Muji began life as an own-label range from Japanese supermarket Seiyu in 1980. The Mujirushi Ryohin (meaning 'No-label quality goods') offering had its name shortened to Muji when it was launched outside Japan.
The range was formalised with a simple core philosophy: to provide value for money and make efficient use of materials. Packaging is kept to a minimum, industrial materials bought in bulk at lower prices and recyclable materials used.
The range could easily have fallen into anonymity - its products have no overt branding to identify them as Muji once separated from the shop and its discreet label. However, out of its aim for value and efficiency, a simple, functional design aesthetic was formed, becoming a signifier of Muji as much as any logo.
The success of the range led to the opening of a standalone store in 1983, with additional products such as furniture and clothing.
The 'non-brand' was developed by graphic designer Ikko Tanaka, marketing consultant Kazuko Koike and interior designer Takashi Sugimoto, with Tanaka leading the Muji Advisory Board, a group of designers who approve all products.
Muji has employed famous designers to create its products, reportedly including Jasper Morrison, Enzo Mari, Konstantin Grcic and Yohji Yamamoto; however, all remain anonymous once their designs reach the shelves.
Beginning with a flagship store in London in 1991, international expansion has also brought an increased product range, growing from just 40 to 7000 lines by 2010. A complete range for modern life, this spans kitchenware, electronics, stationery, storage, and toys. Among the more unusual items it offers are Earthquake Emergency Packs (an essential in its domestic market), a Muji car (with Nissan) and a Muji house. Kenya Hara, who has been creative director since 2001, summed up Muji's simplicity and practicality, saying: 'Muji is an empty vessel. Its products fit into the context of every lifestyle'.
Silas Amos, creative strategist, JKR
As Leonardo da Vinci said: 'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.' There is something slightly metaphysical about trying to pin down the branding lessons of 'no-brand' Muji, because, for all it says about not being a brand, it is. There is a coherent, systematic and simple design aesthetic. You can easily picture what a Muji notebook, car or coat would look like - some branding achievement. This simple but stylish approach offers good value to the consumer, and savings in production and logistics to the company.
The modesty and calmness of the brand's design 'philosophy' is perhaps distinctive in the West because (against our typically more noisy approach) it speaks softly. Muji shows that an understated approach can have impact.
This philosophy also seems to be strongly held - to the extent of Muji using famous designers but keeping this information to itself (when broadcasting it would add short-term 'heat'). I wonder how many Western brands would adhere to their design philosophy so strongly, even if it meant missing a business opportunity? For Muji, it seems, inaction speaks louder than words.
To return to the metaphysical question; is a 'no-brand' offer, in its own way, still a brand? Well, Muji was one jump ahead of Naomi Klein with design that's recognisably 'Muji', even if you remove the logo. It understands that design recognition is not skinor label-deep. Its approach is more holistic. So for me it is the purest kind of brand: one that requires no badge to be distinctive.
1983: The first standalone Muji shop opened in the Aoyama area of Japan.
1989/90: Muji transferred from original supermarket owner Seiyu to new company Ryohin Keikaku.
1998: Ryohin Keikaku listed on the second section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. From 2001 it moved into the first section.
2002: Expanding into the US, Muji was stocked in the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its wall mounted CD player also appears in MOMA's art collection.
2010: Muji celebrated its 30th anniversary.
2011: The first Muji in Aoyama reopened as a concept store called Found Muji Aoyama, featuring products from different cultures around the world.