Real living: Inside... Turning Japanese

Design store Muji was once a Tokyo supermarket brand. Now it's poised to become a household name in the UK, reports Cayte Williams

EVERY NOW and then, Western culture gets bored with its lot and looks East. It's happened in fashion, with Alexander McQueen Japonisme collection for Givenchy and designer Yohji Yamamoto's new-found fame on the catwalk. Zen-like minimalism has taken over where flowers and butterflies left off; naturals and neutrals have replaced the patterns of previous seasons. And as fashion and interior design get closer, the latter is now looking East for inspiration.

No one does Japanese minimalism better than Muji, the no-brand shops in London which sell everything from kitchen utensils and bathroom accessories to pencil cases and vests. Its no-nonsense materials and understated design have made Muji a name with the fashion and design elite. Those seduced by its charms include the likes of Helena Christensen, Kate Moss, Kylie Minoque, Sir Richard Rogers and Jasper Conran. While the Muji stores in Covent Garden, the King's Road, Carnaby Street and Kensington have been patronised by those "in the know," the company from the land of the rising sun is about to broaden its horizons.

On June 6, Muji opens its first two-storey shop in London's Whiteleys Shopping Centre where it will nestle alongside a multiplex cinema and Marks & Spencer. The new store will have 4,000 square feet of floor space, so new larger furniture ranges will be on sale for the first time.

"Because of the size of the store we can give better space to larger items," says Ewan Douglas, Operations Director for Muji in the UK, "and we will be introducing our new range of furniture ." The new products include their hugely popular perforated steel shelving which now comes with maple veneer (from pounds 125), a white sofabed (a minimalist's dream, pounds 295) and a range of glass-fronted MDF furniture including a wardrobe (pounds 250) and a glass-fronted cabinet (pounds 250).

"The Muji aim is to use simple, natural, raw materials in as natural a form as possible," says company spokeswoman Kathryn Dighton, "to keep productions methods simple while keeping quality high. Packaging is kept to a minimum and every product is functional. Those with a decorative eye must search elsewhere."

Muji has always been known for the little things in life: glass mugs, note books and picture frames. So why the "serious" furniture and the larger shops? "Last October we tried out a larger format in Oxford Street," explains Ewan Douglas. "That has been dramatically successful for us, so now we've decided to open four more large stores throughout the country." (These will be in Covent Garden in July, Manchester in September, Kent next year and Whiteleys.) "In Japan they have already found that bigger formats have been successful, plus Muji have introduced several hundred new product lines in last six months, so there is simply more things to fill the space." But it's not just a case of "have product, will expand." Muji has found that its market is much larger than first imagined. The company discovered in its home country that as it introduced more stores its customer base widened. It wasn't just the design aficionados that loved the stuff; everybody did and they are hoping for the same response here.

The expansion should be eased by the fact that Muji has dropped its prices by 21 per cent, without affecting the product quality. "What's amazing about Muji," says Michele Ogundehin, Features Director of Elle Deco and a Muji fan, "is that last year they found a cheaper way of exporting their products into the UK, and rather than soaking up the profit, they reduced their prices."

Mujirushi Ryohin (which translates as no-brand quality goods) first appeared in Tokyo shops in 1980, as the brand name for Seiyu supermarket products. It proved so popular that by 1983 people were going to Seiyu just for Muji goods. "Nowhere was more labels-conscious than Japan in the Eighties, and Muji was a refreshing change from all of that," explains Dighton. "The company has its own product Japanese development team. Everything is designed by them, for them and exclusive to them."

It was so refreshing that by 1998 there were 220 shops in Japan alone and another 20 in Britain, Hong Kong and Singapore. By 1997, Muji's annual consolidated sales had increased by 27% to pounds 336.5 million and its pre- tax profit rose to pounds 32 million.

In Britain, Muji quietly opened its first shop in Carnaby Street at the back of Liberty in 1991. Again, its no-frills plastic, glass, aluminium and collectibles were a perfect antidote to the labels-obsessed Eighties. Ironically, Muji can now be accused of inverse labelism. After all, the product name and Japanese writing appears on the packaging if not the product itself and that Muji look - the gentle industrialism of pale wood and perforated steel - is unmistakable to connossieurs of interior design.

"Muji has a certain timeless appeal," explains Michelle Ogundehin. "It's a solid, practical product that appeals to designers mainly because it's made from cardboard and MDF. It's that "truth in materials" concept. Even though Muji is marketed as no-brand no-name it is very branded. You can always spot a Muji product even though they don't do any advertising. Obviously, they don't need to."

Muji hope that word-of-mouth enthusiasm will make its expansion in Britain a success. Ogundehin is convinced it will work. "The Muji philosophy appeals today, because you know what you're paying for," she explains. "It offers good design and good quality at high street prices. Muji could become huge and it would still be successful. It doesn't rely on exclusivity, that's not what Muji is about."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

    UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape