Coming to America
Muji, the Japanese design powerhouse, is opening U.S. stores. Hallelujah!
"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.)
Michael Hsu covers design for GQ, where he is a contributing editor.