May 29, 2012

California Design: Lifestyles of Desire

Though I was in Los Angeles in February, I only recently rediscovered my notes on “California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” (still on at LACMA) and the associated symposium “New Narratives for ‘Living in a Modern Way’”, so thought I should post them here before the exhibition finishes. In addition to the exhibition and symposium, the accompanying catalogue comprised a rare opportunity to engage with focused research on design culture within a specific place and time. California design was not defined by curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman in aesthetic terms but instead as design that, as émigré Greta Magnusson Grossman put it, “developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way”. The image of post-war California as a land of opportunity, optimism and prosperity encouraged modern designers with a marketplace for stylish new objects, while the casual way of living and mild climate created – at least in the domestic realm – an informal attitude rather than a coherent style. However, as the exhibition also made clear, California’s design culture was conceived through an increasingly individualized form of consumerism, founded on the single family suburban home filled with a constellation of new objects that comprised a desirable modern lifestyle.

The exhibition was generous in its breadth, including furniture design, architecture, landscape design, fashion, graphics, everyday domestic objects, ceramics, jewelry and even children’s toys (the original Barbie and Ken dolls and Barbie’s Dream House were crowd favorites). Typical of gallery displays, these objects were decontextualized and presented as isolated pieces, although short interviews with designers and contextual video material such as contemporary advertisements tempered this a little, while the catalogue provided even more context. Two examples at the exhibition’s entrance – the Airstream Clipper and the Eames’ ‘body litter’ stretcher – highlighted for me some issues with presenting design in an art gallery context. The Clipper’s riveted aluminum panels and streamlined form (see image above) functioned more as a seductive and evocative icon of mobility rather than representative of the reality of 1930s caravan culture. Close by, the Eames’ response to immobility, a plywood stretcher prototype developed during WWII but never mass-produced, is interesting as a collectable artifact due to its famous creators and their subsequent work rather than its useful service during the war. Raymond Loewy’s glamorous Avanti sports car for Studebaker similarly failed commercially, and I wondered if its inclusion was more as an exhibition crowd pleaser rather than an object emblematic of California design culture.

Above: Charles and Ray Eames, leg splint, 1941-42 above an Eames DCW chair, 1946-49: these were their more successful plywood products. Below: Kem Weber, desk and chair, 1938.

Reservations aside, I thought the exhibition contained much stimulating material. California’s émigré design stars were well represented, with furniture designed by Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Greta Magnusson Grossman and Kem Weber (see image above), along with Paul László’s abstract textile designs, and brief cameos by Walter Landor (a single poster) and retail design pioneer Victor Gruen (a lamp). Exemplary California fashion included 1930s Levis’ “Western” wear and glamorous 1950s swimsuits. Graphic design’s representation was strong, ranging from 1940s book covers by Alvin Lustig for modern literature publishers New Directions to Saul Bass’ innovative movie posters, promotional material and film title sequences. The full-scale recreation of the Eames’ House Living Room seemed another crowd favorite, and an impressive undertaking. In all, 1,869 items were meticulously cataloged and reassembled in the recreated steel-framed space. In contrast to the sparse spaces and hard edges of pre-war European modernist interiors, the Eames’ living room embodied a casual, comfortable, and personalized California modernism. But my favorite object in the exhibition was the bright red 1935 “ice gun” (see image below), an elaborate cocktail hour accessory inspired by science fiction “ray guns” and designed to crush a single ice cube into a drink by squeezing the trigger. I searched the gift store in vain for a contemporary reproduction to take home.

Beyond displaying individual objects, the exhibition documented California as a lifestyle production center. Thankfully, it covered not only the Case Study Houses so beloved of architects globally but also mass developments such as Joseph Eichler’s, displayed through not only aspirational photographs but also via sketches, plans, and promotional material. The text of the Eichler Homes brochure equated California living as a permanent vacation: “designed to make your everyday a holiday”. However, there seemed to be a lingering disjunction between the progressive social vision and private spaces of leisure and the reality of segregated housing and the absence of African Americans and Latino populations from the post-war California Dream. The suburban dream, conceived within an automobile infrastructure, was manifest through a house filled with designer props that not only implied but also shaped certain ways of living, working and leisure activities.

Above: Danny Ho Fong for Tropi-Cal, Wave chaise, 1966; with textiles left to right by Olga Lee, Ray Eames and Barney Reid.

