MUJI may well be a recognisable high-street brand today but few people know much about the company’s history. The brand was born in 1980s Japan, when the country’s so-called “economic miracle” was coming to an end and people were massively cutting back on their spending. As the MUJI team puts it, the company was founded in this unique environment “as an antithesis to the habits of extreme consumer society”. It’s an ethos that still resonates today.
The brand’s famous minimal aesthetic stems from this reaction to that new economic reality. Its founders saw a split between two types of product that were dominating the design landscape back then. “On the one hand, foreign-made luxury brands were gathering popularity within an economic environment of ever-rising prosperity. On the other, poor-quality, low-priced goods were appearing on the market,” says David Brice, MUJI UK’s managing director. So MUJI was created as an antidote to these trends. “The concept was born of the intersection of two distinct stances: no brand (mujirushi) and the value of good items (ryohin).”
At its heart, the brand’s design philosophy is about elevating simple materials and processes. Takeo Paper Show: Subtle, an exhibition that took place last month in London created by MUJI’s creative director Kenya Hara, is a great example of this. The show took paper, one of the most prosaic objects, and raised it up to the status of a design object. Kenya himself said that the goal was to “rethink and broaden the possibilities for fine paper”. On show, he said, were some applications of paper “that push the boundaries of the medium”.
Designer Naoto Fukasawa, who has designed everything from CD players to kettles for the brand, has spoken in the past of a concept he refers to as micro consideration. As he puts it, “MUJI starts by thinking of things that we do naturally and without thought, always thinking about what is most appropriate for day-to-day living.” From that initial starting point, the design process then follows stages of constant iteration and extreme refinement. “We scrutinise production process [and], at the same time, we carefully select good materials and processing techniques,” David explains. “The basis of our product development is to produce basic items that are truly necessary to our life. In order to achieve this, we review product materials, streamline production processes and simplify packaging.”
The objects that are born out of this scrutiny are both highly functional and beautiful in their simplicity. As David puts it to us, the concept is all about “emphasising the intrinsic appeal of an object through rationalisation and meticulous elimination of excess”. This is closely connected to the traditional Japanese aesthetic of su, which means “plain” or “unadorned”, and has as its goal the notion that simplicity can actually be even more appealing than luxury.
This philosophy is clear in everything from the largest items MUJI produces (storage units, desks, stackable stools, even the MUJI House the brand launched earlier this year) to the smallest (such as its skincare range, ceramics collection and candles). It’s worth also noting that it’s not as if the brand eschews technology: “plain” can also be highly modern. Take, for example, MUJI’s new USB-chargeable, portable aroma diffusers, which respond to the growing consumer trend towards what’s known as “wellness tech”. An object like that shows MUJI’s ability to take a philosophy born in the 1980s and adapt it to current lifestyle trends with the help of modern technology.