Unpretentious Muji brand marks 30th anniversary with book


Japanese retailer Ryohin Keikaku Co. has published a book detailing the history of its popular Muji consumer product brand to mark its 30th anniversary.

The 256-page book, which is available in Japanese, English and Chinese, is filled with photographs of Muji products and retail spaces around the world. It is the “most natural and realistic depiction of Muji,” Kenya Hara, a designer and Muji advisory board member, said recently in New York.

The company launched the Muji line of products, ranging from food, stationery and clothing to furniture, in 1980 as a private brand of major retailer Seiyu Ltd.

Kazuko Koike, who is Muji’s creative director and one of its six founding members, writes in the book that one force behind the launch was concerns about environmental sustainability beginning to surface after the oil crises of the 1970s.

In particular, Koike credited internationally known graphic designer Ikko Tanaka, who died in 2002 after serving as Muji’s artistic director for two decades, with having shaped the brand’s no-frills identity.

“Tanaka, who pointed out that Japanese package design was becoming excessive, seemed to have decided from the start that if he were to develop a product line, monochrome packaging would be best, as it made a very strong statement against an overly ostentatious era,” Koike wrote.

The book also shows Muji’s advertising campaigns over the years.

One of the earliest examples is an advertisement that appeared in a newspaper in 1981. The ad is titled “The whole salmon is salmon.”

The ad explained that Muji’s canned salmon uses flakes that include the meat found near the head and tail of the fish, encouraging shoppers to re-examine things that are often overlooked or discarded.

Meanwhile, product designer Naoto Fukasawa created a wall-mounted CD player for Muji that is on display in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Speaking at a recent forum in New York’s Japan Society, Fukasawa said he gets artistic inspiration from observing the spontaneous actions of people as they solve minor inconveniences in their everyday lives.

Fukasawa illustrated some examples.

Among them was a person improvising an umbrella stand using a gap between floor tiles. Another person, who was walking and typing a cell phone message at the same time, was seen following the yellow Braille marker tiles on the sidewalk, using them as a guide.

Fukasawa said designs extracted from such spontaneous and apparently subconscious human behavior were “inevitable” and have cross-cultural elements.

Another source of inspiration, Fukasawa said, are everyday objects such as items for the home and kitchen and furniture that he sees around the world.

As examples, Fukasawa cited a simple aluminum dustpan, a wooden bench and a plain white dish from China’s Song Dynasty (10th to 13th century).

The shapes of these objects are in harmony with people’s lifestyles as they have gone through continuous refinement over a long period of time, according to Fukasawa.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, said at the forum that well-designed tools present infinite possibilities for a user.

Maeda mentioned the story of film director J.J. Abrams and his “magic box” — a cardboard box containing an unknown object that Abrams has kept for decades without opening, choosing to just appreciate the process of imagining what might be inside.

Maeda said good design and good storytelling have something in common, which is their ability to inspire people to “anticipate what comes next.”

“Muji is about the experience. Of course, function and design are important. But Muji’s essence is its power to awaken people,” Hara said. “Muji is a mechanism for generating imagination.”

Since opening its first branch outside Japan in 1991 in London, Ryohin Keikaku currently operates more than 100 Muji stores in 18 countries and regions around the world, with three of them in New York.

While Muji products are largely known in Japan for their value-for-money quality, abroad they have established a strong reputation for their design. The MoMA store in New York has sold Muji products since 2002, nearly six years before Muji opened its first U.S. store in New York.