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.


NewTiggerPiggie said...

Hi Daniel,

Just found out u had a blog, should share it with the class instead.

Jaa Ven

Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Just. Utterly. Brilliant. Thank you for this!

Nigel Alcorn said...

Really great insights here on two companies I really appreciate.

However I can't say I agree with your final statement about IKEA and MUJI's presence, that they "repress local culture, history, and individual creativity." What other options are there? Of course we all want to fill our lives with locally produced and sourced, culture and history rich things and experiences, but that is a reality that exists only in small portions. Compared to their alternatives, I think the simple, anti-luxury designs offered by IKEA and MUJI are gems amidst the trend driven dishonestly designed goods that populate the majority of our consumer world.

Thank you for this article though, as an industrial design student, it was a real pleasure to read.

rich said...

great post. thanks :)

Unknown said...

I've just discovered your blog and wanted to thank you for this articulate and considered posts. I am currently living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, so your piece on Myrtle Ave struck numerous chords with me.
As for this post, I don't know if you read Lauren Collins' fascinating story on IKEA in The New Yorker last year, but if you haven't I am sure it would interest you.
I will add your blog to my Reader and look forward to future posts.
Best wishes,