The Ulm Model was one of most interesting design exhibitions of last year. Shown across three floors of the Raven Row gallery in London, it brought together student work, prototypes and products conceived at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm in Germany during its existence as an educational hothouse for socially-minded, multidisciplinary design ideas from 1953 to 1968.
While the show focused on this specific place and period of time, it avoided feeling reverential or overtly historical – wall texts and captions were housed in an accompanying booklet, while the displays of objects were arranged without adherence to type, function or their chronology in the Ulm story. The result enabled visitors to give thought to the way the work and its influence might sit within our own time, or even point to a future yet to come.
The HfG Ulm’s founding by Otl Aicher, Inge Scholl and Max Bill (the latter had joined the pair’s nascent Volkshochschule in 1947), was a response to the post-war conditions in Germany. The new institution would show how industrial design could be instrumental in the country’s reconstruction. Ideas concerning the social impact of design mixed with the highly collaborative nature of its ethos and Ulm’s teachings became universally influential.
Today, its links with the German firm Braun of the 1950s and 60s and its chief design officer Dieter Rams remain the most celebrated, while the school’s influence has also shaped the look of German electrical goods and public transport design. Yet, as the show’s curator Peter Kapos noted at the exhibition, there is another company that, since the 1980s, could well be said to have embodied the Ulm approach more fully than any other – Mujirushi Ryōhin, the “no brand quality goods” store better known as Muji.
“I think that Muji – more than Braun – is actually the successful industrial application of [all] this, because it’s really democratic, it’s really good design and it’s cheap,” Kapos noted at Raven Row, standing by a display that included Walter Zeischegg’s 1966–70 series of bookends, magazine racks and containers for desk organisation – objects that would not look out of place on the shelves of the Japanese store. And while several other designs would fit seamlessly into Muji’s current range (take Max Bill’s HfG Stool, later produced by Vitra, or Hans Roericht’s TC 100 stacking crockery, made for over 40 years by Rosenthal and reissued in 2010 by HoGaKa), the philosophical and theoretical connections between the German school and the Japanese brand are as striking as any perceived aesthetic ones.
“There’s something utopian about Muji’s project – and it’s not just the products, but the form of life that they suggest beyond themselves”
The idea of creating a ‘system’ or ‘programme’ of objects is key to this, says Kapos. “The unity of the character and tone of the objects across a large array of different products – that’s certainly something Muji has in common with Braun, at least Braun from the 1960s,” he says. “There’s a correspondence between that way of thinking about design and Ulm; about parts in relation to wholes, which is absolutely Ulm thinking. The importance of that at Ulm is that it’s a way of ‘controlling’ objects, essentially, so that they don’t get out of hand.”
Walk into any Muji store and the products relate to each other in a discernibly systematic way. “Everything has its place within the whole and no single element is prioritised or stands out or ‘expresses’ itself,” says Kapos of this approach. “And the purpose of that in Germany after the War was to do with the presentation of a new form of social life, which was rational and orderly.”
For Muji, creating the idea of a ‘lifestyle’ mirrors the Ulmer’s drive to offer up a new idealised form of social life, a utopian model, as Kapos explains, that Braun attempted to implement in the 1960s. “Muji seem to be doing the same thing,” he says. “It feels to me that there’s something utopian about Muji’s project – and it’s not just the products, but the form of life that they suggest beyond themselves…. That could be both a functional system, but it could also be a social system, a way of individuals relating to each other. That’s maybe also a way of ‘being’ socially.”
The Muji way
Muji evolved out of the Seiyu store as a brand selling food and a few household products. Its first standalone store opened in Aoyama, Japan in 1983; its first overseas site was London in 1991. In December 2015, Muji’s Shanghai store opened on Huaihai Lu, the city’s main shopping street and, as part of the launch, several of Muji’s advisory board members and design team – Takashi Sugimoto, Kenya Hara, Naoto Fukasawa and Kazuko Koike – gave public talks on their work and the company’s approach to design.
Concepts such as “Muji is enough” and notions of “simplicity” and “emptiness” were addressed – and in Hara’s talk, the art director began by touching on how far the Muji product range had expanded and what this had meant for its customers. When his predecessor Ikko Tanaka had started at Muji, he recalled, the company had around 40 different items on its list, whereas now that figure is closer to some 7,000 products.
“With this many products, I thought that Muji could represent a way of living,” Hara said. “The idea of a Muji ‘home’ isn’t simply to fill your space with Muji items; I felt that Muji could help people who are good at breaking down ready-made ideas for what makes a home and rebuilding in their own way. When they’re brought together, I believe Muji products serve as an ‘operating system’, or a concept or aesthetic, to make a certain lifestyle work.”
“I believe that by helping more and more people gain the skills to redesign a house to fit their own lifestyle, rather than simply buy a ready-built structure we are cultivating customers for Muji”
Hara claimed that the new flagship stores in Yurakucho or Shanghai offered people more than just a range of individual products, but a vision of an overall way of using design to improve their lives; a functionalism that could be applied to the everyday. “I believe that by helping more and more people gain the skills to redesign a house to fit their own lifestyle, rather than simply buy a ready-built structure,” Hara said, “we are cultivating customers for Muji, as well. I have imagined how great it would be if we had Muji stores where you could get absolutely everything you might need for your home – trees and plants, lights, solar systems, bathtubs, and beds.”
Within each of these areas, it would be the “simple form that gives users the freedom to develop their own way of handling an object,” Hara said. “It is this depth that I call ‘emptiness’. Muji essentially embodies this emptiness. For example, the Muji mattress with legs can also be used as a sofa. You could also put several together to create an elevated floor,” he continued. “Giving users the freedom to use our products however they wish is what I mean by emptiness.”
