“When we say that ‘the scales fall from the eyes,’ we mean that we are freed from our preconceptions and are able to feel anew the reality of this world,” Kenya Hara writes in the foreword to his book Ex-formation (Lars Müller Publishers), a compilation of research projects completed by students taking his course at Japan’s Musashino Art University between 2003 to 2014. The volume attempts to highlight how little we don’t know (and in turn, reveal how to gain an individual kind of understanding), a concept the Japanese designer uses in his work as an educator, writer, curator, and maker. Currently the art director at Muji—where he helps shape the brand’s image, philosophy, and graphic design work as it expands worldwide—Hara was in New York last week to give a lecture, titled “Muji Reborn,” on the occasion of Muji’s 10th anniversary in the U.S. We sat down with Hara, whose compact build and husky voice recalls that of a very wise teddy bear, before his talk to discuss why he took a job at the Japanese retailer, the concept of emptiness, and the power of design.
Your work underscores the design of objects as well as experiences. Growing up, did you aspire to do something in the arts?
When I was a boy, I lived on the western side of Japan. I did Japanese sword martial arts, and painting, all through high school, but I never imagined I’d get into the field of art—I was interested in creating a TV program. When I was in my second year of high school, the art teacher asked me about going to university. That suggestion stimulated my interest in getting into the field of art.
I entered the department of Science of Design at Japan’s Musashino Art University. In that department, there was a fantastic professor, Shutaro Mukai, who had studied at the Ulm School of Design in Germany. I was very impressed by him. I spent six years in the department of Science of Design, and graduated with a master’s degree there. After that, I still didn’t think I would become a designer. Design is a very important concept, but the term “designer” sounded too commercial for me.
For one year after graduating, I was the assistant to Eiko Ishioka, a famous Japanese artist and costume designer. Her work is quite different from normal commercial design. I was very impressed with her, and that experience changed my mind [about design]. She challenged me to think about the type of approach that creates fantastic work.
After that you entered the Nippon Design Center, a firm founded in 1959 with the aim of improving the quality of advertising design in Japan. You’re now its president, and in 2002, became the art director at Muji. What spurred you to take on that role?
I’m not so good at creating stimulating advertising, actually. My thinking isn’t centered around giving something a commercial aspect. Instead, I am always asking, “What kind of circumstance should humanity create?” That is my focus. In 2002, Ikko Tanaka, the famous art director who helped found the whole concept of Muji, called me. He wanted to pass the baton to me. I was very surprised. Why? He is a very great famous designer, and had a fantastic assistant already. Why wouldn’t he pass the baton to him?
I was interested in the direction and vision of Muji. At the time, it had already succeeded in Japan and had more than 500 stores there. Every consumer in the country respected the brand. But when I thought about the global Muji, how I might help it spread worldwide, I thought perhaps that’s where I could make a mark.
[At my lecture] tonight, I am going to talk about the concept of “emptiness.” Emptiness is a concept I use days to explain the basic philosophy of Muji. Muji’s products look very minimal. Minimalism is very similar to the Western concept of simplicity. But there is a difference between simplicity and emptiness.
Where does the concept of “emptiness” come from?
The origin of Japanese design was founded in the fifteenth century—long before Modernism, as a movement, began. If you think about the country of Japan and tilt it ninety degrees, the Japanese archipelago is at the base. It acts like the bottom funnel of a pinball machine, with many balls falling into it from the top. And Japan collects so many different cultural nuggets from all over the world—not only China but also India and Russia.
The world’s culture did not begin with simplicity, though. It began with flamboyant decorations and color. In China, India, Russia, Eurasia, Europe, kings saw this as a way to show great power. So everything was highly decorated.
During the middle of the fifteenth century, a big civil war consumed Kyoto, lasting more than ten years. Kyoto was destroyed, and Japanese culture was reset at that time. So the flamboyance popular before [the war] was largely obliterated. Today’s Japanese architecture, gardens, and interior design were born out of that time. The guiding philosophy was emptiness.
An empty space is a kind of creative receptacle that carried the potential to create a very fantastic image. Japanese Zen gardens are very empty. The only things there are white sand and small stones. But this empty space [sparks] imagination in the people who visit; they have a conversation with themselves within the empty space. [To foster imagination—] that is most important point of emptiness. Muji’s concept is based on this philosophy.
What are the challenges of explaining that concept to other cultures?
Culture is only dependent on its locality. If we expand our local culture to a global context, then the global culture becomes more rich. The Japanese concept of emptiness is very easily understood by people all over the world. When they have more chances to visually experience emptiness, they can use that philosophy in all areas of their lives.
What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
Design is not [only] a special technique to make forms and shapes and images. It also awakens people. That’s a very important power of design.
Every part of our existence is already designed—the shape of toilet paper, for example. The human being likes square [things] . The lion and the hippopotamus, perhaps, do not like square [things]. So why does the human? He creates a square building, square rooms, square furniture, square laptop, square stamps. Why is the world is designed so square? I think gravity and the position of the two eyes, which are parallel with our two hands, is the reason. The world has been and continues to be designed with a square. Once we’re aware of that, the world begins to look strange. And from that very small point, the mind starts to change—it awakens.