Cult Japanese brand Muji's secret to success is all in the details

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      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, scaled-back 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 conscious. But it remains the mind-blowingly intimate niceties that give each Muji object an edge over its counterparts.

      Muji's wall-mounted CD player remains one of the brand's most popular items despite evidence of waning compact disc sales.
      Lucy Lau

      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 homes. 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 online.

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.