Kenya Hara Breaks Down Muji’s Unique Appeal

The mastermind behind Muji’s global brand explains the stripped-down beauty of Japanese design.

Late last year, the Japanese housewares brand Muji opened its fourth New York store on West 19th Street, a few blocks from my office. Now I can visit Muji on my lunch break—which I do, frequently, even though its stock rarely changes, and I’ve already bought about as many translucent plastic bins, recycled-paper notebooks, and portable toiletry containers as one person can justify. Still, I always come up with some excuse to drop by again—an ink refill for my favorite pen, say, or another inspection of those smart leather key wallets that, at $26.50, seem just a touch too extravagant for these recessionary times.

In short, I am one of those aspiring minimalists and unabashed Japanophiles who fetishize Muji (which roughly translates to “no brand”) and its promise of an elegant, uncluttered life—even though, paradoxically, achieving this life seems to require buying more things. At least I’m not alone. Based on the design community’s widespread reverence for Muji, an uninitiate might think it is some sort of cult and not, in fact, a company that began in 1980 as the house brand of a large supermarket chain and first saw success with affordably priced packages of irregular foods. (One of its early hits was “Broken Dried Shiitake Mushrooms.”)

Lately, like an addict trying to get to the root of his dependence, I’ve wondered how to explain Muji’s unique and powerful appeal. It’s not merely that the products emphasize function. (In fact, as I’ve discovered from buying office supplies designed for A4-size paper, they’re sometimes an awkward fit for American lifestyles.) Afford­ability isn’t the answer, either; by the time Muji products get to the United States, they’re often much pricier than comparable items from other retailers.

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No, the Muji magic works main­ly for aesthetic reasons. Admittedly, their products are not what you might traditionally call beautiful—they’re unadorned, anonymous, simple sometimes to the point of blandness. But their stripped-down rigor is lovely in a quintessentially Japanese way. To better understand this core quality—what makes Japanese design so, well, Japanese—I consulted Kenya Hara, a Tokyo-based communications designer and the mastermind of Muji’s global brand identity.

Hara does not design Muji products or even oversee its product-design division. But since he joined the company’s advisory board in 2001 and took over its art direction, he has done more than anyone else to shape the company’s image and philosophy. He is also an active promoter of design through books and exhibitions; his latest book, Designing Design (Lars Müller Publishers, 2007), is packed with photos of the unusual and provocative products that have resulted from his public explorations of design’s ability to transform our everyday dealings with the material world. (We’re showing several examples from the book here.)

From Hara, I learned that my first mistake in thinking about Japanese design is falling back, lazily, on the notion of simplicity. As he wrote to me in an e-mail: “Simplicity is a concept that emerged in the West around 150 to 200 years ago. It was discovered after the arrival of modern society made complex patterns and decorations no longer necessary to symbolize great authority. Something is simple when form and usage are closest to each other.”

By contrast, Japanese visual culture esteems “emptiness,” a subtly but crucially different trait. As Hara describes in his book, the concept of emptiness has its roots in the late 15th century, when Murata Shuko—an adviser to Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga—developed the tea ceremony as a conscious attempt to reject the influence of Chin­ese culture and to highlight uniquely Jap­anese values. Shuko turned away from splendor and embraced an aesthetic of “austere beauty” and “elegant rusticity” called wabi. In phys­ical terms, this translated to unadorned utensils and small, ceremonial tearooms with a few, uniform elements.

The point is that what seems merely simple to the untrained eye is actually carefully orchestrated and rigorously controlled. The tea ceremony is stripped of unessential trappings to allow people to invest it with their own meaning. The same principle applies, Hara says, to product design: “The result is design that at first appears to be simple and unspecial, but is in fact the reflection of a sophisticated approach and sophisticated thought processes.” With Muji, the result should be products that unobtrusively occupy people’s daily lives and provide reli­able doses of small pleasure.

Ironically, people like me, who covet Muji goods and take pride in knowing their semi-secret design pedigree—the com­pany’s anonymous designers have included Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Naoto Fuk­-a­sawa, Shigeru Ban, and Enzo Mari—are, in a sense, missing the point. As Hara writes in Designing Design, Muji products are supposed to inspire “acceptance,” not “appetite.” The appropriate response to the brand is “This will do,” not “This is what I want.” It’s something that Westerners, and Americans in particular, aren’t typically very good at.

But I like to think that my covetous attitude toward Muji is somehow appropriate. Under­standing Japanese product design and visual culture—at least, from a Westerner’s eyes—requires embracing contradictions. Muji presents a bundle of them: its “no brand” goods have become a potent brand of their own; its products aspire to anonymity yet are created by some of the world’s foremost industrial designers. More broadly, Japan values material goods as a means of fostering spiritual reflection; it devours foreign culture yet has developed an aesthetic consciously opposed to outside influence. Even simplicity is complicated. As Kenya Hara writes at the beginning of Designing Design, “The whole world looks different if you just put your chin in your hand and think.”

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