“California Design” touched on the state’s defense and aerospace industries here and there, but I would have liked to know more detail about materials, processes and knowledge transfers from these industries to post-war design (though there was more information in the catalogue). Cold War ideology was also touched upon briefly – the idealized private home of modern comfort was used to promote an American way of life in Cold War Europe (Greg Castillo’s Cold War on the Home Front: the Soft Power of Midcentury Design, covered this topic well, as did the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2008 exhibition Cold War Modern). The movie industry was also lurking in the background of the exhibition, and I also wondered if this connection might have been worth pursuing further. Beyond Saul Bass, there was little to suggest the local design industry’s contributions to or connections with Hollywood. Finally, fast food franchises – McDonald’s, Denny’s, Carl’s Jr, Jack-in-the-Box, and Taco Bell – and their distinctive architecture and graphic signage were developed largely in California during this period and could have taken our understanding of California design further from the domestic realm.

Above: A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons, Sofa and Table from the Spencer House, Beverly Hills, 1961-64, and cocktail table by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California, c.1950.

The symposium, “New Narratives for ‘Living in a Modern Way’” (also at LACMA on February 24 and 25), was a rich addition to the exhibition, with two days of presentations on California design. Pierluigi Serrianio detailed photography’s impact on promoting California’s modern architecture of the 1940s and 50s and the critical role of newspapers and magazines (from the highbrow Arts and Architecture to the more widely known Sunset: the Magazine of Western Living) in disseminating images of modern life in California that spread and became standard global lifestyles of desire. Monica Penick revisited the role of Home Beautiful magazine editor Elizabeth Gordon in championing Californian design as indigenous and democratic modernism as opposed to the impersonal austerity, political associations and foreignness of International Style modernism. But for me, the most enjoyable session was a panel discussion featuring graphic designer Lou Danziger, architect Ray Kappe, and designer Gere Kavanaugh who described the small and close knit California modernist community in the 1940s and 50s as one with a sense of shared commitment of “cleaning up the world of trash”. Kavanaugh further described her work with Gruen’s office, which specialized in unpopular retail and commercial design, as a cosmopolitan incubator of ideas (where a young Frank Gehry worked). The trio also made clear the major influence of Lustig, both with his teaching at Art Center in the 1940s, and as a key “connector” within the Los Angeles design scene.

Above: 1950s record covers by designers such as Saul Bass and William Claxton.
Below: Chair by Richard Neutra for the Channel Heights Housing Project for defense workers, 1941-42.

Both exhibition and symposium ended in 1965, around which time the giddy days of Californian modernism seemed to fade and American society began to change. However, as a center of the counterculture and popular environmental consciousness, California remained culturally influential in the late 1960s and 70s, as Glenn Adamson documented in his final wrap up of the symposium. For design, some of the utopian promises of the sixties counter-culture morphed into the Silicon Valley scene of the late 1970s. The latter’s legacy, beyond simply the global businesses it spawned (notably Apple and Microsoft) remains in two opposing approaches that seemed to me to be already there in the California design culture presented in the exhibition. The first is a collaborative, open environment of innovation and improvisation, now exemplified by Creative Commons, while the second is the total consumerism, control and built-in obsolescence exemplified by Apple. Today, with Apple inscribing mobile communications devices with “Designed by Apple in California” (though as Adamson noted, “crafted” by hand in China), and fashion brand American Apparel advertising their generic clothes as “Made in Downtown Los Angeles”, there is evidently still some remaining designer cache left in California.

Further resources:
The LACMA exhibition has a great free App featuring images and text from "California Design" as well as brief video interviews with designers (Apple only!).
An excellent web resource on Southern California architectural history by John Crosse, is well worth visiting.

Mar 7, 2012

Los Angeles: Downtown Deco

Los Angeles has been traditionally characterized in terms of a utopian image, at the forefront of the American dream of home and automobile ownership, or a dystopian image, with its clogged freeways, auto pollution, and fragmented series of disconnected communities. Its urban experience, described in Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies as “Autopia”, is conditioned by the inescapable reality of the road circulation system. However, in my recent trip there, I did not have a car, so experienced Downtown LA and parts of Hollywood and Santa Monica as a pedestrian but I also took advantage of the relatively efficient and cheap public buses. I was fascinated by Downtown’s many formerly glamorous Art Deco theaters and commercial buildings, an odd juxtaposition with the more recent and rather sterile corporate towers and hotels. I have included some images of these Deco buildings with brief descriptions below.

The Roxie Theater (above), completed in 1932, has obviously seen better days. This was the last of the Downtown Deco Theaters.

