Our daily life is supported by many single-purpose products. The bed is for sleeping, the table is for eating or writing, and the couch or chairs are for sitting. Most major products have been improving/optimizing their designs to better serve their purpose, aesthetically and functionally – spending hundreds of years on this. For example, beds or chairs have huge impacts on your health and well-being – it really matters whether you have a carefully designed one that fits your body. Such products tend to become larger, not smaller, and often are signature furniture in your room.
However, single-purpose products can become a headache, when we live in a limited space, or when we want to choose tiny living, in a tiny house, or want to go minimal and start decluttering. No matter how beautifully each product is designed, we need to own the number of products that match the number of activities we would like to conduct.
If we were to reduce the number of items we own, we’d need to increase the number of multi-functional, versatile products. It seems that is the only way to do “more,” while owning “less.” If that’s the case, would it help to own products loaded with more functions? Should we choose multi-purpose products with a lot of adjustable options?
How should we define versatility?
MUJI, a brand that offers simple products that are designed with great sensitivity, has a pretty concrete answer as to what constitutes a versatile product.
Make it an empty vessel.
Instead of adding more functionalities or more capabilities, MUJI subtracts possible additions very carefully, until essential elements are revealed. It may sound counter-intuitive: MUJI offers products with “less,” so as users can do “more” with it?
Take a look at Oak Bench, that comes in minimalist W45xD30xH44cm, with a very simple structure.
You must be wondering why there is no picture of someone actually sitting on the bench. It’s true. This should rather be a temporary bench when you have extra guests, or when you want to have a coffee outside for five minutes – because it’s so narrow.
But actually, that narrowness is the beauty of this product.
MUJI’s Oak Bench is part of the project called “Found MUJI.” “Found MUJI” sends MUJI staff to many parts of the world to re-discover ordinary products used by local people for a long, long time. Through history (you could call it field feasibility studies), those products have surrendered unnecessary details, one by one, to achieve ultimate simple. By now these products have so completely dissolved into people’s daily lives, that some products have lost their name. MUJI re-discovered those beautifully anonymous products and gave them a new life, so they can fit into our modern way of living.
Oak bench is inspired by an old Chinese bench, which is used pretty much everywhere, by Chinese people. Because it’s so small and light, People casually bring it outside to chat or play games with friends/neighbors. When I showed a picture of the original Chinese bench to one of my friends from China, she said: “Yes, I know this. We use them a lot! But you know what, I don’t know how it’s called.”
So, this is a tote bench, if you will. It’s designed so you can take it with you anywhere you want. And you don’t really sit on it; you perch on it. If you can perch on it, so can many other items. Because perching is a lot more casual, temporary and easy, this product can help bring small changes in your life, very easily, casually and temporarily. And this temporariness brings agility and liveliness in your room, which cannot be brought by larger, “permanent” furniture.
MUJI brings in versatility by making products an empty vessel.
With Oak bench, the area for you to place your buttocks on is reduced to a minimum. But of course, it still functions as a bench. That reduction brought the bench the capacity to fit in any small space to support your activities. It can be your coffee table, book shelf, vase stand, pen stand, or even a playground for toy cats – without compromising on aesthetics. Because you can lift it with one hand, you can bring it anywhere in your house and experiment new applications.
MUJI tells you that you don’t have to pre-decide what additional functions you should require for a product, in order to reduce the number of items you own. Rather than focusing on additions, you could actually think through what subtraction you could make from a product. Oak bench is an example of what you can get by subtracting sitting area from a chair. By being bold and “sacrificing” the core value of a product, Oak bench became a buoyant and agile vehicle for many items, including humans. You then realize that comfort of sitting is not always required; you can do away with it when you only need to perch, especially if the benefits of doing so outweighs the comfort.
“Empty vessel” is designed being very cognitive and sensitive about the environment that the product would be used for. It is a product of “less” that lets you do “more.”
“Emptiness” used by MUJI originates from the Japanese word “空 (Ku),” which is called “Zero” in our project. Find more on “Zero.”