These ideas aren’t confined to the aspirations of the design team, but are brought to being in their range of products – from kitchen and dinnerware, to bedroom furniture, storage, stationery and clothing – through to the company’s communications.
They are even set out on small signs placed around their stores. These texts explain what Muji is as a concept rather than a shopping destination and list the company’s “core principles”, unchanged since its founding, as “selection of materials”, “streamlining of processes” and “simplification of packages”. Muji’s manufacturing processes are described as “extremely rational” and “succinct, but they are not in the minimalist style. That is, they are like empty vessels,” the text continues. “Simplicity and emptiness yield the ultimate universality, embracing the feelings and thoughts of all people.”
Commonality and the collective in place of the individual are concepts that come out of both HfG Ulm and Muji. And this way of thinking almost becomes a radical approach when examined within the context of a consumerist society.
An “exaggerated, self-aggrandising individualism is very common, you can see that in the way that we live at the moment,” says Kapos. “If you go into the City [of London], you can see how traders think of themselves being expressed in the architecture. They really do think that they’re completely self-enclosed, heroic individuals, who have every right to behave in the way that they do, and it’s profoundly antisocial and destructive. A Muji City would be the opposite of the City of London. They’re both different kinds of representations of social life.”
Who’s done what?
For Kapos, Muji aligns itself with Ulm thinking from both the production and consumption side. “On the side of production, [Muji are] absolutely continuous with the idea that they don’t announce their designers, which I think is extraordinary, because they’ve got some huge names. You’ve actually got to do some research to find out who’s done what – and a lot of the time you can’t.”
While designers such as Jasper Morrison and Industrial Facility have created products for the company, these objects sit within the wider programme alongside everything else. Even in Muji stores, these items are not visibly promoted above other products. This process enables something else to happen, too, says Kapos. “There’s also a more ideological reason to suppress the individual, which is that your emphasis is actually on the ‘collective’ in the design process itself and as a social form,” he says.
The concept of the ‘artist genius’ rejects the communal, he says, and so a more socialist project that emphasises collective endeavour will necessarily have an interest in “sets of objects” rather than stand-alone star pieces. On a Muji shop floor, any given object is not promoted over another (unless displaying its particular function) and there is no hierarchy attached to any designer names. This is almost the reverse of the accepted model on the high street.
“Muji also don’t have a hierarchical product structure, where you can have a shit pen, or a slightly better pen, or a really brilliant pen,” says Kapos. “Lots of companies that produce stratified ranges like that try to capture the whole market. They then produce a kind of a ‘meaning’ within the range, because you’re aiming to move up within the range. Once they’ve caught you, you move up gradually and mature within their system but remain within it. That’s really sinister!”
In this kind of structure, the ‘meaning’ of an object is only derived from its relation to others in the hierarchy, not the object itself. “If you have a completely flat programme, in the way that Muji have,” Kapos says, “then you allow objects to be more themselves and less [about] their relation to other things; more to do with ‘[is it] useful’, ‘can it do a job?’ And then it’s a model for a way of living because it suggests, ‘well, do we need to think about watches in that way, or could we just go back to thinking about them as timepieces?’ Which is potentially quite liberating.”
“At Muji there are no categories. Therefore, we design based on the idea that home appliances will be intermingled with daily goods.”
Looking at Muji products specifically, their organisation into types owes much to the kinds of ideas that were evolving at Ulm in the 1950s. “Industries have always been categorised as, for example, appliances or daily goods,” said Fukasawa in his talk. “At Muji, however, there are no categories. Therefore, we design based on the idea that home appliances will be intermingled with daily goods.”
This holistic approach inevitably results in a familiar aesthetic, and in the eyes of those who perhaps consider Muji as default design or unexciting, this can lead to accusations of sameness. Yet this misses the point. “I think Ulm had become aware of the development of consumer capitalism that required industrial design to introduce false differences to products, in order to stimulate desire within consumers,” says Kapos. “And they were making deliberately – I wouldn’t say ‘dull’ – but inexpressive and calm, fairly neutral-toned objects, because they were rejecting that role that design was stepping into. So they were deliberately rejecting that form of capitalism; they would only redesign something if they could make a functional improvement to it. The idea of dressing something up again in slightly more appealing, or different, clothes – that was something that they would just refuse. Muji seems to have something similar. You can see products there that have been there for years.”
Old for new
While Apple is often cited as being influenced by Braun, if not directly compared to it, Kapos believes there are now more differences than similarities between the two companies. Apple has made frequent use of many of the stylings of Ulm and Braun, but not the philosophy that underpinned them, and has actively sought to create a succession of products where new, must-have iterations replace older designs, rather than a system that has products coexist.
“They’ve run out of steam now, they’re just exhausted,” says Kapos. “There are no new forms that they can apply that will make them interesting enough that you’ll need a new phone; and also, people have cottoned on to it now – there are so many Apple-like things around that it’s just not interesting anymore…. It worked fantastically for a while.”
Muji now has a much larger range of products than Braun did in the 1960s and is heading towards a “total” approach that touches every element of our lives – the Ulm consideration that Bill envisaged and that was encapsulated in architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers’ phrase, “From spoon to city”.
“I think it’s that kind of ‘communitarian’ way of thinking about the relation of individuals to each other that is the connection between Muji and Ulm,” says Kapos. “They share a politics, basically. It’s also a kind of politics which is not particularly radical, in that it doesn’t take the form of a manifesto or a specific critique of existing relations of exchange, for example, it just sort of suggests that we might do something differently. But then actually does do them, which is another thing that – in a quiet way – is very exciting about Muji.”
The Ulm Model was exhibited at the Raven Row gallery in London at the end of last year. Peter Kapos’ website dedicated to the work of Dieter Rams and Braun products issued between 1955 and 1995 is at dasprogramm.org