updated 9 Oct 2013, 08:35
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Wed, Oct 09, 2013
The Straits Times
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Minimalist man of Muji
by Tara Tan

Kenya Hara, creative director of popular Japanese lifestyle brand Muji, pretty much looks the way you would expect him to.

He wears a dark blue linen jacket over a black T-shirt, with no jewellery adorning his hands.

The matt silver frame of his intriguingly shaped sextagonal spectacles matches his salt-and-pepper hair.

Simple, functional and very down-to-earth, the man behind Muji's minimalist ethos lives the lifestyle he designs for millions of fans around the world.

'In Japan, there is the concept of looking for beauty within emptiness. It is a unique aesthetic, one which is against the complexities of the world,' says the 51-year-old Tokyo-based designer through a translator.

He was in town last week to conduct a public lecture at Lasalle College of the Arts.

But within that emptiness lies an immense variety of possibilities, he adds.

Employing a 'no-brand' philosophy as its identity, Muji - founded in 1980 as a product line under supermarket chain Seiyu - produces stationery, kitchenware, clothing and furniture, all espousing no-frills design, low prices, simple packaging and environmental awareness.

It has 342 stores in Japan alone and 98 stores beyond, including 14 in Britain, four in the United States and eight inHong Kong.

There are four outlets in Singapore, located in Bugis, Paragon, Ion Orchard and Marina Square.

Hara, who became Muji's art director in communications in 2001, is considered one of the leading thinkers and designers in Japan.

Apart from curating the lifestyle and brand identity for Muji, he lectures at the prestigious Musashino Art University.

He has also published books, including Designing Design (2008), an authoritative tome that showcases iconic creations from Japan.

A deadpan sense of humour belies his reserved, if somewhat aloof, demeanour.

He jokes about trying to smile without showing any teeth during the photoshoot, and about the irony of living a life of simplicity while his wife has a passion for dramatic, outlandish theatre.

For the cerebral designer, who has a 25-year-old son, design forms the backbone of contemporary society.

He talks about the impact small things have in everyday life, which can often be overlooked.

He says: 'Think about drinking mineral water. Drinking it straight from the bottle is different from drinking it from a cup or scooping it up from a plate using a spoon.

'Designers need to think about the many different aspects of the same thing.'

After all, this is the man who roped in prominent Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to re-think the humble toilet roll, which is featured in Designing Design.

Ban came up with a square-shaped toilet roll on the philosophy that the thunk-thunk sound that came from unrolling it reminds the user to be mindful of wastage.

And, hey, it also stacks better.

Hara often cites Japan's cultures and traditions as the origins of design, adding that the pervasive 'concept of emptiness' will continue for the next 50 or 100 years.

But the deeply philosophical man isquick to distance himself from philosophy.

He says: 'Calling design a philosophy is an exaggeration. I don't think design should be philosophised, it should be about the every day.'

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This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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