Vibrant Design Panel: At Nobu 57

Vibrant Design Panel: At Nobu 57

Maxwell Ryan
Dec 16, 2005

V. Tam, moderator, K. Rashid, D. Rockwell & Nobu

Nobu's food: Amazing
Vibrant Design Theme: Yawn...
Getting a chance to hear the panel speak: Priceless

Slipping into Condé Nast/Infiniti luncheon today, we found ourselves in a restaurant transformed into a soundstage, heavily populated by corporate folks awaiting the kick-off of a PR campaign that would bring real design caché to the Infiniti brand. It seems everyone wants to get in on the design buzz these days.

After lunch, the lights went up
The panel was as varied as a Whitman's Sampler, from Karim Rashid in his bright pink get-up to Infiniti designer Koji Nogano in his modest grey suit. With them were David Rockwell, Vivienne Tam, Shiro Nakamura (Infiniti) and Nobu himself.

While the topic - reflecting on "vibrant design today and in the future" - felt more like a hot air balloon just waiting for a wisecrack from the audience, it was terrific to see and hear these various folks speak. We came away very impressed with some and feeling rather tepid about others. Here are just a few notes.


Nobu described bringing out some raw fish for two customers only to discover that they didn't "like" raw fish (strange to say this at his restaurant). Undeterred, Nobu went back into the kitchen and came up with a new recipe in which he "cooked" the fish by slicing it thin and drizzling it with hot oil. When he brought it back, the customers loved it (even though it was barely cooked). We tried this dish as well, and it was amazing. With everything Nobu said, you came away with a sense of modesty, industriousness and pleasure in the face of challenge. Nobu IS vibrant, and his words were refreshing.

David Rockwell was similarly impressive. Quite serious compared to the rest, he, alone, had gravitas, and his love for his work came through. His comments were modestly confident as he described in detail how Nobu's interior was designed to echo the ingredients and presentation of Nobu's food itself (i.e. it wasn't all about him). Themes of "wrapping," "translucence" and of the "cross section" that typified the Japanese cuisine, were applied to the environment itself.

Ceiling design details

As you looked around, you then saw how this had been done, with shifting layers across the ceiling, translucent panels that undulated around the room and wallpaper patterns that looked like crosscut leeks from floor to ceiling (see Flickr at right as well).

Karim at rest

Karim Rashid was the showman. Clearly used to being the diva in the room, he spoke the longest, the most colorfully, and made all the jokes. While impressive to look at, what he had to say for himself was an odd jumble of "me, me, me," high-falutin-design-will-save-the-world theory and a precious few good points. We were disappointed. We felt ourselves lining up somewhat predictably on one side of the I Love Karim/I hate Karim discourse. The words "pompous ass" did run through our mind.

The design world is white hot these days. In an age of rampant materialism it really shouldn't be surprising that product designers have become cultural icons, but - to us - none of this seems to have anything to do with what is truly vibrant about design right now.

What is vibrant about design is not the pink suit and the wrap around glasses, it is the way in which a number of people in our society would rather make something beautiful than talk about it. What is vibrant is the designer's ability to connect with clients, see their way around problems, turn a negative into a positive and make something that is both useful and beautiful.

One of the seven dishes, served family style

Nothing could have shown this more than the fish that we ate OR watching David Rockwell pull out his tape measure and go to work on the downstairs interior as we were leaving and the suits upstairs were still trading business cards.

We hope the folks at Infiniti realize this as well. We'd hate to see them roll out a hot pink Infiniti next spring and call it vibrant design.

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