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."

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit