Coming to America

Muji, the Japanese design powerhouse, is opening U.S. stores. Hallelujah!

Among the design conscious, the most exciting news of the year has been that Muji—the Japanese retailer of nondescript, mercifully plain wares—is opening two stores in New York City. Muji’s SoHo store, its first in North America, will open in mid-November; the company’s flagship in Midtown Manhattan should open sometime next year.

In Japan, there are more than 300 Muji outlets, some of which are kiosks in train stations. * There, Muji is known as a source of sensibly priced basics; the brand isn’t fetishized by design hounds as it is here in the United States, where the company’s egalitarian appeal has largely been lost in translation. For years, Muji products have been accessible only to those of us with intercontinental plane tickets and duffel bags. When the MoMA Design Store started carrying Muji stationery and storage items in 2002, it only heightened the Muji mystique.

The new stores will change all that. They’ll expand Muji’s stateside offerings dramatically to include apparel, furniture, housewares, beauty products, and small electronics. (A few hundred of the products for sale here won’t be available in Europe—a small consolation for the 16 years that Europeans have had access to Muji while we haven’t.) The Manhattan stores will also establish a beachhead for the company, which has plans to open more outlets in the New York metropolitan area before making inroads in other U.S. cities. And, if we’re lucky, Muji’s arrival may set off a quiet design revolution on our shores.

Muji is often compared to Target or IKEA—perhaps the two most famous purveyors of “good design” at affordable prices—but Muji takes a decidedly different tack from its much larger American and Swedish counterparts.Target insists on “surprising and delighting” its guests; IKEA implores customers to “be brave, not beige.” Muji, in contrast, revels in neutrality. Almost all of its products are devoid of color, and the most surprising and delightful aspect of their design is how nondescript they are. A teakettle designed for Target will likely have a visual flourish—a spinning piece of plastic on its spout, perhaps—while a Muji teakettle is content to be just what you expect a teakettle to be.

Muji contends that design needn’t announce itself—rather, it can become apparent to you through use, over time. Nor is Muji interested in capitalizing on consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for designer goods. From day one, the company has maintained a “no brand” credo, refusing to put its name on any of its products. And although many Muji products are designed with guidance from the most thoughtful designers working today (Naoto Fukasawa, Enzo Mari, Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, and Sam Hecht among them), Muji does not promote or even discuss its relationships with these luminaries.

The company’s discretion—almost unheard of in the industry—reflects Muji’s dogged determination to reduce a product to its essence. The designer’s name has, after all, become the ultimate form of ornamentation. “Once you know a product is designed by someone really famous,” designer Naoto Fukusawa told me, “you have to go through that name to buy it.” The approach can be just as liberating for the designer, who is often hired, it seems, as much for his name as his sensibility. Jasper Morrison said he liked knowing that his Muji designs wouldn’t end up “in a design shop with labels hanging off everything” and would “just be judged as one of the Muji lineup of things.”

Interestingly, these high ideals have humble roots. Muji started as the house brand of a large supermarket chain, and its first products consisted mostly of food (canned salmon, miso paste, grape-flavored drink) along with a handful of sundries, like toilet paper and laundry detergent. In the 27 years since, Muji’s offerings have ballooned to more than 7,000 items and have included everything from cockroach traps and prunes to compact cars (manufactured in limited quantity by Nissan) and prefab houses. (Put in these terms, Muji’s ascent is striking: Imagine President’s Choice as a preferred brand of Dwell subscribers.)

The company’s slogan at inception was “Lower priced for a reason,” and it competed on price not by cutting corners but by re-evaluating what exactly was essential to each product. It was decided, for example, that Muji potato chips could be misshapen as long as they were just as tasty as other brands. Similarly, Muji bucked the industry practice of discarding the ends of pasta that are cut off during the manufacturing process, opting instead to sell them as “U-Shaped Spaghetti.” This approach continues to inform Muji’s product development.

“Muji is nonbrand, but also nonfunction. No added function,” says Fukasawa. To explain, he draws a typical cutting board. It has a shallow gutter along the edge to collect water and a handle on one side. “There are many functions here,” he says.

“But a Japanese cutting board is just wood.” He draws a simple block.

“Of course, the first one is very functional … from one point of view. But the handle makes the cutting board harder to clean,” says Fukasawa. “It’s really a plus and a minus—an added function, but also a marketing tool. So, in a sense, the plain wood one is perfect without any additional function and is more truthful, more honest. But this idea is very difficult to promote.”

Skeptics may wonder at what point less ceases to be more, but the Muji ethos challenges a definition of “progress” common in the industry: Design is often seen as the quest to improve an object, and the improvements most frequently sought are those that are visible (and therefore marketable). No object, however, can support an infinite number of improvements. Muji is one of the only companies—and perhaps the only one working at this price point—that espouses and follows through this rigorously on a reductive approach.

The rabid excitement over Muji is very much deserved, but the most innovative aspect of the company’s products isn’t the quality of their design; it’s how fundamentally they redefine the idea of the design object. While other companies apply design to a product to get it noticed, Muji designs a product to be, essentially, invisible—so useful and so natural that you don’t realize that it’s there. More than 2,000 of the company’s impeccably designed objects will arrive stateside in the next few months, and they are our best shot at being set free from design rather than tyrannized by it.

Correction, Oct. 4, 2007: This piece originally stated that many of Japan’s Muji outlets are kiosks in subway stations. In fact, there are only 15 such kiosks, and they’re located in train stations. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)