Although the Bradbury Building (above) was not constructed during the Art Deco era, I had to include it here as it was such an unexpected gem. Completed in 1893, this is one of Downtown’s earliest commercial buildings. Despite its modest redbrick facade, the interior atrium is spectacular, rising five stories to glass skylights above that create a light-filled void in the building’s center (two images below). Office spaces open onto this internal court, and decorative cast-iron staircases, elevators, and balcony balustrades highlight a late Victorian aesthetic ripe for contemporary steampunk recycling.

Below: Los Angeles Public Library, designed by Bertram G. Goodhue and Carelton Winslow, and completed in 1926.

Below: City Hall, completed in 1928. Originally designed as a focal point within a grander City Beautiful plan, it seems a little isolated from the rest of Downtown today, although the LA Times Building (below) is nearby. At 28 storeys, City Hall was the tallest building in Downtown LA until the early 1960s.

Los Angeles Times Building, designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann, and completed in 1935 (three interior images below). Kaufmann also had a hand in the design of the Hoover Dam, which was completed in the same year. Its exterior is a squat, stepped temple form, while the rotunda in the lobby features a large globe and murals by Hugo Ballin that depict both images of modern industry and communications, as well as pseudo-historical references to local history (the Native American, Missionary and Pony Express Rider). The detail at bottom below reminded me of futuristic automobile designs of the era by Buckminster Fuller.

Three Broadway Theaters

Orpheum Theater, designed by G. Albert Landsburgh, completed in 1911. This image from the LA Public Library collection shows the grand foyer of the Orpheum in 1932. Still operating as a theater today, their website has both contemporary and historical images of the interiors.

Los Angeles Theater (above), designed by S. Charles Lee, competed in 1931. Lee designed over 400 theaters, but this one, with a luxurious lobby inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, would last only one year before the effects of the Depression closed it.

Above: Tower Theater, designed by S. Charles Lee, completed in 1926. This image from the LA Public Library collection shows an interior shot of the Tower Theater.

Above are three images of the Eastern Columbia Building, designed by Claude Beelman, completed in 1929. It originally housed Adolph Sieroty’s two clothing stores, Eastern Outfitting and Columbia Outfitting.

Finally, the Oviatt Building. The vaguely Romanesque exterior of this 12 storey building (above), designed by local firm Walker and Eisen, is not as spectacular as the interior (images below). James Oviatt, who began in window dressing and opened his own haberdashery shop, became known as the menswear dealer and tailor to Hollywood screen stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore in the 1920s. After a trip to France in 1925 during which Oviatt visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, he was inspired to build a new store in the latest modern style. He commissioned French designer René Lalique to create glass fittings and fixtures including chandeliers, lamps, decorative panels, and display cases, for his new store. Apparently, Oviatt had thirty tons of custom-designed glass by Lalique was shipped to Los Angeles in 1928, accompanied by a French team of architects to supervise its installation. This luxurious interior served as a stage set for Oviatt’s equally luxurious clothing, while his penthouse apartment was similarly decorated with the latest fine French furniture. Historical images that depict the lobby’s former role as the entrance to a clothing store can be seen here and here.

With the exception of a few single buildings, not much remains of Victorian era Downtown, and there is little evidence of many people living in this part of Los Angeles now. The early 20th century boom can be seen with remaining examples of Beaux-Arts eclecticism, while the secondary boom of the 1920s can be seen in the many remaining Art Deco/Moderne theaters and commercial buildings. For me, the area around Broadway still evokes the Hollywood-inspired glamor and pre-Depression optimism of the 1920s. By the early 1930s, the blocks surrounding Broadway reputedly contained the highest concentration of movie theaters in the world. I presume the effects of the Depression followed by World War Two and post-war retreat to the suburbs effectively ended the glamorous era in Downtown Los Angeles, at least until the uninspiring high-rise boom of the 1970s and 80s. I will consider this aspect of Downtown in my next entry on the well known Westin Bonaventure.

All photos (except for the historic image of the Los Angeles Theater's lobby) by D.J. Huppatz.

Jul 19, 2011

The High Line

Since the opening of its first section in June 2009, the High Line has received considerable acclaim in both mainstream and specialist design media. If Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim museum spawned the “Bilbao effect” in which cities around the world sought to replicate Bilbao’s tourist and development boom by commissioning their own iconic cultural destinations, so the “High Line effect” may be underway,as American cities strive to transform derelict industrial infrastructure into new public spaces for much the same reasons (notably, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail and Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct). But from a design perspective, the High Line is an exemplary monument to contemporary design pragmatism in which design is neither simply form-making nor theoretical elaborations but a complex response to existing physical infrastructure, competing socio-political forces, and ecological concerns. The project has also refocused American design culture on new possibilities for urban space, the power of grassroots community activism, and of course, new urban projects as a means to stimulate economic development.

