Shaped by a childhood surrounded by design greats, Nalani Sato steps out with her debut Surface Mode of Operation collection.
Surface Mode of Operation offers wallcoverings, wall and ceiling tiles, architectural panels, screens and dividers, and more.
“I grew up in a Pete Wimberly-designed home flanking the hillside of Pacific Heights over Nu‘uanu Valley,” says Nalani Sato. “The brutalist-inspired and midcentury home was painted in hues blending the ironwood forest into it and—despite its unusual shape and style—modestly blended into the mountainside.” Thus began Sato’s real life design education. Daughter of Paul Rasmussen, a pioneer in wallcoverings in Hawai‘i, she was immersed in the world of interiors from a young age.
Founder Nalani Sato.
“At times,” Sato recalls, “my dad arrived home after a long day with unusual wallcovering samples that he would carefully show me over the dining table.” Other times, she says, “we hosted industry parties at our home and attended swanky pupuparties—one of which I remember looking up at the gorgeous Mary Philpotts from her hip.” It’s enough to make any student of design envious, but for Sato, it was simply life. “As far as I knew, all of that was normal,” she says. “This is my blood.”
Embracing her family’s legacy, Sato ventures into new territory with Surface Mode of Operation, or SUMO (sumo.design), her ode to wallcoverings and design the Hawaiian way. It’s “minimalism meets function with a small footprint,” she notes. SUMO, Sato adds, “is an educated and cohesive collection of finishes geared specifically for Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i only. It hones in on finishes that have proved to differentiate Hawai‘i design from other parts of the world and puts a megaphone to it.”
Among the 12-piece collection is grasscloth and paperweave wallcoverings, as well as a three-piece line of coconut shell tiles ideal for both wall and ceiling use. “We are amid a cultural renaissance in Hawai‘i—a remembering of sorts—where the language and cultural practices are becoming normalized throughout homes and on the street,” she says. “As an advocate and supplier, I am in a unique position to question hotel developers and pressure them out of their comfort zones into using only Hawai‘ibased creatives for their Hawai‘ibased projects.” Through these relationships, SUMO’s grasscloth wallcoverings and textured surfaces have already been installed in places such as The Kahala Hotel & Resort, Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, Royal Hawaiian Center and the new MW Restaurant location at Velocity Honolulu, as well as in private residences.
A sampling of SUMO’s collection, including natural woven and handcrafted wallcoverings
Up next, Sato moves to build local inventory; hold experimental workshops for students, architects and designers; and, eventually, collaborate with local makers on a new set of wall finishes. “I was raised and fostered into my profession, which led me to a genuine appreciation of what wallcovering and finishes are and how they work together to create a ‘Sense of Place,’ as Philpotts coined,” Sato says. As she looks to the coming design generation, Sato stands ready to shepherd her heritage brand into the future.
Photography by: Courtesy of Nalani Sato