It may seem like a stretch to use the look of a company’s main office as a metaphor for how it operates, but in the case of Muji, the Japanese clothing and housewares company, it seems like fair game. As I sit at an empty table at the headquarters of parent company Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd., a nondescript office building in the Toshima ward of Tokyo, I’m surrounded by efficiency.
While waiting to speak with Naoko Yano, general manager of Muji’s household division, a quick scan of the space suggests the company’s own workplace broadcasts the same values as the product line.
A sleek steel-frame-and-white-oak table is part of the company’s recent collection of modular office furniture, which the design team is testing on themselves. Amid a grid of shared desks surrounded by workshops, numerous Muji products sit on every surface, from pens to acrylic organizers.
Later, as I speak to Yano about the company’s vision and philosophy, I’ll be shown a presentation called “Towards a Pleasant Life and Society” detailing how the design team, especially the 22 people working in the household division, create the company’s famously minimal and functional products, which now number more than 7,000.
Muji’s products, from storage boxes to small appliances, are often considered the epitome of “Zen” objects: simple, strident—the essence of Japanese design. But according to Yano, it’s not about one particular culture, especially as the company continues its global expansion. (Of the more than 800 Muji stores worldwide, half are outside Japan.)
The company’s approach to materials and its design process are meant to be something understood by everybody. It’s universal and very time-consuming: A single product takes at least a year and a half to finish, and usually requires twice that time. When asked if she ever gets impatient, Yano laughed and replied, “Of course!”
Considering the company’s growth, something is working. Based on a conversation with Yano and a partial tour of the Muji office, including a museum of products and displays of the company’s outreach and charitable work, here are some of the inspirations behind the brand’s approach.
Humble beginnings: efficient and enough
A tour of the Muji flagship store in the Yurakucho district, right next to Ginza, offers a peek at the full scope of the company’s ambitions. In addition to the clothes and housewares found in U.S. stores, shoppers can eat at a cafe, meet with a consultant to discuss home renovations, thumb through new releases in the bookstore, and even rent bikes (I took a white cruiser out and rode past nearby Hibiya Park).
While the company has expanded, its ethos is still informed by its debut in 1980. According to Yano, Muji (short for “Mujirushi Ryōhin” or “brandless quality goods”) came about during the no-frills “bubble era,” when the marketplace was flooded with flashy brands and advertising.
Muji was introduced as a simpler, more straightforward, and high-quality alternative, and initially sold inside Seiyu department stores. The line’s first 40 items, a variety of basic food items such as cooking oils, reflected that back-to-basic approach.
From that initial product release, the company developed three pillars that inform its product design today: selection of materials, streamlining the process, and simplifying packaging.
“These are the three things that we apply to everything,” says Yano. “From products to homes, this is how we do it. We commit to quality and beauty, see the uncelebrated and everyday behaviors and learn from them, and appreciate what is simple and respond to that.”
Even the visual representations of the company abide by that spartan approach. The company’s standard label, a matter-of-fact rundown of price, item, and materials meant for easy understanding across product lines, was inspired by a wine label.
An early ad from the ‘80s exemplifies this less-is-more identity. Designed by Ikko Tanaka, the image shows a salmon with the center cut out, transmitting the fact that, unlike other companies that just use the center section, Muji uses the whole fish. It’s all about efficiency.
Good design, like a good meal, shouldn’t leave you stuffed
Muji’s quest for simple, stark design suggests designers have to be great editors. When asked how she knew she was finished designing a product, Yano replied that there is no final design.
“There’s a saying that when you eat, 80 percent full is enough,” says Yano. “It’s not healthy to be full all the time. That’s the same way we design. We never say it’s the end; there’s always room for improvement.”
This doesn’t mean that Muji stores are filled with B-minus work, but rather that, philosophically, the product designers aim for just enough to get the job done and no more. They constantly refine and reflect on their work. Muji has an advisory board of outside designers that frequently works with product teams to help improve and adjust items in process, and every product goes through multiple rounds of critiques before it hits the shop floor.
Items also get second looks even after they’re sold. Every year, the design teams check customer feedback about existing products and makes slight adjustments. After all, if it was 80 percent when it was introduced, there’s always room for improvement.
“If you get a perfect score, you think you’re good enough, you get lazy, and you stop,” says Yano.
Materials and creativity matter
During her presentation, Yano showed a slide with an image from the company’s massive new flagship store in Chengdu, China. In addition to an actual wooden boat near the jackets and outerwear, a grand chandelier hangs over the main staircase. That lighting isn’t crystal, however; It’s made from a selection of Muji products, including water bottles and acrylic vases, an object lesson in the power of materials used in a creative way.
“Our company believes in the importance of being creative, even though the materials are basic and simple,” she says. “Everything is possible.”
Yano, who first started working for the company in 1993 after graduating from Tama Art University, was inspired by the then-small company’s approach, which at the time felt avant-garde. It was minimalism that wasn’t forced, indicative of the way she thinks that products should evolve. During a brief time away from Muji working on product design in Sweden, her ideas were reinforced.
“In Europe, people are aware of how they want to live and create their own environment,” she says. “Even the richest people could find something that works for them at Ikea. How they choose things becomes very personal. At Muji, we would like to create a baseline of products so anybody in any country might be interested.”
What’s a great example of Muji design excellence with universal appeal? Yano picked the company’s acrylic tissue box, her favorite product. It may not be a standout, but the material is beautiful, and the clear exterior lets users see when they need to replace the tissues. Barely changed after 25 years, it’s a success.
In addition to all the critiques and reviews, Muji designers also take plenty of cues from the real world. They factor in consumer opinion—the portable light was directly inspired by a customer suggestion, and a new line of travel products is being culled down with customer feedback—and also look at how objects work in the field.
The Found Muji initiative sends designers across the world to observe and learn from other cultures. By using and observing everyday objects from around the world that have withstood the test of time, the design team can draw lessons about user experiences and simplifying prototypes, and bring them back to the studio to influence the next generation of products. The Found Muji boutique sells these original items at certain stores, including a standalone boutique in Tokyo’s Aoyoma district, letting consumers get their hands on these classic pieces.
Last year, Yano and other designers also staged Compact Life, an exhibition in Hong Kong that examined simple, straightforward interior design. As part of the project, Muji sent design teams to observe more than a dozen apartments, and even redesigned the most challenging one, the crowded, 365-square-foot condo of the Ho family, consisting of parents and one daughter. Mrs. Ho’s collection of hundreds of shoes, as well as a general lack of storage, made things quite cramped. The Muji team helped them cut down and reimagine their home.
“The exhibition was about how living space could be created with our furniture,” says Yano. “We didn’t just give them space to store things, but room to learn.”
Reorganizing space is a far cry from selling simple home goods, but it’s all part of the Muji philosophy, and the company’s expanding ambitions—from a line of prefab homes to renovation services for existing older dwellings. Making that “pleasant life” available to everyone is at the core of the company’s philosophy, after all.
“If you think about life like this,” says Yano, “we might be able to gradually improve society.”