of humble, everyday objects, with just this point of view. The work includes thoughtful redesigns of humble objects, like a soccer ball that can’t pop, a wristwatch with no annoying buckle, a flashlight made from a single sheet of paper, a zipper that can zip at a 90-degree angle, paper clips that hang on one another like bunches of grapes, purses that double as storage boxes when they sit in your closet, a special fork designed exclusively to eat Cup Noodle, a teaspoon that hooks to a tea cup to keep your table clean, and a key that’s easier to turn.
But as Sato mentioned, the work also embraces play without apologizing, sometimes as the core experience itself. When Nendo designed a glass for mixing the yogurt drink Calpis with just the right amount of water, Nendo didn’t just make a measuring cup. It created a crystal glass that you tip over to fill with Calpis, as if it’s about to spill. Then to drink it, you stand the glass right side up, top it off with water, and drink. When Nendo created an alternative to Tupperware, it didn’t just make some glass containers. It built a series of toy-like rubber lids shaped like cones and balls, each there to enable a highly specific gesture in your kitchen. Heck, when the company built a public plaza near Kyoto, with architecture inspired by the sunken feeling of being inside a basin, it added a trampoline to bounce you back up.
Nendo’s works are not only ingenious inventions of the status quo; they’re also a nod and wink to the user, a sort of inside joke that any Nendo fan gets to be in on.
Which brings us back to Nendo’s Olympic caldron. The caldron itself was inspired by the idea that “all gather under the Sun, all are equal, and all receive energy,” which was a design mandate from Mansai Nomura, the chief executive creative director of the ceremonies.
Nendo honed its approach to the caldron through 85 different drafts, “from flames trapped in a heat-resistant glass sphere to spinning the flames to create a spherical appearance, in order to express the desired resemblance to the sun,” Nendo explains in a press release.
Ultimately, the team settled on the blooming sphere, with a shell designed from five molded and milled aluminum panels, which allude to the Olympic rings. When these panels opened, they welcomed both Osaka and the wider world to the games.
Inside, a jewel-like faceted mirror surface reflects flames, amplifying their grandeur. That surface is also a sly camouflage for the internal motors and other machinery—all of which has to be heatproof, waterproof, and windproof.
While the entire sphere is 2.7 tons and opens with a diameter of 11.5 feet, its manufacturing is quite precise. The 88-pound panels move with a precision down to 3mm. All in all, the caldron is a wonder of art and technology, which “crystallizes the essence of Japanese manufacturing,” according to Nendo.
The caldron is a more serious project than many of Nendo’s playful designs, but it still showcased a moment of reinvention and surprise through its blooming reveal. And I have a feeling that, even decades from now, the Tokyo 2020 caldron will hold its own as an inspiring monument to the spirit of worldwide competition.