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The design story behind 10 of Muji’s best ideas

In a new book about his body of work, designer Naoto Fukasawa explains how he applies his philosophy to the minimalist brand

Muji hut
The Muji Hut, now available in Japan.
Muji
Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment book cover
Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment, a new book from Phaidon, chronicles the Japanese designer’s body of work.
Courtesy Phaidon

Muji is, in some respects, both a shopper’s dream and nightmare. Everything in the stores seems just right: the rice cookers, the aromatherapy diffusers, the modular storage boxes. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower not to blow an entire paycheck on one shopping trip.

The just-right feeling about its products is no accident. Industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, a member of Muji’s advisory board, has built his creative sensibility around making products that feel satisfying, but that you haven’t encountered before.

“I try to design not from the perspective of creating something new, but rather from a viewpoint of helping people realize something that they actually knew already,” Fukasawa writes in Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment, a new monograph about his work from Phaidon.

Fukasawa has designed for a number of eminent design companies all around the world like Herman Miller, Alessi, B&B Italia, Magis, and De Padova. But Muji, with its comparatively affordable prices and scale, is where most people are likely to encounter his work and experience his creative philosophy first hand.

portrait of Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa
Designer Naoto Fukasawa
Courtesy Naoto Fukasawa Design

Fukasawa compares his work to that of a chef, writing in his book:

I’m always trying to make good soup. The seasoning of the broth differs according to different countries, cultures, and brands, but I always end up with delicious soup...I design a lot of Muji products, and I’d say they have the lightest seasoning.

There are even times where I add no additional flavor at all. There is an aesthetic in Japan whereby as little flavor as possible is added to things...This may be umami, but applying it to my own designs is audacious. I always aspire to foster previously unknown tastes.

Here’s how Fukasawa has done precisely that at Muji, as told through 10 of the brand’s best ideas.

Muji Hut

The Muji hut is one of the Japanese brand’s best ideas.
Hut, Muji, Japan, 2017
Kentauros Yasunaga, courtesy Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. (Muji)

“I felt as though Muji was more suited to designing huts rather than houses,” Fukasawa writes. “I thought that with a hut, you could live the most minimal lifestyle. It’s a place where you can savor a sense of it being enough. It’s something like having your very own hiding place, a place you can have on stand by, on its own, right in the middle of nature. I believe that being able to savor a minimal lifestyle, without holding onto superfluous things, is a good thing.”

Hardcase Trolley

Hardcase Trolley, Muji, Japan, 2011
Naoto Fukasawa

“I don’t recall exactly when, but the image of a protective case for precision equipment and the pattern of grooves that a belt wound round a suitcase sprang to mind,” Fukasawa writes about the brand’s utilitarian suitcase released in 2011. “To strengthen the structure of the [suitcase], indentations were applied to a thin shell; the design of these indentations became the brand identity of each piece.”

Real Furniture Chair

Real Furniture Chair, Muji, Japan, 2012
Naoto Fukasawa Design

“When designing things for Muji, I’m always in two minds about how far I should design the product,” Fukasawa explains. “They must fulfill their function and be enjoyable to use. The name ‘Real Furniture’ is inspired by the use of real materials, which is to say solid, natural wood. It also has to bring to mind, somehow, the archetypal chair. I believe this chair passes all of these difficult conditions.”

Arm Light

Arm Light, Muji, Japan, 2016
Courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. (Muji)

“The light’s countenance, sitting on the floor, is reminiscent of a flamingo standing on one leg, and the structure of the thin damper arm is neat and attractive,” Fukasawa writes.

Stand Light

Stand Light, Muji, Japan, 2015
Naoto Fukasawa Design

“There is a predetermined shape to lamps that are placed on bedside tables, side tables, or on shelves,” he writes. “Here I used oak, which is used a lot in Muji products, and marble for the base. This product [is composed of] a square and an oval; a pleated oval shade was also created. It really is an ordinary light, but it achieves Muji’s sentiment of ‘this will do just fine.’”

Dutch Oven

Toaster Oven and Dutch Oven, Muji, Japan, 2014, 2012.
Naoto Fukasawa Design

“A Dutch oven is a mass of unadorned black iron, and its unaffected and sincere nature is worthy of the Muji name,” Fukasawa explains in the book. “Camping equipment fulfills the minimum necessary functions and in that respect, it could be considered Muji-like.”

Toaster

Pop-Up Toaster, Muji, Japan, 2014
Courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. (Muji)

“If you don’t maintain a set distance from internal elements that toast the bread, the sides get too hot and you may burn yourself if you touch them,” Fukasawa writes. “I achieved a toaster with rounded corners where the same distance was maintained around every corner of the toast. . .The light wrapping softly around this toaster gives it an amiable shape.”

Found Muji

Found Muji Aoyama, store, Japan, 2011
Courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. (Muji)

“I launched a project to discover things through the Muji ideology and named it ‘Found Muji,’” Fukasawa writes about a retail program that sources vernacular products from all around the world. “I believe that this movement [is like] folk art...I also think you might say that design is the art of the people.”

Aluminum Shelf

Aluminium Shelf, Muji, Japan, 2014
Naoto Fukasawa Design

“I believed that a shelf comprising a simple aluminum box affixed to the wall was a totally Muji-like product,” Fukasawa writes. “The simplicity of aluminum is really shown to effect here.”

Wall-Mounted CD Player

Wall Mounted CD Player, Muji, Japan, 1999
Tamotsu Fujii, Courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. (Muji)

“Looking back at things I created between 1999 and 2007, it is possible to detect my desire to create things that are ‘normal’ yet iconic,” Fukasawa writes. “Perhaps I’m searching for an archetype. Or perhaps I’m trying to express an image that already exists within me. No, I’m definitely trying to discover the image of an archetype that lies within all people.”

To learn more about Naoto Fukasawa’s design philosophy, pick up a copy of Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment (Phaidon, 2018) from phaidon.com.