Every time I mention that I'm writing an article about the Japanese design lifestyle retailer I get the same response: "I love Muji!" The name Muji is short for Mujirushi Ryohin, which translates as "no brand, good product."

Muji was developed in the early 1980s as a private brand of the giant Seiyu discount department store, offering an antidote to the rampant brand mania in the Japanese economic "bubble" period. Since 1989 it has been owned by the Ryohin Keikaku Company. In just over twenty years, Muji has expanded from a single outlet to 265 stores in Japan, 16 in Great Britain, one in Ireland, four in France, three in Hong Kong and two in Singapore, while developing an intensely loyal following, particularly among designers. Although there really is not another retailer quite like it, Muji could be described as a holy alliance of IKEA, The Gap and Target, carrying the designs of famous, but anonymous designers with hundreds of stores, some the size of Wal-Marts, in expensive, high traffic urban areas.

The range of over 5000 products Muji offers encompasses nearly every aspect of daily life and includes everything from stationery to housewares, toiletries, clothing, furniture, electronics, food and more. I'm no Muji fetishist, but I've been buying their well-designed, simple, inexpensive, generic products for many years, at first without even taking note of the company name. In this brand-obsessed world, mercifully, neither Muji's company name nor logo appear on or inside their products. Even store signage and identity are subtle to the point of near invisibility. The retail equivalent of a nightclub with no sign on the door, Muji's anti-profile has resulted in a kind of secret society of shoppers. In the absence of any stylistic clues or logos, those in the know ask "is that Muji?"

Some products even make cheeky reference to Muji's disavowal of the branded world. A recently released t-shirt comes with a 5 cm rubber square on the chest inviting the purchaser to design their own logo or message. In 2001, Muji teamed up with Nissan Motors to produce Muji Car 1000 - a limited edition, fuel efficient, low-emission and low-cost vehicle that incorporated recycled materials wherever possible, had limited polish and, a total anomaly in the car world, was devoid of any markings.

 

Muji is particularly concerned in protecting its brand integrity. "Ecological awareness is one of the main influences behind the Muji concept," explains managing director Masaaki Kanai. "Through the careful selection of materials," he continues, "the streamlining of manufacturing processes and the simplification of our packaging, we are able to eliminate waste and conserve resources."

A common sense approach defines the store aesthetics and sets the stage for a lesson in pared down retail design based on things like bulk packaging in plain, uniform containers. Under simple track lights, products are stored in unpainted wicker bins, on plain plywood shelving and unvarnished wood tables. In a tsunami of beige, the Muji message of unadorned simplicity makes itself explicit.

 

Most products have a very limited colour range and appear on the shelves in simple packaging bearing only product information and a price tag. "Processes that have no bearing on a product's quality such as sorting, sizing, polishing and dyeing are eliminated, leaving only those processes that are truly necessary," says Kanai. Muji paper, for instance, is fabricated without the strictly cosmetic bleaching process. As a result, unbleached kraft paper, which retains its natural hue and strength, is used for all Muji packaging and labels. Waste yarns left after from other manufacturing processes are also used to produce t-shirts and other clothing.

The tortoise and hare analogy appropriately describes the retail sector after Japan's bubble burst in the early 1990s. Trend oriented and exclusive luxury brands faltered while Muji's right-minded utilitarianism won the day. According to product designer and enthusiastic Muji-watcher Jasper Morrison, "They offer products to people who are fed up with being targeted by marketing strategies. Muji makes honest products and sells them at very reasonable prices. This is a business model which is so old-fashioned that it's been forgotten."

Another of the company's central tenets is the typically Japanese concept of consensus-based corporate structure. Thus that the products are not attributed to individual designers, but rather are considered "universal elements that have been unearthed."

Although Muji makes it clear that famous international designers have designed some of the products, we are not allowed to know which ones. Not an issue, according to the designers I polled. Says Mark Dytham, of Klein Dytham, a firm known for its ostentatious use of pink snakeskin, blue techno-gel and exterior walls made up of bicycle reflectors and one of minimalist Muji's unlikely fans, "I am not too bothered who designed my soap bar or my cup noodles. Muji is selective on good and appropriate design. Who designed it is not important - what it does and how well it does it is. Muji products - like the tissues that sit on my desk, my spiral notebook, my cardholder all 'dissolve' when in use".

