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The Style Sheet was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Japanese designer, MUJI Art Director and design industry icon Kenya Hara about his work, from his thoughts on ‘emptiness’ to jostling circus plates and the legacy he hopes to leave in this world.

The Style Sheet: When you took on the role of MUJI Art Director, what did you hope to achieve?

Kenya Hara: Because MUJI had grown from offering about 40 products to more than 5000, I thought it was important to propose a lifestyle rather than to convey the brand ideology product by product. At the same time, I gave careful thought to how to express the MUJI ideology to people around the world. I think this is why I came up with the communication strategy of ‘asking questions’.

What are your key areas of focus as Art Director?

MUJI’s strength is that it makes you think. It’s the ability to ask questions: ‘What is MUJI?’ ‘What is abundance?’ ‘What is a comfortable lifestyle?’

Therefore, my aim is not to spew great quantities of information, but rather to draw out people’s imaginations, and to then create a vessel that can accept those ideas.

What part of your role at MUJI gives you the most satisfaction?

When I’m able to create a MUJI-esque message, a message that perfectly fits MUJI. For instance, the advertising campaign ‘Pleasant, somehow’ that we produced in 2019 gave me the most satisfaction in a long while.

At its very core, what would you say the aim of MUJI is?

Rational consumption

Can you explain the concept of ‘emptiness’, the basic philosophy of MUJI?

I think it’s easiest to understand by comparing it to ‘simplicity’. The ‘simplicity’ brought about by modernism, with the goal of finding the most direct and rational relationship among materials, objects and functions, is a very nice idea as it stands.

On the other hand, emptiness can be utilised by anyone in any way — its goal is ultimate flexibility. In order to be able to accept any kind of use, and any kind of image, the object exists in the condition of an empty vessel.

In order to express the difference between the two, I often display two knives. The first is a German Henkel knife. The other is a Japanese yanagiba kitchen knife for sashimi. The Henkel knife, its form based on human engineering, is extremely easy to hold and easy to use — as soon as you grip the handle, your thumb automatically finds the correct position.

The grip of the yanagiba knife, on the other hand, is blunt and plain, like a baton. The handle gives no indication of where one should grip it, but actually you can grip it anywhere, in any way you like. This plain grip is able to admit, to handle, the superb skills of any Japanese chef.

The Henkel is simple.

The sushi knife is ‘empty’.

Both are wonderful knives, but herein lies the difference between them.

However, this is something that the product development side thinks about, and MUJI does not explain this to the customers, and I also do not plan to have the customers understand the products in terms of this kind of logic. I believe this is something one naturally comes to understand in the course of using the object. Even if the form is neither novel nor flashy, it’s something you come to realise gradually, and by the time you’ve realised it, you should have already come to a deep understanding.

You’ve described working at MUJI as being like ‘spinning circus plates’. Could you elaborate?

Every once in a while, you have to jostle the plates you’re spinning or they’ll stop spinning and fall. MUJI is the same — in order to maintain its existence, from time to time, we have to ask the basic question again: What is MUJI?

MUJI is a place where people often go to shop without having a specific product in mind to buy. Why do you think that is?

I think maybe it’s because MUJI doesn’t only respond to the desire for things people want to buy, but also helps people become aware of new ways of thinking about living.

MUJI is often referred to as a ‘brandless’ company. Do you think that’s true? How would you describe it?

MUJI is a brand, but it isn’t saying ‘please like me’ or ‘please choose me’. It’s a brand that radiates a laid-back message with the attitude, ‘If I’m good for you, go ahead’. It’s also special that the popularity of the brand is not reflected in the price.

What design legacy do you hope to leave in this world?

The harmony of the feeling of satisfaction with a ‘we’ that transcends ‘I’.

What MUJI product or design is your favourite and why?

Right now, Plain House. A one-storey house is the easiest to live in, and a house in which the structure harmonises with the outdoors is extremely pleasant and comfortable. This house is not a status symbol, but modestly and casually supports a comfortable lifestyle and way of life.

Top image by Yoshihiko Ueda