The elevated freight rail line that became the High Line originally ran down the west side of Manhattan. It was completed in 1934 as a means to bypass congested streets and connect the Meatpacking district and Soho manufacturing industries to the rail yards at 34th Street (see historical photographs here). With little regard for existing buildings, the great steel structure ran 30 feet above the city streets between 10th and 11th Avenues, occasionally running through the middle of warehouses so goods could be easily transferred. By the 1950s, trucking had overtaken rail as the favored means to transport freight, and the elevated line was only used sporadically until the last train ran down the line in 1980. The southern-most part of it was then demolished, leaving one and a half miles of abandoned track from Ganesvoorst Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, level with the Empire State Building. Over the next 20 years, while the hulking steel structure came to be seen as an eyesore by local residences and businesses, above, nature was reclaiming the line, as weeds in the form of grasses, wildflowers and even trees self-seeded along the tracks.

The High Line’s now mythical story began when freelance writer Josua David and business consultant Robert Hammond met in 1999 at a neighborhood meeting to discuss the potential demolition of the abandoned railway, and decided to form a non-profit dedicated to preserving the structure. Over the next few years, their non-profit group, Friends of the High Line, not only gathered community support, but also had sufficient business acumen to engage in sophisticated networking, fund-raising, and publicity that secured private funding and support from local business people and celebrities, and eventually funding from city, state, and federal governments. However, after 9/11 and the subsequent downturn in the city’s economy, the High Line project was increasingly framed as an economic development project as much as a preservation or public urbanism project (see Steen). Not coincidently, as plans for preserving the rail line were being developed, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District were rapidly changing neighborhoods. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the downtown art scene shifted its center from Soho to West Chelsea, while the Meatpacking District was fast becoming a designer destination with new fashion boutiques, cafes, and restaurants replacing the disappearing meat industry (see my 2007 entry).

A model of savvy contemporary fund-raising, advocacy and publicity, the Friends of the High Line also had a commitment to sophisticated design and imaging. Pentagram’s Paula Scher designed the Friends logo and pitch publications, and in 2000, photographer Joel Sternfeld documented the elevated railway in a series of now iconic images that captured the melancholic and quiet beauty of the green ribbon threading through the city. This was a key moment, argued Karen E. Steen, “that the High Line became a park in the minds of New Yorkers. Until then all anyone had ever seen was the corroded underside.” An open invitation for public proposals for how to transform the abandoned track into a public space was the first step in envisaging its future, followed by a more focused design competition in 2004. A notable precedent was the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a freight rail line redesigned as a public pedestrian route in 1993. Like its French precedent, the High Line was not simply an urban preservation project but a transformative one, but one that was up until this point open to possibilities as to its future functions and appearance.

The competition’s winning design team comprised landscape architect James Corner’s studio Field Operations, interdisciplinary architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and horticulturalist Piet Oudolf. Their design scheme was founded on the idea of preserving the existing “wilderness” of grasses and wildflowers that had self-generated on the tracks by simply paving around it and preserving the railway tracks. However, as much of the existing stone ballast was contaminated with asbestos, and there were drainage problems and accessibility issues, a more extensive redesign was required. The resulting scheme aimed to recreate the feel of the abandoned railway line yet transform the structure into a usable and accessible public park. This required ripping up the tracks and ballast and inserting a sophisticated drainage and irrigation system into the steel structure, then replacing the tracks and designing a concrete paving system, custom-designed wooden seating, and planting in a complex layering of grasses, shrubs and trees.

The precast concrete planking system devised by Field Operations provides a flexible underlying framework that merges into both wooden seating and planting beds (see image above). The plantings include various meadow grasses and wildflowers inspired by the wild growth that had reclaimed the tracks. Using native species in natural compositions, Oudolf created micro-ecologies along the length of the High Line, so that the walker encounters grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, all along a narrow elevated space above the New York city streets. In recreating the improvised character of nature reclaiming the abandoned railway tracks, Oudolf paid particular attention to colors, textures, and seasonal changes. The tracks were re-laid where they originally sat, and even the new custom-made furniture, including solid wooden deckchairs that run on wheels along short sections of track, looks like it might have always been there.

