The Ja­panese re­tailer de­signs its prod­ucts to blend seam­lessly into the lives of their cus­tomers—in style

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY LUCY LAU

Al­though Ja­panese la­bel Muji is lauded for its min­i­mal­ist aes­thetic, it’s the lit­tle things that keep cus­tomers com­ing back.

Imag­ine wel­com­ing a stranger into your home for 24 hours—some­one who fol­lows you word­lessly from room to room as you go through the mun­dan­i­ties of daily life. Eyes in­tent on ev­ery move­ment, your guest fu­ri­ously scrib­bles onto a notepad as you rus­tle through your bath­room draw­ers for a cot­ton swab, strug­gle with the weight of a full ket­tle or teapot while brew­ing an af­ter­noon cuppa, or at­tempt to re­vive the ink in yet an­other dried-up pen.

The prac­tice may seem in­tru­sive— un­com­fort­able, even—but it’s an in­valu­able com­po­nent of Ja­panese re­tailer Muji’s prod­uct re­search and de­vel­op­ment process. “We call this ob­ser­va­tion,” ex­plains Toru Akita, pres­i­dent of Muji Canada, dur­ing an in­ter­view with the Straight at Van­cou­ver’s Fairmont Pa­cific Rim. “We visit our cus­tomers’ homes and see how they are us­ing the prod­ucts, which ar­eas are pro­vid­ing them un­nec­es­sary stress, and some­times, the stress they don’t even re­al­ize them­selves.”

Such at­ten­tion to de­tail has proven im­mensely suc­cess­ful for the Tokyo-based life­style shop, which of­fers an in-house se­lec­tion of fur­nish­ings, cloth­ing, house­wares, food, and more. Built on a phi­los­o­phy of anonymity and func­tion­al­ity in re­sponse to the ex­cess of lo­gos and in-your-face brand­ing that en­tered Ja­pan dur­ing the 1980s, Muji—its name short for the Ja­panese words for “no-brand qual­ity goods”—has emerged as a global bas­tion of sim­ple, scaled­back de­sign.

“We con­sider Muji as a kind of water,” says Akita. “We can eas­ily blend into every­body’s life­style.”

Raw, visu­ally ap­peal­ing ma­te­ri­als such as wood, cot­ton, and porce­lain; a straight­for­ward palette of white, black, and navy; and a com­mit­ment to re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als and re­duced pack­ag­ing have all earned the la­bel a cult fol­low­ing among self-de­scribed min­i­mal­ists and the en­vi­ron­men­tally minded. But it re­mains the mind­blow­ingly in­ti­mate niceties that give each Muji ob­ject an edge over its coun­ter­parts.

Con­sider the com­pany’s Hakuji tra­di­tional teapot: at first glance, the tiny ves­sel may not seem im­pres­sive, but Akita re­veals that the an­gle at which the han­dle meets the body al­lows the user to more com­fort­ably hold and pour liq­uids from the pot. The tilt clocks in at ap­prox­i­mately 97 de­grees—seven more than that seen in other teapots on the mar­ket, says Akita. “We find in­vis­i­ble or un­re­al­ized stress and we try to find a so­lu­tion,” he em­pha­sizes.

Clev­erly re­fin­ing the oft over­looked de­tails in ev­ery­day prod­ucts, Muji has also found suc­cess in trans­form­ing the an­ti­quated into the must-have. By mod­el­ling its wall-mounted CD player af­ter the fa­mil­iar form of a ceil­ing fan, for ex­am­ple—users pull a ca­ble that falls from the base of the de­vice be­fore the in­serted disc ever so slowly be­gins to turn—the re­tailer man­ages to con­vince those who cher­ish sleek, un­ob­tru­sive con­struc­tion that they need this in their lives. It’s a mighty ac­com­plish­ment, given the com­pact disc’s im­pend­ing sta­tus as ob­so­lete.

“A part of that has to do with the de­sign and this sense of sub­con­scious­ness,” notes Akita. “A lot of our cus­tomers don’t re­al­ize this is a CD player. It blends into any room and it doesn’t dis­rupt. It’s a very com­fort­able de­sign.”

In ad­di­tion to house­wares and electronics, Muji will be bring­ing a wide ar­ray of stor­age so­lu­tions, beauty items, sta­tionery, and snacks to the Muji pop-up store, which will soon open in Van­cou­ver as part of West­bank and Peter­son’s free Ja­pan Un­lay­ered ex­hi­bi­tion. The com­pany has also an­nounced plans to open two Muji lo­ca­tions in B.c.—one on Rob­son Street and one at Me­trop­o­lis at Metro­town—be­fore the end of the year. Mea­sur­ing 10,000 square feet, the down­town Van­cou­ver out­post will be the brand’s largest Cana­dian lo­ca­tion yet.

And though sig­nif­i­cant growth may at times de­mand ad­just­ments from a busi­ness, de­voted fans of Muji can rest as­sured that its tried-and-true con­cept is not go­ing any­where. “Our pur­pose is not chang­ing,” says Akita. “We’re here to help our cus­tomers live a more pleas­ant life.”

The Muji pop-up store runs at the Fairmont Pa­cific Rim from Fri­day (Jan­uary 27) to Fe­bru­ary 28. Ac­cess to the shop is by reser­va­tion at eventbrite.ca/ .

De­mand in Van­cou­ver for prod­ucts from Tokyo-based life­style com­pany Muji is so high that reser­va­tions are re­quired for their pop-up shop. Lucy Lau photo.

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