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Decoding the cult of Muji, the Japanese minimalist retailer

Media guests shop for products at the newly-opened Muji, a Japanese retail chain, in the Atrium on Bay in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

The sets of colouring pencils and felt-tip pens notwithstanding, the fiery red stanchion snaking inside the mall on press preview night is the most colourful thing about the new Muji store. The retailer has 385 locations in Japan and 255 elsewhere, now including its first Canadian store, in Toronto, a stone's throw from the Eaton Centre.

Since 1980, the retailer has built a cult following by offering what you might call affordable restraint. Like a Japanese normcore IKEA, Muji commodifies a certain brand of comforting plainness and utility. In its native Japan, that aesthetic philosophy also extends to space – via branded campgrounds and Muji House, their range of prefab abodes designed by architects such as Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma.

The orderly shelves of non-brand wares have a certain uniformity (and a trio of visual display artists from Muji's Tokyo headquarters team are on hand to ensure sameness of vision). It all combines to imply a counterpoint of consumption that seems less about wants than needs – even a display of wire storage baskets holds a promise of purposefulness.

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Though for a retailer built on the philosophy of simplicity, Muji sure sells a lot of stuff. They have tapped something that speaks to the global consumer.

Plain without being forgettably generic – special, and just boring enough.

Garments and housewares come in mild colours and utilitarian packaging – sheets are beige, charcoal, blue or greige, and flannel PJs in the same neutral array (or for slight variety, gingham) are folded bundles tied with cotton ribbon. Logo-free cap-toe canvas plimsoll sneakers – like the men's sailor-stripe tops nearby – are offered in black, white, grey and what might be called Muji red, the same flat burgundy shade on the store sign and packaging, the closest thing the retailer has to branding. Consider that in Canada at around the same time Muji was born, Loblaw Cos. developed its value-oriented No Frills banner and capsule of generic No Name brand products, but clad them in graphic designer Don Watt's screeching high-contrast black Helvetica and discount yellow. Today, the supermarket's more upscale Black Label line seems more in keeping with Muji's ethos of soothing monotony.

The Muji universe built on polite white shirts and understated blue, industrial grey and a dun they dub "coconut brown" (even the assemble-yourself recycled cardboard toys come in shades of putty), less about adornment than utility or what the company calls a "rational lifestyle." (Though let it be said that Muji's bestselling individual toothbrush stands do inadvertently give the toothbrush a rakish air.)

When there is whimsy, the assortment suggests, it is best confined to the small and easily stowed: tiny sticky notes shaped like cats; a display of self-inking stamps that depict interlocking hockey sticks, a beaver or the phrase "eh?" – which is also what the Fonz might enthuse faced with the tidy rows of individual cello-bagged white T-shirts. A tabletop bowling set in natural wood has only just enough decorative paint on the pins to suggest roly-poly Sumo wrestlers.

This, as opposed to the deliberately playful patterned cacophony of IKEA, or even the whimsy of Anthropologie's tea-stained flea-market fare.

Throughout its literature, Muji notably calls its consumer a "user," and throughout the store itself plain white placards tout this philosophy of perfecting of a single product – one unintentionally offers a promise that borders on menacing: "You will love turtlenecks." Similarly, a white organic cotton Oxford button-down shirt comes in one style, not seven – refined and improved in details such as the back yoke position and longer cut for tucking in, they assert, "in response to numerous surveys and focus groups."

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In 1964, Terence Conran's groundbreaking London emporium Habitat was a veritable bazaar of genres, designers and styles that sold a boomer generation on informality and celebrated a homeowner's individuality – personal expression through decor. Statement choices included Indian rugs mixed with Bertoia's sleek chrome Birdcage chair and Franco Albini's playful rattan Margherita. Fifty years later, consider that the most popular interior-design coffee-table books of the season are in that vein: Tory Burch: In Color, the contemporary designer's scrapbook-cum-self-promotional photo album has chapters organized by hue, and the chaotic Places to Go, People to See from Kate Spade New York, a relentless romp of nonsensical, non-sequitur inspirational collages wrapped in Kelly-green cloth, zebra endpapers and vibrating neon-orange text.

Such pick-and-mix eclecticism is a hard mistress – constantly mustering individual flair is exhausting. Muji offers no such boldness. It swaps the tyranny of individuality for a homogeneity purged of inutility, excess or excitement. Instead, its vision of purposeful living comes as Porcelain Beige Series tableware ("We omitted the printing process to create simple tableware you never tire of using") and thoughtful design that only the wearer will experience and appreciate – socks are knit to differentiate left and right, and at a 90-degree angle perpendicular to the foot, touting superior comfort.

These aesthetic choices are by design underwhelming – but no less beguiling. There's literal geographic proof of their opposite just beyond Muji's glass storefront, overlooking the crowds of garish, throbbing Yonge-Dundas Square. Is it any wonder that on its opening Black Friday weekend, people lined up outside in the cold for hours to enter the Japanese retailer's bastion from the assault of riotous colour and noise?

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About the Author

Nathalie More

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