WE SAY “emptiness” like it’s a bad word.
When we think of emptiness, we think of blank slates, deleted and vacant — but is that such a bad thing, when the now-empty space can provide room for the new?
This is the philosophy by which Muji Art Director Kenya Hara stands by, and by extension, so does the brand for which he works for. During his talk in the Ayala Museum late last month, a reverent hush hung in the museum’s air, waiting for his every word — it was fitting for a talk about emptiness to be characterized by its aural form, silence.
Muji was born in 1980, in the middle of a Japanese economic boom that improved the fortunes of many Japanese citizens. Perhaps it was a response to that culture of excess that Muji emerged, first called Mujirushi Ryohin, which meant “no-brand quality goods.” From a generic line for the Seiyu Supermarket group, Muji became its own independent brand, marketing minimalist objects that espouse this emptiness, a sort of consumable Zen philosophy made solid and tangible.
While Muji became an entity in the 1980s, it draws upon centuries of Japanese art and culture for its ethos. Mr. Hara used Japanese history to give context to the Japanese concept of emptiness.
For example, he used the architecture of Japanese shinto shrines to illustrate his point about emptiness. In the past, the Japanese believed in multiple gods and goddesses that resided in every object, from temples to grains of rice. In making shrines that were “empty,” it allowed the gods to reside in them. “Because it is empty, so there’s a possibility to be filled,” he said. He contrasts this with the architecture of other cultures, such as India’s rich Mughal tradition, and the similarly flamboyant Baroque and Rococo styles of Europe. To him, these were meant to show the power of kings, or of God (who anointed kings). Japan also employed such a level of flamboyance, and this flair, was used to honor “a higher level of being — the noblest being.” But society has changed in the years since then, and in societies with more equity, “decoration is needless.” He points out, however, that even before the age of kings ended, the Japanese have been using objects that were “very plain and minimal.” For this he points to the Onin War of the 15th century.
Kenya Hara 2
The Onin War was a civil war fought in the mid-1400s in Japan, between the feudal Shogun warlords. From the rubble of these wars came the Higashiyama culture, as perpetuated by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Higashiyama culture makes up many of the tenets of the Japanese culture that we know today, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, and wabi-sabi aesthetics (a type of refined roughness). These place importance in emptiness and plain spaces, with Mr. Hara noting, “By using this empty space, the visitor can make a communication with himself.”
“Every space can create a receptacle for imagination,” he said. “This space can accept any kind of image.” This is what forms the backbone of Muji products: by reducing decoration and emphasizing a plain aesthetic, it becomes an extension of the user, and then become anything the user wants it to be. Muji, after all, provides tons and tons of stuff meant to reduce life to its basics: from extremely plain unbleached notebooks, to storage units in clear material into which anything can be placed and stacked away, forgotten until needed so you can live your own life as you please, unhampered by stuff.
To him, the brand’s philosophy can be summarized by its differentiation from others. While other brands clamor to be seen, Muji becomes a sort of transparent palate-cleanse. “The brands always want a customer to say, ‘I want to have it. I must have it.’ The only thing that Muji would want the customer to say [is], ‘Muji will do.’” This was followed by a hum of laughter from the audience.
It is a bit of a mistake to simplify Muji as simple. Mr. Hara makes a distinction between what is “simple,” and what is “empty.” For example, he points to a knife of German design, with an elegant, ergonomic handle. That’s what is simple; it makes handling it much easier. But then, he points to a knife by Muji, with an octagonal handle that allows the user to use it from any possible angle created by the octagon’s eight points. “This is empty,” he said.
As Art Director of Muji since 2001, Mr. Hara also presided over Muji’s commercials, some of which he showed. There were modular sofas in one commercial, where one popped out slowly next to the other, creating a line and a natural link from the previous one. He showed a photo for a Muji campaign shot in one of Bolivia’s salt flats, where a vast expanse of emptiness allowed for a lone figure to stand in it.
So: emptiness. It’s not so much stripping something down, but making something so it provides space. Pointing again at the photo, empty but ripe with possibilities, he said, “There’s nothing, but there’s everything.” — Joseph L. Garcia