Sunday, October 5, 2008


The Unbrand

What a welcome surprise, especially in this trying economic climate, to covet something that is actually affordable! Such were my thoughts one blistering summer morning when I discovered that the much-anticipated Muji store had finally opened on the ground floor of The New York Times Building. The locale, like all other Muji outposts, has the confidence to be a little boring: there are no intrusive signs, overwhelming salespeople or dazzling window displays. Instead, just tables and shelves of plainly displayed — yet plainly desirable — stuff.

There is something comforting about a small store that sells a bit of everything, especially if it’s the right everything. Did you say you spilled coffee on your shirt right before a big meeting? Pop in and grab a nice new one for less than 60 bucks. Is the chaos on your desk draining your will to live? Simplify with a recycled paper notepad and a couple of brightly colored gel ink pens. Exhausted after a particularly brutal day? Stock up on memory foam pillows on the way home, and throw in a washable feather duvet — or, for that matter, a new bed. While you’re at it, add some bookcases, functional storage bins and a pair of cool little cardboard speakers.
Muji was founded in Tokyo in 1980; the name is short for mujirushi ryohin, which means ‘‘no-brand quality goods.’’ Its initial product range, sold in the Seiyu supermarket chain in Japan, consisted of just 9 household items and 31 food staples, packaged in nondescript bottles, cans and bags. By 1983, the line had expanded to 723 items, and Muji had opened its first free-standing store, in Tokyo; in 1991 it began a global expansion. Nowadays there are 339 stores in Japan, 83 in other countries across Asia and Europe, and 3 in New York, including a branch at Kennedy Airport, to open in October. (There are plans for others in the United States.) In total, Muji currently carries more than 7,000 products.
Despite its growth, Muji has maintained its commitment to producing carefully considered basics at the lowest possible price — a strategy that was brilliantly counterintuitive in the 1980s, when Japan was an epicenter of conspicuous consumption. Muji rebelled against the more-is-more credo that Western luxury houses were greedily promoting in Asia, and made a name for itself by recycling and curtailing waste: a 1981 ad for canned salmon flakes, which utilized parts of the fish that tend to be discarded, urged foodies to ‘‘enjoy every edible part of the salmon, from head to tail!’’ (Take that, Fergus Henderson.)
In Japan, Muji currently sells Bread Crust Snacks — packets of chips made from what you trim off sandwiches — and Pie With Eggshells, which apparently has a lot of calcium and is good for you. Colorful socks and tank tops are made from excess yarn discarded during production of other garments; a cool, crinkly T-shirt is folded upon itself to create a perfect cube, eliminating the need for superfluous packaging. Even the more upscale items, like bicycles, home furnishings and an award-winning, wall-mounted CD player, flaunt a proudly minimalist aesthetic.
Muji’s frill-free philosophy seems particularly on-target now that the design world is veering toward understatement and familiar shapes instead of the ‘‘forward-thinking’’ (read: overdesigned) gizmos and doodads that we have gotten so used to lately. With recession a reality and sustainability issues no longer just a concern of politically engaged homemakers in Northern California, a return to simplicity seems not only desirable but downright inescapable.‘‘People tend to look for something new or radical,’’ says Naoto Fukasawa, who has been Muji’s design adviser since 2002. ‘‘But I don’t think these new items can replace others with history. The fact that things last through time is their strength and value.’’
To prove his point, Fukasawa recently curated an exhibition titled ‘‘Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary’’ in collaboration with the designer Jasper Morrison. They displayed 210 everyday objects (a Seiko watch, a plain plastic bucket, a Bic lighter) whose main appeal, according to the supernormal, sensationally ordinary paperback that accompanied the show, is ‘‘the capacity to conceal its features until they become virtually invisible.’’ In other words, products whose design is so instinctive that it’s as if they had never been designed at all. Not surprising, several Muji classics (a calculator, an air filter and a kettle, among others) made the cut.
Goichi Hayashi, who is Yohji Yamamoto’s business partner and advises Muji on its fashion collection on Yamamoto’s behalf, takes a similar position. His mission, he says, is to make clothing that ‘‘someone will wear until it falls apart, and then buy the same thing again’’ — like a gauzy white shirt or a basic blazer. He feels that Muji’s home items offer the same kind of integrity. ‘‘They look like they are not 100 percent finished, and that is very attractive to the design community. A wooden coffee table, for example, has the screws showing — even though it would be easy to hide them — but it looks good like that. It’s honest.’’
Ultimately, Muji’s goal is to let customers relate to their surroundings through the products they use. ‘‘I think people are questioning whether special design is really necessary,’’ says Fukasawa. ‘‘Muji’s approach is to eliminate designed-ness from all products and provide reliable choices, so labeling the brand becomes unnecessary.
Simple is not a style — it is a state of harmony.’’

Simplicity as a design choice has been common for some time now (cough cough Ikea cough cough), but the idea of economic conditions forcing designers to think that way is interesting, as is Muji's platform to offer products that curtail waste. Also, in a product environment where planned obsolescence is a given, it's nice for a company to think about making products that last for longer than a season. Still, why can't stuff that looks cheap actually be cheap?