Top designers. No Brands

If you've ever shopped at Japanese retailer Muji, you've probably bought products from some of the world's top designers. The fact that you don't know who they are is part of the point.

Some of the world's top designers, reportedly including Jasper Morrison, Enzo Mari, and Konstantin Grcic, belong to an extremely exclusive club. Yet they never meet and don't even know for certain who else are members.

These A-listers design products for the secretive Japanese no-brand retailer Muji. It's a housewares-to-clothing chain whose passion for simple design and minimal marketing inspires Apple-like devotion among followers from Tokyo to London.

Twenty years before Naomi Klein began logo-bashing, Muji was already subverting the rules of branding. It started in 1980 as an in-store product line within the Seiyu supermarket chain, whose execs reckoned that behind every brand-worshipping Japanese shopper queuing at its checkouts was a marketing-weary yet design-savvy customer.

Muji is short for Mujirushi Ryohin, Japanese for "no label, quality goods." Its 320 company-owned and licensed stores, most of them in Japan, aim to carry as wide a range as possible (5,000 at last count) of everyday items — from bed linens to pencils. Its design philosophy, however, demands stripping these everyday products down to their most essential form — like a CD player with just a single dial, or a barbecue that can be folded away. Shelving and drawers are made from recycled paperboard and industrial shipping tubes, and wastebaskets from corrugated cardboard. In-store signs are close to invisible; products are displayed in plain plastic containers or unpainted wicker bins. And once you take off the price tag, not one of those products carries a label — not even a Muji label.

Muji designs nearly all its own products, employing some 15 designers at its Tokyo headquarters, where an "advisory council" acts as guardian of the Muji concept. For "breakthrough" products, like its CD player and its coffeemaker, the council drafts big-name designers. But it keeps the identities of these contributors secret. Then, "we ask these designers not to draw on their own creativity but on what they think a Muji design should be," says Kei Suzuki, Muji's European CEO. That is, the designers' individual brands (and egos) submit to Muji's.

Of course, Muji's no-brand stance is a branding exercise in itself. Some critics pooh-pooh the conceit as too self-conscious and contrived. In the late 1990s, moreover, the retailer expanded too quickly abroad and missed ambitious sales targets. Since then, though, Muji has pared its store network, and for the nine months ending November 30, operating profits of its parent company, Ryohin Keikaku Co. Ltd., were up 37%.

Muji is considering opening a "proper" American store within the next couple of years and moving into new product areas. Loyalists already can eat Muji cereal, wear Muji underwear, and ride a Muji bicycle. Now the retailer has decided the moment is right for a Muji house: Its two-story In-Fill home, made from recycled wood and rust-proof carbonized tin, ships for around $150,000. There's no logo on that, either.

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