Q&A with MUJI Art Director Kenya Hara

If any contemporary designer embodies the stark but somehow perfect use of space and form that characterizes a certain branch of Japanese aesthetics, Kenya Hara is the man. His work ranges from graphic and product design to branding and event direction. Aside from heading up the Hara Design Institute, he’s artistic director for retail giant MUJI. Recently, he also ventured into the realm of architecture as director of the House Vision exhibition in Tokyo. We stopped by Hara’s office at the Nippon Design Center in Tokyo to meet the man behind this expansive body of work. Dressed in head-to-toe black, with round glasses perched on his nose and a spiky topping of white hair, Hara gave the impression of a rather serious teddy bear. Here’s what he had to say about the future of urban planning, what he wants from a house, and just how many MUJI products he buys.
kenya hara portrait

Photo by: Jun Li

On what kind of house is easiest to live in
“I don’t really think about things like ‘is it comfortable?’ ‘How big is it?’ ‘What’s the fridge like?’ I think about whether or not the space will give me energy and encouragement.”

On how his home makes him genki
“The process of designing the house is what gives me energy. The house I live in right now is an old apartment that I bought and remodeled. I thought about a lot of things at that time. I made a tiny little office with tatami mats, and I’ve found that I can write and concentrate well in that space. But it’s not that I’m permanently satisfied with it. The thing about a house is that you can re-do it over and over, and each time is a chance to reflect on yourself.”

On the future of urban planning
“From here on out, I don’t think cities are going to change from top-down planning done by architects or officials. I think they’re going to change as a result of people designing their own homes, making small choices about their entryway or their kitchen faucet or their lighting. It becomes a process of imagining your life, not trying to make things look cool.”

On the best way to use MUJI products
“I have MUJI stuff in my home, but I couldn’t handle all MUJI. I’m 54 years old. I have certain things that I like. MUJI is good for filling in the spaces between those more distinctive objects. We’re not out on the market waving our hand in the air like some other brands – we’re a much quieter brand. The fact that the products don’t have a strong personality is what makes them able to fit in anywhere.”

On MUJI’s line of prefab houses
“Like the company’s other products, the houses can become the background for anyone’s life. We put out a book of photographs of people living in MUJI houses. Their creativity in terms of how they were using the space went way beyond what I could have imagined. I think the universality of the design brings out the individuality of each person.”

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