Mention "Muji" to most Americans, and you'll get a blank look. Not from everyone, of course: a few will remember the brand from William Gibson's deliriously excellent Pattern Recognition, and those who have lived in Asia or Europe may nod wistfully, a look of dreamy longing in their eyes. Muji is a Japanese store which sells a variety of goods, from clothing to CD players to housewares, all under the philosophy of the company's full name: Mujirushi Ryhohin, "no brand, good product" (we posted about Muji back in December of 2003). While not explicitly a "sustainable design" outlet, Muji emphasizes simplicity, recycling and the avoidance of waste in its production and packaging. People who shop at Muji often become somewhat fanatical in their devotion.
Muji is now applying its design philosophy to housing (Japanese page; rough English translation here). This strikes me as an interesting early indicator of something potentially big. What happens to the world of architecture when industrial designers, more accustomed to imagining new forms for coffee makers and laptops, turn their attention to the design of living spaces? After all, dwellings are just another kind of cultural artifact. What new insights might emerge?
Calton Bolick, an American on a long-term stay in Japan, wrote about discovering the new Muji demo home on a trip to Yurakucho:
As fellow expats from the San Francisco Bay Area, we both recognized the basic structure as essentially a loft (not new concept in the US, maybe, but new here) designed to fit Japanese-sized house lots and Muji shelving/furniture dimensions. It has an open atrium with the second level wrapped around it with floor-to-ceiling windows lighting up the main room. This model home had a kitchen centered around a stainless-steel island with an induction-heating range and ceiling hood: positively gigantic by Japanese standards and continent-sized in comparison to the pathetic kitchen arrangement inside my place. The upstairs had no interior walls, so you'd need curtains or shelving units to maintain some privacy, but nevertheless I was hooked.
The cost is certainly reasonable: the base price is about ¥16 million (about $152,000 US), and with fixtures about ¥19 million (about $185,000 US). Of course, I'd need the land to put it on, but I kind of wonder if I couldn't buy the whole enchilada, pack it into a shipping container, and send it back to the US to be assembled there. And fill it with Muji furniture! And Muji appliances!.
See what I mean about those who shop at Muji? I've only been to Muji a few times, and I felt something of that same longing. Bolick's post gives a few more details, and includes some photos taken at the demo unit.
The Muji "Infill" home doesn't stray too far from recognizable dwelling designs. This isn't all that surprising; a radical departure from traditional home design might not be the best first step, and Muji is more focused on making products simple than making them different. Still, this does feel like a distant early warning of a new trend. What would a Jonathan Ive-designed house feel like? Or one from Dominic Muren? This might also be a Viridian point of entry for wider application of LEED standards to residences: if the industrial designers turned architects adopt sustainable plans from the outset for their stylish ideas, the standards themselves have a good shot at catching some reflected cool. It's certainly a possibility -- I'll be watching this one closely.
One of the fun things when dealing with Japanese architecture is their flexible way in measuring things. If you try to find out the size of this plan, it says that it's 5 by 3 1/2 "ma", or the length of a tatami mat.
This page has all the variations of their plan, and if you download the PDF files of those plans, you discover that one "ma" = 1.82 meters.
I also like how they group the kitchen, bath, and toilet together and call them "function units". Most people are used to thinking of living space having these "function units", but places like dormitories, hotels, senior assisted living spaces, hostels, B&Bs, etc, tend to separate out these things and make them part of shared space. It's helpful to think this way because these "function units" tend to add considerable cost compared to open living space without plumbing, and also take up a good amount of space.
If anyone's interested, this is the sort of logic I am applying with a real estate project we're developing here in the Twin Cities. It's a different way of approaching the challenges of sustainability.