Simple, streamlined, and “just enough”—the economical aesthetics of Japanese retailer Muji and influential product designer Naoto Fukasawa pair perfectly. Since 2002, Fukasawa has been a product designer and advisory board member at Muji (the company's name is short for Mujirushi Ryohin, or “no-brand, quality goods”). So in celebration of the soon-to-open Muji store in Palo Alto, California, Fukasawa paid a visit to the Bay Area to present a talk on “Objective Thinking.” Judging by the sold-out crowd of more than 500 attendees, Fukasawa’s friendly minimalism has garnered him guru status among Silicon Valley designers. We sat down with Fukasawa ahead of the event to discuss his intuitive design philosophy.
Interior Design: Your designs often evoke existing products and behavior patterns. For example, the wall-mounted CD player that you designed for MUJI in 1999 (which is now part of MoMA's design collection) recalled elements of a kitchen fan with its intuitive on/off pull cord and visibly whirring disc. When thinking about a new product, where do you look for inspiration?
Naoto Fukasawa: When a client asks me to design something new, I ask them which product sells the best. Which product do people use a lot? That is a great hint for me, because they already have some sort of good harmony between the product and the human there, so I should incorporate this design source into the new thing. But I don’t design anything that is completely new. Rather, I’m more interested in redesigning the good things. When someone says to me, “I have seen this kind of thing, but I cannot find it,” that is a great compliment. You feel like it already existed, but it did not.
ID: Memory seems to play a large role in your designs—both in evoking existing memories and creating new ones.
NF: In design, memory is not memory of the mind, but rather memory of the body, or active memory. The body is always interacting with the environment, even when you’re thinking about something else. People easily forget these moments, because they’re not really conscious of them. [For example,] I’m focused on this interview, but my hand is a little wet from this water bottle. People easily forget these moments, because they’re not really conscious of them. If you’re confronted with an ugly, uncomfortable water bottle, you immediately lose your focus and think, Oh, that’s not really great. But if a product is well designed, your body will already know how to use it. The design will dissolve into the behavior. That allows you to focus your mind on something else, and at the same time your body feels very good. When I observe someone who is enjoying a product I designed, even I know she is thinking about other things. But it’s not necessary to me that she consciously think, “This is great.” I don’t need that. The design should be anonymous.
ID: The JUICEPEEL, or “Juice Skin,” packaging you designed for the 2004 Haptic exhibition in Tokyo used the color and texture of fruit skin to telegraph the contents of the different juice boxes. Our world is filled with shiny, slick surfaces, but texture seems to be an important part of your work.
NF: Texture is very important because life is a surface. So life is texture. Even when you’re not touching something with your hands, your eyes are open to touch every surface as a texture. I sometimes have a very strange question for people: “Do you know the taste of the wall?” They have not eaten the wall, but they can know the taste. Why? You’ve already analyzed it from your experience through looking or touching.
Texture should be honest and humble. Particularly at Muji, you have to use the exact texture—the original form and color—of the material. But texture is not always honest. For example, for a long time, people used metallic paint on the PC. But that is plastic, not metal. So that is a kind of fake texture. But then Apple started to use aluminum. That is very honest, very true. People really appreciated that honesty, so that’s why they are willing to pay so much to buy those kinds of computers.
ID: You’ve designed a number of appliances, including a rice cooker, toaster, and water kettle for Muji. How do you discover what feels natural to the human body when designing electronic products?
NF: When I design electronic products, I think about the distance between the wall and the human body. If you make a TV thinner, that means you’re going towards the wall side. But, for example, the home telephone disappeared because it’s going towards the body. Our environment is becoming very clear. Less and less exists in the space in between. But we still need to think about the coffee pot. We still need to have bottles, umbrellas, and other things within technology. So where should the coffee pot be in between these camps? It’s sometimes near the wall or tables and it’s sometimes near the human hand. We need to think about what is the most appropriate position between those two locations. I begin with that initial thought.
And then I think about shape. I should not only make a cool shape, very square, just because it’s cool. People use their hands with a coffee pot, so it has to be a little bit organic. It shouldn’t be just another box. When I design things, I think suitable, or appropriate. Or rather, I ask myself what is the inevitable position to start designing from?
What design challenges are you excited about tackling in the future?
I’m not trying to challenge anything. I see the world as still incomplete. From a designer’s point of view, it’s not beautiful enough yet. You might look out the window, and think “Oh, that’s not so bad,” but then you see something and think, “Eh, ugly.” Our job is to solve that problem. We still need to cleanup all of the detail. So my challenge is not to develop some new technology. My challenge is to edit our lifestyle for the better.