The design team’s leader, landscape architect James Corner is a significant theorist as well as practitioner (see also Field Operations’ massive ongoing project, Fresh Kills Park, a 2200 acre former landfill site on Staten Island). A student of ecological design guru Ian McHarg, Corner has long advocated a holistic approach to landscape architecture that emphasizes “more organizational and strategic skills than those of formal composition”, preferring to focus on performance and event spaces to scenic compositions (Corner, 1999: 160). In this sense, the High Line is less a scenic landscape than a narrative promenade punctuated with what Corner terms “episodes”. Walking the High Line is a multilayered experience which begins with a certain distancing from the city streets and subtle immersion into the micro-ecologies of the plantings. There is both an expansiveness and sense of escape from urban density as vistas of the Hudson River or along city streets open up, as well as an intimacy too, especially where the High Line tunnels through buildings or the walker becomes immersed in the tall grasses or trees and forgets the city altogether.

A key design strategy was the manipulation of duration and an emphasis on slowness, suggesting a new type of public space for a contemporary flâneur. From Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s carefully considered durational character of the stairs up to the High Line (see image above), the emphasis on a slow promenade with various diversions along the way has created a distinct urban narrative. In a rethinking architecture’s role in such urban projects, architect Elizabeth Diller stated: “One has to accept that there is more to architecture than space-making: architecture is event-making, it’s always thinking about perception, and space, use, choreography, setting up relations and so forth” (“Architecture as Dissident Practice” p.59). The elevated promenade offers a unique perspective from which to view New York, but also creates its own choreographed narrative. The “sunken square” at 10th Avenue, comprising a stepped space which culminates in a cut-out “window” above the street (see images below), is a particularly 21st century public space that at once frames the traffic along 10th Avenue for High Line flâneurs while at the same time framing them for the traffic below.

A close observer of the details of urban life and its characters, Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century Parisian flâneur lived in state of heightened present, strolling distractedly amongst the crowd. In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin’s flâneur was a particularly middle class stroller with the economic means to indulge in such slowness, an ambivalent character that Benjamin saw as both a heroic critic of capitalism and consumerism (in his refusal to shop), as well as a figure who rejected the realities of urban existence by inhabiting this dream world of distractions. Perhaps a 21st century flâneur would be an extension of these previous characters whose consciousness is now framed by digital technologies? As a 21st century space then, the High Line seems designed with a new type of flâneur in mind – it is a space for strolling, seeing, and being seen – as well as functioning as a reassuring physical space relieved of urban tension and pressure, a kind of post-industrial haven.

However, the ecological approach adopted by the designers, which combines the readymade, the natural and the artificial – industrial history, “wild” nature, and the spectacle of New York – is subtle and complex, as well as open to possibilities and transformations (it seems, for example, a perfect space for performance art, theater, or dance). Unfortunately, the popular success of the park may limit these possibilities as the High Line has aided in raising the profile of the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea as a designer destination (complementing recent buildings in the area including Gehry’s ICA building, and luxury condominiums by Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban). The High Line may thus be seen as the icing on the cake – a public park and rare strip of green space – in an area that has been attracting signature architecture and rising real estate costs over the past decade or so. There is thus some irony in a design scheme that critically intervenes and re-imagines the contemporary city only to be immediately subsumed by economic imperatives. For designers though, the High Line is a high-profile precedent that suggests numerous possibilities inherent in trans-disciplinary design projects that might repurpose existing industrial structures into the public spaces of the future.


Benjamin, Walter, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by Harry Zohn, Verso, London & New York: 1983.

Blum, Andrew, “The Long View”, Metropolis, November 2008 (on James Corner).

Corner, James, “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes”, in James Corner, ed., Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1999.

Goldberger, Paul, “Miracle Above Manhattan”, National Geographic Magazine, April 2011.

Hardy, Hugh, “The Romance of Abandonment: Industrial Parks”, Places, 17:3, 2005, pp.32-37.

“James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro: the High Line, New York, New York, USA, 2001-2009”, A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, No. 5, May 2010, pp.36-61.

Kazi, Olympia, “Architecture as a Dissident Practice: An Interview with Diller Scofidio + Renfro”, Architectural Design, Vol. 79, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2009.

McDonough, Tom, “The Crimes of the Flaneur”, October, Vol. 102, Autumn, 2002, pp. 101-122.

Molotch, Harvey and Mark Treskon, “Changing Art: SoHo, Chelsea and the Dynamic Geography of Galleries in New York City”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33:2, 2009, pp. 517-41.

