Kenya Hara: The Designer’s Designer

Muji went global while staying true to its roots. Meet the man behind its expansion

Published: Mar 16, 2012
Kenya Hara:  The Designer’s Designer
Image: Manoj Patil for Forbes India

“I am not Muji.” Kenya Hara has got used to beginning conversations with this statement: The Japanese graphic designer has been a member of the company’s advisory board since 2001 and has played an influential role in cementing Muji’s reputation as a modern, global brand of household goods whose diverse range includes everything from bicycles to stationery. The acclaim he has gathered for his work with Muji has meant that most people think of Hara and Muji in the same breath.

Hara, however, is much more than a single, albeit iconic, brand. He is a designer, author, curator, educator and one of the most influential people in his field today. He has worked on campaigns as varied as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, and the launch of men’s fragrance Kenzo Power in 2008. He is the author of a number of books including Designing Design, which received effusive praise from reviewers all over the world for both its beauty as well as the philosophical gravitas of Hara’s words. As a curator, he has earned much praise for showcasing innovative work. In Haptic: Awakening of the Senses, for example, he brought together objects created by various designers that focused on the sense of touch. Hara also teaches at the Musashino Art University and runs the Hara Design Institute, a “design think tank,” at the Nippon Design Center in Japan. Yes, there’s more to him than Muji.

“There are two roles I play for Muji,” he explained, early on in his chat with Forbes India. “One, I’m a member of its advisory board. Another is that I’m the art director. Muji is one of my clients, you could say.” It quickly becomes clear, however, that this client is closer to Hara’s heart than most. “Muji is a very special company,” said Hara, cupping his hands as though something delicate was being cradled in them. “In an ordinary company, the designer doesn’t have much influence over the management. But in Muji, the members of the advisory board have a very strong influence, they control the quality. That makes it a very special institution.”

Hara joined Muji in 2001, at the behest of Ikko Tanaka, considered among the most influential designers in modern Japan. Tanaka was one of the founders of Muji and at 70, he chose Hara as his successor. Hara spent an entire night tossing and turning as he wondered what he could bring to Muji. Since its launch in 1980, it had established itself as an iconic and successful brand, thanks to Tanaka’s vision. Finally, Hara struck upon an idea: he could try to make Muji a global, rather than Japanese, brand. “I thought, if we can spread Muji to the world, we can find a new stage for Muji. I said to Mr. Tanaka, global Muji is an important concept for the next decade. So, I answered Mr. Tanaka, ‘Yes. I’ll do it.’”

Back in the early 2000s, the Japanese economy was beginning to slow down and Muji had only a few outlets outside Japan. It had more than 5,000 products but the design was beginning to suffer from inconsistencies. Hara joined Muji and brought in designer, Naoto Fukusawa.  “We needed to control the quality of design,” Hara said, as he recounted how he and Fukusawa worked to breathe new life into Muji without veering away from the simplicity that was (and continues to be) its trademark.

He is committed to establishing a worldwide Muji presence, but in a unique way, to develop the company so that it retains its authenticity while connecting with the country into which it is expanding. “This point is very important because it is in this that Muji differs from other brands.  Zara is Zara. Every Zara is the same. Every Chanel is the same. But Muji is not the same. In each country, we gather collaborators,” he said, explaining that the company’s products have evolved uniquely in different parts of the world. “In Europe, we collaborated with Jasper Morrison, James Irvine, Konstantin Grcic. We collaborate with this kind of talent and that’s how we expand the concept of Muji.” Consequently, what you see in the company’s Barcelona store is different from what you would see in its London outlet. All the products have the brand’s distinctive minimalism and yet there are details that set them apart.

It’s tantalising to imagine Hara’s Muji — with its pristine, precise and clean aesthetic — encountering the vibrancy of colour and patterns associated with India. There is much about Indian culture that fascinates him. “Traditional Indian creativity is very interesting, I think,” said Hara, whose first visit to India was as a backpacker, 30 years ago. He quickly listed aspects of India’s artistic traditions that he appreciates: “The taste, the choice of colour, the use of material, the quality of handicraft, all the very complicated patterns.” Unfortunately, in spite of this, there is no possibility of Muji expanding to India in the next three years. “I think Mumbai is a very good possibility. Maybe,” he said, stressing again that this region was not one that the brand is considering at present. There are no short cuts to setting up a store, particularly when it is a Muji outlet. Such decisions involve much contemplation, careful planning and patience. “Only being bigger is not the final goal for us,” said Hara. “Muji people don’t hurry.”  Then, with a mischievous grin, he added, “Muji is not a Uniqlo.”

Kenya Hara lectured in Mumbai at the Taj Land’s End, courtesy the Godrej India Culture Lab.

Deepanjana Pal is a copy editor with Elle India.

(This story appears in the 16 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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