I ran into a predicament when sussing out this post. How does one describe MUJI if one hasn’t actually experienced it? It’s entirely easy to simplify what this brand is by calling it the Japanese IKEA and call it a day. However, from what I can tell, that’s not really what MUJI is, or stands for. And for me to do so, would belittle the “total experience” that is MUJI, and this slice of unique music they helped bring to fruition. Released in the year 2000, BGM 1980-2000 was a compilation of all the background music MUJI had commissioned a select bunch of Japanese musicians (and a wayward Penguin Cafe Orchestra violinist) to soundtrack their stores, all the way to the year of its release. In this music, you could find, in a concise way, exactly what MUJI stood for from its beginnings to its more modern era.
Founded at the start of the ’80s, MUJI was created and spun off by The Seiyu chain of Japanese supermarkets as a way to sell low-cost, high quality products. Mujirushi-Ryōhin was their own in-house label that they used to promote really well-made basic/necessary goods (stationery, health and beauty, storage containers, t-shirts etc.) with minimal marketing fluff and no-frills design.
What started out as a new way to market products without marketing them themselves became its own unique thing. The name of the company Mujirushi meaning “no brand”, and Ryōhin, meaning “quality goods”, came to its own as MUJI the portmanteau used on their packaging. In essence MUJI was what it wanted to be.
When every brand in the world wanted to be the “brand” you see in your life, they would be the no brand, brand, simply putting out great quality goods that had no set shelf-life, that could live in any home (regardless of aesthetic). It’s in their company philosophy to not give you “what you really want”, or “what you must have”, but to fulfill a rational satisfaction by selling you something that would make you think: “this will do”. Rather than spend money on a vast array of differently packaged goods, or huge, sales driven advertising, MUJI’s products were simply adorned with stuff people would actually like to see: concise product information and a price tag.
In the era of excess, MUJI, somehow, became popular for giving customers clearly, fully, realized products. They weren’t minimalist products per se, but exuded a certain Japanese zen-like quality that made you easily see why they were priced a little bit higher than normally-sold items you’d find in other stores. With IKEA you could leave their showroom, pick up a piece of nicely designed, “modern”-looking furniture, and know that in a few months its shoddy material/make could last you just enough until you get next year’s model. MUJI, I imagine, wouldn’t even entertain that thought.
For MUJI, everything (design, purpose, functionality, and cost) would have been extremely vetted beforehand so that when you see what you see on their showroom, you’re seeing something that simply fulfills that need you might have. There would be no hidden catch to worry. Their goods aim to be an antidote to the Tommy Hilfigers, Cokes, and Colgates, of the world by making simple (high-quality) goods that look/are better by remaining steadfastly simple. They provided small experiences that would let anyone appreciate how a well-made fork should look like, or how a well-sourced bed frame or wool sweater should feel – you know, the simple things in life that instantly add comfort to your day.
In this time of the season, I keep thinking: it’s the thought that counts. If someone, gives you a random Swedish-named side table, of course you’ll be thankful. However, in a few months, usually, the candidate of stuff to draw one’s ire is that piece of crap furniture that has outlived its purpose. Why? Because, it takes time, effort, and a bit of sacrifice, to not just pick any random, known, thing. Usually, if you give some thought to what you buy, the recipient (heck, even yourself) can appreciate the thought-process behind it. Its meaningful when you give something that remains a reminder of how you value the other person.
We don’t have to live in a MUJI house, eat at a MUJI Cafe, drive a MUJI car, attend MUJI camp, stay at a MUJI hotel, or even buy a MUJI Heat Resistance Glass Pot, to appreciate the music that we’ll hear from Haruomi Hosono, Niitsu Akio, and the rest, that took their time to create these set of songs that can be appreciated as background music to mundane things. It’s only when we take the time to listen to them closely that we can reveal how most of these songs are truly wonderful in their natural simplicity.
When MUJI reached out to Haruomi, at the peak of YMO’s fame, they could have asked for techno-pop, but they purposefully asked him to create something that can more effortlessly slot into a customer’s life. Of course, in MUJI tradition, what Harry did (and the rest continued to explore) was treating such a simple idea with the utmost of care and thought. Fantastic electronic minimalism, joyous tone poems, tender post-rock ballads, and many more interesting bits of musical ideas are why we have BGM 1980-2000 to actually listen to today. You see, all it took was a few people with some very thoughtful ideas.
MUJI’S PHILOSOPHY OF ‘NO BRAND QUALITY GOODS’
MUJI was founded in Japan in 1980 as an antithesis to the habits of consumer society at that time. On one hand, foreign-made luxury brands were gaining popularity within an economic environment of ever-rising prosperity. On the other, poor-quality, low-priced goods were appearing on the market, and had a polarizing effect on consumption patterns. MUJI was conceived as a critique of this prevailing condition, with the purpose of restoring a vision of products that are actually useful for the customer and maintain an ideal of the proper balance between living and the objects that make it possible. The concept was born of the intersection of two distinct stances: no brand (Mujirushi) and the value of good items (ryohin). MUJI began with three steps: selecting materials, scrutinizing processes, and simplifying packaging. MUJI’s concept of emphasizing the intrinsic appeal of an object through rationalization and meticulous elimination of excess is closely connected to the traditionally Japanese aesthetic of “su” –– meaning plain or unadorned –– the idea that simplicity is not merely modest or frugal, but could possibly be more appealing than luxury.
Selection of Materials
Tasty and healthy foods. Comfortable clothing. Household goods that are, above all, easy to use. For MUJI, the materials we use to make such products are of the utmost importance; consequently, considerable attention is given to their selection. We search worldwide for the most suitable raw materials. We use many industrial materials as well as materials discarded by others because of their appearance – items that can be acquired in bulk at low cost. The overriding selection criteria is always quality. These activities underpin our ability to create low-priced, high-quality products.
The processes by which each product is manufactured are subjected to careful scrutiny at MUJI. Processes that have no bearing on a product’s quality such as sorting, sizing, and polishing are eliminated, leaving only these processes that are truly necessary. Even items that have been discarded because they do not meet certain standards of size and appearance are turned into products for sale. Focusing on true quality, MUJI’s manufacturing processes eliminate waste and reduce costs.
When packaging products, MUJI seeks not to adorn them but rather to highlight their natural colors and shapes. For this reason, we use bulk packaging and place products in plain, uniform containers. Faithful to our philosophy of simplicity, this approach is also in keeping with our policy of conserving resources and reducing waste. Thus, all MUJI products appear on store shelves in simple packaging bearing only product-related information and a price tag.
MUJI is not a brand whose value rests in the frills and “extras” it adds to its products. MUJI is simplicity – but a simplicity achieved through a complexity of thought and design. MUJI’s streamlining is the result of the careful elimination and subtraction of gratuitous features and design unrelated to function. MUJI, the brand, is rational, and free of agenda, doctrine, and “isms.” The MUJI concept derives from us continuously asking, “What is best from an end user’s point of view?” MUJI aspires to modesty and plainness, the better to adapt and shape itself to the styles, preferences, and practices of as wide a group of people as possible. This is the single most important reason people embrace MUJI. MUJI – in its deliberate pursuit of the pure and the ordinary – achieves the extraordinary. – MUJI