Steen, Karen E., "Friends in High Places", Metropolis, December 2005.

Ulam, Alex, “Back on Track”, Landscape Architecture, Vol. 99, 2009.

All photographs by D. J. Huppatz.

May 24, 2011


Two heavyweights of contemporary lifestyle design, IKEA and MUJI, are slugging it out for control of domestic life worldwide. The objects with which they do battle are remarkably similar – functional, simple, honest, and ornament-free tools for living. However, the marketing and consumption of the two brands emphasize their essential differences through reference to widely held stereotypes of Swedish and Japanese design. Mundane objects are imbued with the humane spirit of Scandinavian modernism or the Zen-like purity and humility of traditional Japan. Nevertheless, beyond these apparent differences, IKEA and MUJI can also be seen as united in a broader struggle to discipline the middle class home through their aesthetic ordering.

IKEA's Bjursta Table and chairs on left, a MUJI table and chairs on right.

By far the older brand, IKEA began as a Swedish mail order company in 1943, and slowly began to specialize in furniture, opening its first store in 1953. MUJI began as a small line of products in the Japanese Seiyu supermarket chain, and expanded to an entire store of MUJI products in 1983. While IKEA had a few decades head start, both brands accelerated their global expansion programs through the 1990s and 2000s so that now, according to their respective websites, IKEA operates 316 stores worldwide, while MUJI operates 493 stores (although only 134 of these are outside of Japan, the remaining 359 stores are in Japan). The retail offerings of both companies could hardly be described as minimalist: IKEA’s range is currently over 12 000 products, while MUJI’s is over 7000 products. Despite this difference, IKEA continues to be solidly founded on domestic furniture, while MUJI offers a broader range of products, including clothing, food, stationary, and furniture.

Maintaining Aura

Through their emphasis on reductive forms, honest design that clearly expresses a useful function, and restrained decoration, both IKEA and MUJI continue the aesthetic and ethical ideals of 1950s “Good Design”. However, neither brand emphasizes the talents of any individual designer but instead both rely on the intangible aura of national design genius. For non-Swedish and non-Japanese consumers, traditional Japan and Sweden are constantly evoked in nostalgic, largely imaginary visions of their respective cultures. Everyday objects are veiled with the not only the authority of Swedish and Japanese design traditions, but also the values associated with progressive Swedish social democracy and the humble simplicity of pre-modern Japanese culture.

A Kuwaiti IKEA advertisement

For example, we know that IKEA was born in the cradle of honest, traditional peasant culture in Småland, founder Ingvar Kamprad’s home province in southern Sweden. The carefully designed objects retain a raw, handcrafted feel that draws upon both these Swedish roots and later Swedish modernist design. For Ursula Lindqvist, the IKEA store is a celebration of design nationalism, “a living archive in which values and traits identified as distinctively Swedish are communicated to consumers worldwide through its Nordic-identified product lines, organized walking routes, and nationalistic narrative” (Lindqvist 2009: 44). IKEA’s “total design” – from the flag to the meatballs – works to color both the experience and the products with an image of Swedish-ness, regardless of each individual store’s global location or the real origin of the products.

Just a small fraction of the MUJI range

Although considered everyday in a Japanese context, MUJI have similarly marketed products outside of Japan to correspond to a self-conscious image of “traditional Japan” and its values of simplicity, modesty, and serenity. As MUJI’s Creative Director Kazuko Koike explains in the recent promotional book: “The nature of the MUJI concept—its simplicity, an unadorned integrity, and the way a MUJI product blends into a living space without asserting itself—all of these qualities are common in traditional Japanese architectural space” (Koike et al 2010: 48). However, writer William Gibson understands this recourse to traditional Japan as essentially imaginary. MUJI, he writes, “calls up a wonderful Japan that doesn’t really exist. A Japan of the mind, where even toenail-clippers and plastic coat-hangers possess a Zen purity: functional, minimal, reasonably priced. I would very much like to visit the Japan that Muji evokes” (Gibson 2001).

Despite the nationalist discourse, the minimalist aesthetic that shapes both IKEA and MUJI products makes them appear functional, a characteristic both brands emphasize. As the overt consumerism and brand consciousness of the 1980s and 90s receded, both corporations could appeal to middle class consumers who aspired to progressive social ideals and a productive lifestyle that appeared simple, ordered, and humble. Given both brands also emphasize their low cost, there is also the suggestion of the democratic nature of quality design for the widest possible audience. In recent years, both brands have added the obligatory environmental rhetoric to their progressive social ideals. However, particularly for IKEA, the emphasis on extremely low cost products means their products are perceived to be without lasting value, “the absolute opposite of heirlooms” (Hartman 2007: 495), the ultimate disposable furniture.

