How Muji Created a Cult Following of Design Enthusiasts

How Muji Created a Cult Following of Design Enthusiasts
Image credit: Joe Schmelzer
Neat and clean: Housewares at Muji’s Hollywood Boulevard store.
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This story appears in the August 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Tucked behind a CVS Pharmacy and a Marshalls on Hollywood Boulevard sits the Los Angeles outpost of Muji, a Japanese brand that is venerated by design enthusiasts around the world.

The store offers a bastion of calm amid the chaos of the boulevard, where character actors do their best Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin impersonations. Inside the 8,600-square-foot Muji space, with its exposed brick columns and reclaimed wood finishing, are orderly displays of minimalist furniture, housewares, apparel, stationery, food and electronics. The elegantly designed products, which carry no visible brand identifiers, evoke a subtle aesthetic that entices customers to come closer. It is that laid-back beauty, that determination to offer tranquility in a world of noise, that has earned the brand a cult following.

“Muji isn’t actually very well-known,” says Eric Kobuchi, West Coast sales operations manager. “We’re known among design-oriented visitors, especially from London or Paris, but we have yet to be a household name.”

Muji was founded in 1980 in Japan by the Seiyu Group, which also owned supermarkets and shopping centers, as a response to excess and the overflow of new products into the Japanese market. Rather than developing more foreign-made luxury brands or manufacturing poor-quality, low-priced goods, Muji’s founders envisioned a collection of tasteful yet affordable products. (Muji is now part of Ryohin Keikaku, which was launched in 1989 to manufacture and distribute the company’s products. The company is traded on Japan’s Nikkei Stock Average.)

Muji has 702 stores worldwide, which drove revenue for the most recent fiscal year up 18 percent to 260.25 billion Japanese yen (approximately $2.14 billion), fueled by growth in Asia, especially China. There are currently nine stores across the U.S.; two more are expected to open this year.

Kobuchi says Muji’s birth was predicated on two ideas: the concept of mujirushi, the “non-brand,” and ryohin, the value of good products. The company’s mission is to develop simple products using the best materials and sell them at reasonable prices.

The brand’s dedication to detail can easily be missed. “Product design is not a medium for emphasizing the individuality of lifestyles of designers or end users,” Kobuchi says. “A Muji product’s shape is determined by its purpose and by continuous refinement over a long period of time.” This strict adherence to each object’s core character was as evident in the company’s 40 original products as it is in its current line of 7,000 items, ranging from clothes hangers to prefab houses.

One breakout product was a wall-mounted CD player, introduced in 1997 and still sold in Muji stores today. Rather than navigate a dizzying array of buttons, a customer need only pull a string to start the device, much like turning on a fan. The CD player’s design relevance was highlighted when it was added to the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. (The museum also sells many Muji products in its gift shop.)

This commitment to classic design principles of form dictated by function has inspired loyalty among designers, as well as customers. Though Muji has worked with English furniture giant Jasper Morrison, Italian modernist Enzo Mari and Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, their names don’t appear on the products.

“They identify with Muji’s concept and philosophy of selling the product and not the brand,” Kobuchi says.

By allowing each product’s value to present itself organically, Muji has become a brand that transcends cultural barriers. In addition, it has elevated anonymity to a badge of honor that resonates with a new breed of conscientious consumers.

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