Sunday August 12, 2012
Less is more
By LEONG SIOK HUI
An exhibition by Japanese lifestyle brand Muji raises the pertinent question: Can we do with less and tread lightly on the earth?
AT first glance, the products showcased at the Muji Product Fitness 80 exhibition in Singapore look pretty run-of-the-mill: cotton buds, toilet paper, a face lotion bottle, umbrella, wall clock, a chair and a table, etc. Huh?
Take a closer look, though, and you realise that each product is backed by a thought-provoking question or explanation. Do cotton buds need to be as long as they currently are to serve their purpose? Do we need a face lotion loaded with a cocktail of chemicals when an alternative, made from 90% water, is as effective? And instead of throwing away cracked porcelain rice bowls, why not line the cracks with gold lacquer to prolong their use? Besides, the gold infill makes them more attractive.
Product Fitness 80 is Japanese lifestyle brand Muji’s crack at raising the exigent questions: What if we used just 20% less energy and materials to make products? And what if we consume less?
The exhibition highlights products that are crafted using fewer resources without compromising their functionality or consumers’ satisfaction. Some of these products are already sold in Muji stores around the world while some products are still in developmental stages. First launched in Tokyo in March, the exhibition has travelled to London, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is currently on at the ION Art Gallery in Singapore.
Following the Great East Japan earthquake on March 11, 2011, Muji was compelled to reconsider the company’s way of doing things, explains industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa at a talk held in conjunction with the exhibition at the gallery. Fukasawa, one of the most influential product designers in the world today, sits on the design advisory board of Muji.
“We learned a lot from the earthquake. When we saw the aftermath and the amount of debris amassed, we asked ourselves how much of the things we produced can be returned to the earth?” he says.
“We question if we use excessive materials and packaging or if the products are oversized. And how do we reduce waste when we order materials, manufacture and transport the products?”
Product Fitness 80 is Muji’s exercise in self-reflection while simultaneously sharing the message with the rest of the world. The exhibition title/theme was inspired by an old Japanese saying, “hara hachibun me” (eat in measure and defy the doctor). It literally means to eat moderately, or to stop eating just before you feel stuffed, something that is good for your health. In other words, the key to a healthy life is to eat an adequate, or “fit”, amount and exercise self-restraint. If we reduce our measures from 100% to 80% rather than practising strict self-control or abstinence, we can have a balanced and happy life.
“The feeling of having not quite enough is actually just about right,” Fukasawa elaborates. “It’s not about resisting your desire at 80%, it’s saying that perhaps 80% is the right fit.”
But Product Fitness 80 isn’t just about cutting back on energy and materials used for churning out products, Fukasawa clarifies. Last November, the company launched the Found Muji concept store that sells everyday products sourced from around world. Located in the trendy neighbourhood of Aoyama, Tokyo, the store showcases long-lasting products that are relevant to contemporary lifestyles, like celadon pottery from Thailand, enamelware from France, metal bowls from India or woven cotton fabric from Laos.
“Rather than made by Muji, these objects were ‘found’, which is the keyword for sustainability,” Fukasawa explains. “If the quality, shape and materials are perfect, we don’t need to change anything. It is about re-discovering the value of things around us.”
Found Muji was inspired by Fukasawa’s trip to China’s antique market. A seller was trying to pass off some pottery ware as antiques by embellishing the items to make them look “old” and “valuable”.
“I knew they were not antiques but they were beautiful just the same,” says Fukasawa. He brought the ceramics back to Japan, cleaned them up and showed them to his Muji associates.
“Their value lies in the fact that these ‘new’ wares were produced using age-old techniques and materials that date back to China’s Song dynasty (960-1279),” he explains. “Whether you are in Japan or Singapore, you can rediscover the things and traditions unique to your culture and rethink their values.”
The Muji concept
More than mere philosophical posturing, Fitness 80 is also a return to the notion of what Muji was about when it was founded in 1980. The brainchild of a clique of Japanese design cognoscenti, the company was founded as an antithesis to the crass consumerism plaguing Japanese society during the bubble economy of that era.
“We didn’t start the company with the idea of how to survive in this competitive market. Instead we asked these questions: What is our life supposed to be? How we should live?” explains Masaaki Kanai, the president and representative director of Muji/Ryohin Keikaku Co, Ltd, who was also at the exhibition launch and talk.
“Fortunately, consumers could relate to our concept and that naturally created the market for Muji products.”
From the start, Muji committed itself to making streamlined products at the lowest possible cost without compromising on quality. The company does away with extra packaging, embellishment and even colour in some cases, such as with its aluminium and plastic products. At Muji, functional simplicity trumps the contrived and nothing is “overdesigned” or frivolous.
“We don’t try to create a variety of products for the sake of variety. For example, we use the same shape and shell design for all our pens, whether they are ball points, mechanical pencils or roller balls,” Kanai explains. “We make extra effort to repair and reuse our products – the pen refill, for example, can be used until the very last drop.”
Ironically, the “no brand” concept and pared-down aesthetics have spawned a global brand. Today, Muji is present in 23 countries across Asia, Europe and North America. In Japan, Muji has 372 stores.
“Within Muji, we do have constant debates about not letting ourselves be defined by profits and marketing,” admits Kanai. “Rather, we try to focus on understanding consumers’ needs and creating products that they are confident and satisfied with.
“The world’s population is projected to reach 10.1 billion people by 2100 (according to the United Nations). If we continue this kind of excessive lifestyle and consumption, the world can’t sustain that kind of population,” he surmises.
In an era when we are constantly bombarded by messages to consume and are being told what is good for us, Muji’s approach – to stop, reflect and say, “this will do”– is refreshing. Of course, cynics may dismiss Product Fitness 80 as another marketing spin or a stab at reverse psychology. But as influential British designer Jasper Morrison argued brilliantly: “If the Muji concept is just another marketing theme, then how come there are no others copying it as they do every other theme which has originality?” (Muji, Rizzoli, New York, 2010.)
Plus, the Muji partisans among us want to be discerning consumers who make informed choices. But, no! I didn’t make a beeline to Muji stores in Singapore after enjoying the exhibition.
■ The Muji Product Fitness 80 exhibition is on at the ION Art Gallery, Level 4, ION Orchard Mall, Orchard Boulevard, Singapore, till Aug 19. Gallery hours: 10am to 10pm. For more information, go to ionorchard.com/en/ion-art/exhibitions.