Muji wants you to not want them.
That might seem an odd tack for a lifestyle brand, but it's written right into their promotional materials. "Muji's goal is to give customers a rational satisfaction," reads the company manifesto, published on signs around the store's recently opened downtown Portland location, "expressed not with, 'This is what I really want' but with 'This will do.'" Originating in Japan in the 1980s, Muji, whose name is shortened from a phrase translating to "brandless quality goods," made their mark with products—from clothes to kitchenware, stationery to skin care—streamlined into purposeful near-anonymity.
"Simplicity and emptiness yield the ultimate universality," the mission statement continues, "embracing the feelings and thoughts of all people."
Highfalutin? Possibly. But you can't argue with the results. Since its founding in 1980, Muji has spread internationally, finally arriving in Portland, in the old Meier & Frank Building, last month. It's the retailer's second-biggest American store and the first designed with the location in mind—that means a lot of distressed wood, a coffee bar featuring rotating local roasters and an "art wall" containing discarded childhood mementos donated by actual customers. With the holidays approaching, at least one Twitter user commented the place is more crowded than the former Macy's ever looked.
Understanding the Muji philosophy, though, is easier than describing what the hell Muji is in a literal sense. A super-zen Target? A Kitchen Kaboodle and Bed, Bath & Beyond that coupled up after meeting at a meditation retreat? On a recent visit, one customer could be overheard describing it as a three-way between IKEA, Storables and Urban Outfitters.
All those descriptions fit to one degree or another. But still, the question remains: What can you get here that you can't get somewhere else? So we browsed the aisles in search of the five most unique—and aesthetically pleasing—items we could find.
Taking pride in any particular item over another would seem to go against the Muji ethos, but if there's anything the company appears to want to get in front of customers, it's their line of aromatherapy products. They're the first thing you see as you walk through the Southwest 5th Avenue entrance, presented at their own kiosk, with their own clerk, the essential oils displayed like scents at a perfume counter. Functionally, the diffuser is like a humidifier crossed with a smoke machine—a glowing polypropylene marshmallow roughly the size of a clock radio that emits a thin cloud of floral mist from a slit in the top and disperses it throughout the room via "ultrasonic waves." (There's a smaller, candle-shaped iteration as well.) Scents include citrus, grapefruit and Oregon-specific flavors like cedarwood, and they're all lovely and subtle. It's a pricier setup than, say, a Glade PlugIn, but even if you call bullshit on the purported therapeutic benefits, it'll do a much better job of covering up the smell of cats and loneliness in your apartment.
It's just about the tweest thing in the store, but no one actually needs a wall clock to tell time anymore, so you might as well aim for cuteness. Like a lot of Muji products, it's simplistic to the point of looking unfinished—just the vague shape of a birdhouse, with a tiny, hand-carved bird that pops out to coo every half-hour. But the main selling point are the sounds the little guy makes, which are produced naturally via an air-pressure system rather than an electronic recording, which means it's a few percentage points less likely to drive you insane.
A T-shirt is shaped like a human torso, and pants look like a person's bottom half. But have you ever noticed that the average pair of socks doesn't really resemble feet? Most are knit at a 120-degree angle, and unless you walk through life perpetually en pointe, that's not how most of us stand. Muji—or rather, a Czech grandmother, according to their press materials—has fixed this discrepancy by making socks angled in a more natural L shape. Beyond sheer anatomical correctness, the company claims the design allows them to fit more snugly around the heel and reduce bunching up top. Hey, whatever persuades more dudes to stop wearing open-toe sandals is good by me.
Hasami Rice Bowl
The housewares section of Muji is full of precious things you probably don't need but could easily get tempted into buying simply for the aesthetic value, like a wooden chopstick rest or upright toothbrush holder, both of which cost around $6. But the dishware is uniformly beautiful, particularly that made in the traditional Hasami style. The dishes are porcelain, with simple yet elegant striped designs, and fairly inexpensive. You'll for sure get more use out of them than a chopstick rest.
Hexagonal Gel Pen Set
Yes, it's just a set of 10 multicolored pens, but seeing them neatly arranged in their clear hexagonal tube produces an odd sense of satisfaction and calm. You can test drive the pens in the store's prodigious stationery section, where sample notebooks are made available for public doodling—on one, someone sketched Fred Flintstone with 6ix9ine-style face tattoos. Your favorite restroom-stall artist could never.
SHOP: Muji, 621 SW 5th Ave., muji.com/us. 10 am-8 pm Monday-Saturday, 11 am-6 pm Sunday.