One designer who does get credit is Kenya Hara, himself an internationally recognized graphic designer and curator who took over as Muji's art director two years ago. Hara was brought in to focus the brand. "I found that the company was at a standstill with the original idea, 'No design', which was advocated at its inception. They also had more than 250 outlets and sold more than 5,000 items," Hara continues, "including products that deviated from the initial Muji concept or were low cost, but of substandard quality."

Hara currently is helping to strike the tricky balance between Muji's "no brand" policy and high quality design, striving to attract consumers with innovative new products - not merely style or trend purchases - which elicit the response 'this will do' rather than 'this is what I want.' The company also tries to reconcile the seemingly contradictory notions of traditional Japanese minimalist aesthetics with the achievement of "absolute universality" of their products. Approximating a purely utilitarian minimalism, including items such as chairs and cutlery which have a limited history in Japan, Muji attempts to respond to universal needs.

But to the average Muji shopper, the company is inextricably linked to Japan - indeed benefiting from favourable perceptions of Japanese standards of quality. Even on London's Oxford Street the Muji logo prominently features Japanese kanji script. The company also intends to be universally accessible and has directed significant attention to online sales (http://www.mujionline.com/uk_shop.html), hoping to achieve 10% of total revenue online in the years ahead. Like IKEA, Muji has long been reliant on its annual catalogue.

In Muji's case, it represents nearly all marketing expenditures. Muji catalogues have typically been charming, modest, low-polish undertakings, at times subtly incorporating elements of popular Japanese manga comic book traditions. A beautiful concept book produced for the Milan furniture fair this spring seems to point to a more sophisticated, hi-brow direction for the company under Hara's artistic direction.

The booklet, which features enigmatic, otherworldly landscapes photographed by Tamotsu Fujii, some with artfully placed beds, storage jars and mechanical pencils, is also designed by Mr. Hara. It includes endorsements from Japanese celebrity architects and designers such as Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Yohji Yamamoto and others. Such pretentious, high gloss brand posturing suggests to this avid Muji watcher that the word "universal" in Muji executives' minds may be synonymous with "europhile" as once unimpeachable Muji becomes almost indistinguishable from high end European furniture and fashion brands. A great deal could potentially be lost in the translation.

But branding and packaging has never been Muji's strength, or interest for that matter. The company's success has depended almost entirely upon the value of its products and where the products are concerned, Muji has shown sharp instincts of late. One of the most successful recent projects, and an example of where the company appears to be heading, is a CD player designed by Naoto Fukasawa. Muji managing director Masaaki Kanai discovered the design as a prototype in a Tokyo design exhibition in 1999. Kanai was immediately very excited by the find - believing it to represent a new Muji ideal: "a product so enlightening that a person can simply touch it to be inspired with vital energy."

He decided to manufacture the CD player, despite the fact that Muji did not normally do its own manufacturing. The product sold 50,000 units in the first eight months, taking 0.6% of the Japanese CD player market.. Fukasawa's simple white design, based on a wall-mounted fan, spins an exposed CD in front of a built-in speaker whose perforated casing is reminiscent of a 1960s Japanese transistor radio.

In contrast to the electronics industry's lazy reliance upon buttons and more buttons, Fukasawa's design has only one dial, hidden on top of the unit, which controls the volume. Tug on the hanging power cord and it turns on, tug again and it turns off. Simplicity itself. If this refreshing piece of sublime simplicity is any indication, the future for Muji looks encouraging indeed.

But I suspect many of those who exclaimed "I love Muji!" prefer, as I do, the seeming guileless simplicity of the Muji we knew to the slickly branded sophistication of its recent incarnation. Perhaps that is the greatest challenge for the company in the years ahead - not only to reconcile Japanese aesthetics with "absolute universality" but to negotiate the paradox of preserving Muji's "no brand", even "no design" beginnings while striving for design innovation.

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