Last month, Muji, the Japanese life-style brand that sells household goods and clothing, opened an eleven-thousand-square-foot flagship store on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the New York Public Library. On Black Friday, despite a solid row of flyers in the windows touting sales of thirty- to fifty-per-cent off, there was little to compare with the frenzied crowds down the street at Lord & Taylor (which had the added allure of Santa Claus). The atmosphere at Muji was relaxed, and almost meditative: a floor display invited customers to try out the Body Fit Cushion, a microbead bean-bag chair. Several tourists cooled their heels, and two young children flopped themselves across a cushion while their parents perused ceramics and socks of muted colors. Nearby, clouds of cool vapor, lightly scented of lemongrass and citrus, puffed delicately from diffusers at the Aroma Labo, a station for creating custom room fragrances out of essential oils.
Muji was launched in Japan in 1980, as Mujirushi Ryohin, which means “no-brand quality goods.” It was intended to be a generic line for the Seiyu Supermarket Group, boasting the tagline “Lower prices for a reason.” Initially, Muji included only forty different products, mainly food and household goods. Today, it is an independent two-billion-dollar company, selling more than seven thousand items ranging from furniture to soap. It keeps prices low by paying close attention to processing and packaging (most of Muji’s paper products are unbleached), and by using undesirable and industrial materials, which are cheaper in bulk (it once famously sold “U-Shaped Spaghetti,” made from the discarded ends of pasta).
According to its 2015 year-end report, Muji is currently in what it calls its “jump” phase (preceded by “hop” and “step”), defined by growth abroad and efficiency at home. Globally, it now has more than seven hundred stores, thirteen of which are in the U.S., and it plans to increase that number to eight hundred and eighty-eight, mostly by opening stores outside of Japan. The real growth is going to come from aggressive expansion in China, where it will add seventy-two stores in the next year. Muji has succeeded in part by incorporating the aesthetic consequences of cost-cutting into its design philosophy. On its Web site, the company touts the contrast between its plain-looking goods and the “prevailing over-embellished products in the marketplace.” The Muji aesthetic, or near lack of one, embraces simplicity and utility. Along with the KonMari tidying craze, it’s fast becoming one of Japan’s most popular cultural exports. A decade ago, we had cool Japan, all Hello Kitty and Pokémon and street fashion. Muji, with its lack of logos, represents post-cool, normcore Japan, which is, of course, a fetishized version of Japanese culture—serene and neat and proper.
It is tempting to describe Muji’s goods as basic, but that would belie the sophistication and premeditation at work. Its Facebook page describes its aim as creating “products that are really necessary in everyday life in the shapes that are really necessary.” Muji certainly produces staples, like stationery, kitchenware, cleaning products, luggage, storage options, and snacks. The colors, patterns, and materials are generic, but everything, from toothbrush holders to storage boxes, comes in pleasing shapes. This year, the industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa collaborated with Muji on a toaster, an electric kettle, and a rice cooker. The compact all-white appliances are described by a display sign as having “a square shape tinged with mellow roundness.” Fukasawa calls this empathetic attention to form “super normal design,” which seeks to make things seem so comfortingly sensible that you thought they already existed.
In many ways, Muji provides a template or raw materials to be finished by the customer—it’s not that the goods are incomplete but that they don’t yet have anyone’s fingerprint. In the Fifth Avenue store, a sign proclaims “Muji Yourself” above a station where you can decorate your notebooks with stamps or have your cloth goods embroidered with monograms and symbols. It also sells disks of compressed paper that expand when added to liquid to create a custom face mask. The company’s clothing collection focusses on wardrobe items so standard that you probably already own a version of each, and they come in especially plain colors: blues, blacks, reds, browns from the paper-pulp family, and every shade of gray. Where Uniqlo, another Japanese retailer, goes for the full rainbow, Muji sticks to what it calls “genuine color,” or earth tones from the natural environment. A sign near a display of alpaca sweaters reads, “We have made sweaters to give life to these genuine colors which are blessings of nature.”