Imaging MUJI products: from the MUJI website

In contrast, MUJI promotes their products as longer lasting due to their inherent qualities. MUJI’s distinction in the US was initially among connoisseurs of good design (its first appearance was in the MoMA giftshop), but it may have lost its exclusivity as the brand has become popular, reducing each products’ coveted designer appeal. In Japan, MUJI’s reputation is quite different – more like a Japanese Target or K-Mart than a designer brand – and its products might thus be considered more disposable in that context. However, MUJI’s advertisements certainly highlight the brand’s designer aura, as each product is shot individually against a neutral background, so that even a t-shirt or cup attains a rarefied aesthetic value. Interestingly, Creative Director Kazuko Koike questions the possibility of “fake” MUJI products, on the grounds that “the strong feeling you sense when holding a MUJI product in your hand does not emanate solely from its extremely simplified form. There is a philosophy reflected in all of MUJI’s products, communication, and design: a single, consistent ideology in seemingly simple and low-cost products. This cannot be copied easily” (MUJI 2010: 152). Given an indistinguishable MUJI fake would be relatively easy to manufacture, MUJI, ironically for a “non-brand”, relies heavily on advertising imagery and marketing in order to maintain its original aura.

Designing Lifestyles

The distinctive lifestyle marketing employed by both IKEA and MUJI has its roots in 1960s lifestyle brands such as Terrance Conran’s Habitat. Launched in London in 1964, Habitat framed individual products within a coherent ensemble, or “total design”, that extended from its retail stores to its advertising and catalogues. Stimulated by a desirable lifestyle rather than functional products, the “Habitat Man” of the 1960s understood consumption as a pleasurable activity rather than a rational decision-making process: “For Habitat Man the shop is not a schoolroom but a theatre, a place where fantasies are played out and identities taken on and discarded with each new set of commodities” (Hewitt 1987: 29). This theatrical framing of a desirable lifestyle within a coherent ensemble has been successfully adopted by both IKEA and MUJI, although in slightly different ways.

MUJI’s “total design” is possibly even more holistic than IKEA’s, due to a close collaboration between product, communication, and interior designers from the brand’s inception. In addition to the products, advertisements, and catalogues, MUJI’s retail stores confirm the brand’s aesthetic ideal through their raw materials, minimalist aesthetic and meticulous ordering of everyday objects. Maintaining both a distinctive, designer aura and an everyday, useful one has been the delicate balancing act of MUJI’s design team across various disciplines. As Holloway and Hones argue: “essential to the presentation and identification of the Muji brand is the existence of a set of display spaces that share a unified aesthetic, in which the border between the shop-floor space and catalogue space is relatively unmarked” (Holloway and Hones 2007: 559). Like Habitat’s designer lifestyle of the 1960s, MUJI’s lifestyle ideals are expressed in a seamless aesthetic experience.

IKEA: storage solutions and blond wood furniture

IKEA maintains a similar seamless aesthetic across its products, advertisements, and catalogues, but its retail experience diverges from MUJI’s. IKEA’s stores are not simply furniture showrooms, but have become complete destinations, including a restaurant and childcare facilities (and I know of a couple who take full advantage of this by dropping their kids off at the free childcare and then enjoying a romantic dinner sans enfants in the restaurant). While a MUJI store emphasizes the compact, organized aspect of an ordered lifestyle, IKEA’s larger stores house more expansive exhibition spaces that feature a variety of domestic tableaux populated by IKEA’s equipment for living.

MUJI: storage solutions and blond wood furniture

In Japan, MUJI have extended the lifestyle experience beyond retail stores that sell products for the domestic realm by creating a (partially) prefabricated MUJI House, MUJI campgrounds (for a MUJI vacation experience), and are currently planning a MUJI hotel. Creative Director Koike describes this latest expansion as part of a complete lifestyle education program: “I expect MUJI HOTEL to be a place that reveals the wisdom and details of living that MUJI has accumulated. One of the great purposes of the hotel is to make these details and this wisdom tangible so that people who have not noticed them yet will pay attention” (MUJI 2010: 235). Thus, with a MUJI education, people can understand that a t-shirt is not merely a t-shirt, nor a chair simply a chair: they are conduits for the communication of MUJI wisdom.

