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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."