Such statements, and the company’s broader articulations of its principles, seem designed to sound practically spiritual—its seasonal catalogue is a chapbook called “The Why of Muji.” Its advertising conveys the sense that life without logos, loud colors, and sharp edges is peaceful and free of distraction and excess. In one spot, a slow-motion montage shows people lounging serenely on cushions in their homes and napping peacefully with travel pillows on an airplane. Another, a mesmerizing three-minute video showing modular shelving, is tidiness porn for obsessive-compulsives.
At most big design-oriented companies, we know the names behind all the fuss: Dieter Rams, Steve Jobs, Charles and Ray Eames. With only a few high-profile exceptions, Muji’s products are not attributed to individual designers. But someone had to make the original templates. The company’s original art director was a graphic designer named Ikko Tanaka, who, along with an architect and a creative consultant, developed the original framework for Muji in 1980. Kazuko Koike, the lone woman in the original trio, did most of the copywriting for the earliest advertisements—one, for canned salmon flakes made from undesirable scraps, read, “A salmon has a whole body.” Kenya Hara is largely credited with revitalizing the brand by refocussing on design after he took over Tanaka’s post in 2001.
In advance of the opening of the U.S. flagship, at an event Muji put on at the Times Building (which also houses a Muji retail store), Naoto Fukasawa told the audience, “I really want to share the Muji mind with you. And Muji is a little shy and humble.” In explaining why Muji sells a product called “mattress with legs,” he insisted, “You don’t need a bed,” as though a bed were an unnecessary extravagance. “A mattress with legs is enough.” This sounds very much like minimalism, or even Buddhism, but Muji’s Web site insists that the brand is “rational, and free of agenda, doctrine, and ‘isms.’ ” When it refers to “perfectly functional products,” these words are meant literally and not idiomatically. Every last detail is thoughtfully and exactly engineered because, as Fukasawa put it, “Just right is comforting. Just right is pleasing.”
This Zen of Goldilocks has a corresponding holy text and a shrine, of sorts. For the past decade, the company has scoured the globe for examples of everyday goods with smart design. It features these items in Found Muji, a catalogue that sells for $29.95 in Muji stores and features items from around the world that the company selects for their spartan aesthetic (“Made from one piece of pressed metal”) or quality workmanship (“the good needlework on the soles”). And it has converted its first retail location, in Aoyama, Japan, into a “concept store”—essentially, a museum that exhibits Found Muji. Many of the objects in the Found Muji collection, including a simple Chinese oak bench and a woven basket, have inspired actual Muji products. In 2006, the company “discovered” socks that were being made by hand by a Czech grandmother who knit the heels at a ninety-degree angle instead of the typical hundred and twenty. They were declared so exceedingly comfortable that Muji reconfigured its entire sock-manufacturing process to produce them at scale.
But how do you scale an entire company whose philosophy is rooted in judiciousness, and how big is big enough? In 2015, Muji posted an eighteen-per-cent increase in revenue over the year, to $2.14 billion, and a fourteen-per-cent increase in profits, to $196 million, and it aims to continue apace next year. In its annual report, there is a bar graph of net sales over time, with a gray arrow that signifies the future pointing up and to the right, beyond the three-hundred-billion-yen mark (about $2.5 billion). The company hopes to establish a “global brand” with “perpetual growth” and “consistent dividend payout” by the year 2020, which sounds a lot like kaizen, the popular Japanese business principle of continuous improvement. Muji is banking on “the idea that simplicity is not merely modest or frugal, but could possibly be more appealing than luxury.”
Above all, though, Muji is trafficking in fantasy, as the science-fiction writer William Gibson wrote in 2001:
Muji … calls up a wonderful Japan that doesn’t really exist. A Japan of the mind, where even toenail-clippers and plastic coat-hangers possess a Zen purity: functional, minimal, reasonably priced. I would very much like to visit the Japan that Muji evokes. I would vacation there and attain a new serenity, smooth and translucent, in perfect counterpoint to natural fabrics and unbleached cardboard. My toiletries would pretend to be nothing more than what they are, and neither would I.
Anyone who has watched even one season of “Mad Men” knows that fantasy is the basis for the best marketing. What could be cooler than a brand whose branding seems incidental, or better yet, completely organic? The answer, for Muji, is a neat paradox, like a Zen koan: massive minimalism through perpetual growth.
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