MUJI house

Designing Systems

Beyond designing lifestyles, innovative packaging, distribution systems, and organizational design have paved IKEA’s global expansion. Due to their beginnings as a mail order business, the company developed innovations such as flat packaging for transportation and warehouse storage of furniture, which in turn led to customer self-service in their retail stores, and products designed for customer assembly. MUJI meanwhile, are known for their innovative, minimal packaging of smaller products, as both products and packaging are designed to eliminate superfluous layers and materials. In the absence of additional information about this aspect of the MUJI corporation, I can only assume that their global rise has followed at least some of the innovations pioneered by IKEA.

As a global brand, IKEA has been extremely successful in sourcing low-cost materials and labor. Jérôme Barthélemy argues that this came about came about less by design than by necessity. A significant turning point was Kamprad’s decision in 1961 to source products from Poland, as costs there were 50% lower than in Sweden. But this was more of “an adaptation to market circumstances rather than an outgrowth of a formal strategic planning process” (Barthélemy 2000: 82) as IKEA were forced to outsource due to a Swedish furniture cartel who boycotted IKEA in effort to keep prices high. This also forced IKEA to start designing their own furniture, and to adapt their design processes to the globalized manufacturing requirements, which diversified over the decades that followed to ever-cheaper sources of materials and labor. Today, IKEA’s global empire depends on exploiting uneven relationships in order to deliver their low-cost designer lifestyles to middle class consumers in Europe, North America, and increasingly wealthier parts of Asia and the Middle East.

IKEA: Designing systems

At this point, the Swedish-ness noted above becomes both increasingly irrelevant from a corporate perspective, but increasingly necessary as an image that functions to erase the global processes of production and suppliers of materials and labor (Lindqvist 2009: 52). The real conditions of global capitalism are obscured by focusing attention on good design, nationalistic narratives, and vague notions of sustainability. Despite the recent rhetoric of “respect” and “responsibility” towards manufacturers in the developing world, IKEA’s ruthless price-cutting and sheer scale displaces both local retailers and manufacturers. And it is worth noting that for decades now the complex network of holding companies and associated corporations that make up IKEA (and are still controlled by the Kamprad family) are not located in Sweden, but in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, in order to avoid paying taxes in Sweden.

Unfortunately, I have been able to find out very little about MUJI’s organization, production or distribution systems other than the facts that they do source materials globally, at least some of their products (particularly the clothing) are manufactured in China, and the corporation is still Japanese based and owned. I can only assume that their global expansion over the past two decades might be structured on the same uneven relationships as the IKEA model outlined above. Like IKEA, MUJI promote their products as “sustainable”, but I have found it impossible to follow where their materials are sourced, or where and under what conditions their products are manufactured. For both brands, the image of a sustainable corporation and the image of sustainable products are ultimately more important than the realities of production and consumption.

A soundtrack for your lifestyle by MUJI Rhythm

This emphasis on image is crucial to both IKEA and MUJI, and is certainly important in suppressing further thought about the origins of their products and the purpose of their designer experiences. The systems and processes at work behind the scenes remain obscured by the disciplining action of aesthetic ordering. Despite their differences, IKEA and MUJI are founded on images of an ideal life of unified perfection, a coherent lifestyle aesthetic that functions to allay contemporary middle class anxieties surrounding order, cleanliness, and purity. The bland, globalized good design of IKEA and MUJI also highlights a disturbing distain for excess, exuberance and vitality, and functions to repress local culture, history, and individual creativity.


Barthélemy, Jérôme, “The Experimental Roots of Revolutionary Vision”, MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2000.

Flat Pack Accounting, The Economist, May 11, 2006.

Gibson, William, “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls”, The Observer, Sunday 1 April 2001.

Hartman, Tod, “On the Ikeaization of France”, Public Culture, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2007.

Hewitt, John, “Good Design in the Market Place: The Rise of Habitat Man”, The Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 10. No. 2, 1987.

Holloway, Julian, and Sheila Hones, “Muji, Materiality, and Mundane Geographies”, Environment and Planning, Volume 39, 2007.

Koike, Kazuko, Naoto Fukasawa, Kenya Hara, and Takashi Sugimoto, MUJI, New York: Rizzoli, 2010.

Lindqvist, Ursula, “The Cultural Archive of the IKEA Store”, Space and Culture, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2009.

The Local: Sweden’s News in English, “Kamprad pledges Ikea 'transparency'”, 18 May 2011.