Zen by Design: How One Spiritual Idea Informs Brands From Muji to Apple

Simplicity — in the particular sense that we’re going to be talking about — has deep roots in traditional Japanese culture, especially related to Zen Buddhism. Yet it has also become an essential aspect of contemporary life, both in the East and West, whether its tweeting in a max of 140 characters, creating a logo, or developing some cool, new hi-tech product.

Think, for example, how ornate buildings were a hundred or or two hundred years ago, compared to the streamlined towers of the modern city. (All the gargoyles, stonework filigree, and so on.) Or how ornate restaurants or stores used to be compared to the more chic among them today (some of them are more like museums… have you visited Barneys lately?).


“Less is More”

The phrase “less is more” comes from the 1855 poem “Andrea del Sarto” by Robert Browning. It was later adopted by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was known for his minimalist glass and steel designs.

By the 1990s it had become a cliche. Yet, a decade later virtually no one in design dared to invoke the phrase. Perhaps it was because no one wanted to be seen using a cliche. Or perhaps it was because, by that point, it had become ingrained in the thinking of the design world and just didn’t need to be said. Minimalism lives on through brands such as Apple and Muji (and less successfully through all of those corporations that seek to emulate them — and that’s a lot).

Nevertheless, it’s a different sort of minimalism that inhabits the world of Muji and Apple, than the one that inhabited that of de Rohe and the better-known Bauhaus school of design, with its blocky, boxy, hard-angled aesthetic. Encapsulating the aesthetic, the Bauhaus logo itself was a graphic of human face in profile, comprised of lines of varying thickness and a square for the eye. Whatever it was, it wasn’t warm.

Though I personally like Bauhaus’s style, it conveys the idea that man is merging, and has to submerge himself, into the industrial. Like 1960s “Sci Fi,” with its image of people eating meals of nothing more than a few super-powered vitamin tablets and cityscapes of bland block concrete — a world that has surrendered to the utilitarian — it is utterly at odds with the contemporary world, with its rediscovery of spirituality, Eastern culture, and the simple, warm, rustic, worn aesthetic.

Isamu Noguchi, Muji, Apple:

The simplicity that underlies Apple, Muji, and so on, is warmer, more human than earlier Western, industrial minimalism. It transcends the individual by hinting at an escape the hustle and bustle, or, more especially, by providing something that seems to have been designed by a mind that is unaffected by it. Its simplicity is the smoothness of pebbles (perhaps those used in a Zen garden), the color of milk and metal, with the roundedness (e.g., at the corners) that comes from the ocean smoothing a piece of broken glass into a gem-like stone over hundreds of years.

This isn’t really surprising when we look at Jobs’s early life.

Dropping out of college, Jobs went of the “Hippie trail” to India where he studied Buddhism. On his return to America, Jobs pursued this interest, especially in relation to Zen.

Les Kaye, Abbot of Kannon DO Center, who knew Jobs at that time was interviewed for a documentary about the founder of Apple and described “his genius” as “being able to take the principles of Zen and incorporate it into the products that came out of Apple.”

If Abbot Kaye is correct — and I believe he is — what we see in Apple is nothing less than a contemporary embodiment of Zen in some of the world’s most modern product design. It is that that gives it its uniqueness and appeal.

In regard to design, the earliest influence of Zen in America is found in the work of sculptor and industrial designer Isamu Noguchi. You may not know the name, but you’ve probably seen products inspired by his work, not least of all the peculiarly Japanese paper lampshades, which became popular a few years back.

Noguchi lived in Japan until he was just thirteen, when his family moved to the state of Indiana in the USA. He later studied pre-medicine at Columbia University, and took evening sculpture classes under Onorio Ruotolo in New York.

His work is perhaps somewhat disjointed, and seems to show, at different periods, the influence of modern artists such as Picasso, as well as the Bauhaus school of design, and Zen Buddhism. These influences appear in his product design, such as the glass table, and the more Zen-like paper lampshades.

Noguchi, like Apple, uses simple lines, with the designed object devoid of decoration, so as not to detract from the overall shape.

In Japan, the aesthetic emerged into modern consumer culture with Muji, which, at times, worked with industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa. Describing the aesthetics of Muji, a “bargain priced” but very stylish brand (which now has outlets in Britain and the USA as well), Masaaki Kanai tells us that its “meticulous elimination of excess is closely connected to the traditionally Japanese aesthetic of ‘su‘ — meaning plain or unadorned — the idea that simplicity is not merely modest or frugal, but could possibly be more appealing than luxury.”

More appealing because it transcends current ideas, including about what is and what is not luxury. It returns us to the timeless through simplicity.

The aesthetic of Apple, Muji, and Noguchi is based not on going half way. Simplicity takes work. Most especially, it requires more consideration than design where lots of things are going on. If your product is basically a simple shape, then that shape has to be beautiful, appealing, ergonomic.

Transformative Power:

The aesthetics of simplicity is essentially transformative. It opens up the imagination, particularly to the idea of vastness, greatness, and the transcendental. The economy of shape and line, and color, of the iMac or iPod or iPhone, or the almost plain Muji furniture, seems to evoke a wholly different, more organized and yet more spiritual lifestyle — one that focusses on the essence. The aesthetic evokes, in a sense, the idea of life as ritual, which is to say the idea that daily life can be profound and meaningful in doing even mundane things. Because there is something higher and that cannot be articulated through words and images, but only through their absence.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


One Reply to “Zen by Design: How One Spiritual Idea Informs Brands From Muji to Apple”

  1. Namaste

    While there is no question that the Zen aesthetic has been borrowed in the design of Apple products, and the products of other companies, I have to disagree that this mere fact belies any sort of spirituality or sense of transcendence within the companies who manufacture and market them, or even in the minds of the designers themselves. It is marketing, plain and simple; and, in this case, “plain and simple” carries a double sense, in that it literally is the marketing of the plain and simple. But there is far more to Zen Buddhism than aesthetic simplicity and curvilinear design. Frankly, Steve Jobs embodied nothing of the Buddhist philosophy. He did, instead, what much of the “human potential movement” of the 1970s did (partly giving birth to the hedonism and narcissism of the 1980s): he took the techniques of a spiritual methodology and applied them toward material and frankly egoic ends. A technique can be applied any which way; the brute fact of the technique’s presence does not mean that it is being used as its originators intended. Chogyam Trungpa’s masterful book “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” cuts to the heart of the matter by pointing out that the ego can and will make even the greatest tools of liberation into more chains that bind.

    With sincere respect, I admire the designs of Apple and Muji (among others), yet that very admiration makes them somewhat repulsive the very moment I stop to observe that response and determine why they are attractive to me. Simply put, they play off of the same passions as Sony or Microsoft or Tide or NBC prime time comedies, only they tend to make those who use them feel superior for having made the hip, “simple” aesthetic choice. Just as those who “do yoga” have adapted it into a marketable lifestyle with expensive brand-name “equipment”, it is thus an illusion of simplicity which does not permit us to transcend “the machine”, but in fact serves to remove the conscious awareness of our submergence.

    I by no means am trying to say that nobody should buy or use Apple products if those are what really do what the person needs or wants them to do, but I do see a danger in applying spiritual values to luxury objects.

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