Muji, the minimalism-celebrating Japanese variety store where you can buy everything from pots and pans to toothbrushes to underpants, has unveiled a commercially available prefab home specifically designed to squeeze into the cramped, nowhere-to-go-but-up cityscape of Tokyo.

This isn’t the first time that this beloved purveyor of “no brand” wares with a growing North American presence (Muji is my preferred pick-up spot for pens, notepads and on-clearance winter scarves and gloves) has followed in the footsteps of Sears, Roebuck & Co. (circa 1910 to 1940) by offering ready-to-assemble kit homes.

Muji first branched out into modular housing several years back and has since collaborated on prefab home designs with acclaimed Japanese architects including Kengo Kuma and Pritzker Prize-winning fellow waste-hater, Shigeru Ban.

You could think of Muji’s expansion from home goods into entire homes as an architectural version of a big-deal fashion designer releasing a one-off collection of frocks for Target. Or, if you’re familiar with big Japanese retailers with stateside presences, you could view Muji prefab homes as being like the latest limited-edition designer T-shirt collection for Uniqlo. Except this is a product that you live in instead of wash on cold.

Muji vertical house

While past Muji prefabs have indeed been lovely — and only available in Japan — the retailer’s newest offering, Vertical House, is the first to directly address the dearth of horizontal space in densely populated Japanese cities where available lots are diminutive and the market for previously owned homes is virtually non-existent.

Measuring just under 15-feet across, Vertical House has nowhere to go but up and, by its very nature as a kit home, embraces the — unsustainable, economically and environmentally — Japanese culture of disposal homes. (The average lifespan of a house in Japan before being razed and replaced is about 30 years). After all, it makes a bit more sense to bid adieu to a home after a couple of decades (or less) if it was purchased from the same place where you buy your aromatherapy candles and socks.

Instead of pouring a ton of time, money and energy into a unique, custom-designed house that will be demolished within a span of a few years, Muji-branded prefabs allow homeowners to go an altogether cheaper route by purchasing their next house from a homegrown retailer that they trust. Sure, their digs may have a few doppelgangers in the neighborhood but that doesn’t matter as much when the price — Quartz reports that Vertical House will set dedicated Muji shoppers back about $180,000 — and the design is so right.

Muji vertical house

Muji vertical house

Unlike past Muji prefabs, there doesn’t appear to be a notable Japanese architect attached to Vertical House — perhaps it was designed in-house. Svelte and sleek, the three-story split-level residence is completely free of interior doors, partitions and walls. A nightmare for privacy-seeking teenagers, yes, but fantastic in terms of freeing up available space and creating an open floor plan with a very pared-down ambiance.

That being said, Vertical House very much abides by the simple yet chic design aesthetic that Muji is renowned for: clean lines, no loud colors, functionality over fussiness and an emphasis on quality and affordability.

Explains Muji’s U.S. website:

MUJI’s concept of emphasizing the intrinsic appeal of an object through rationalization and 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.
And can we take a minute to appreciate this (Muji product-filled) closet organization?

closet in Muji vertical house

Muji vertical house

In addition to simplicity — generic-chic, if you will — Muji has long triumphed environmental sustainability. A complete lack of extraneous packaging and a massive selection of recycled content paper products are two things that a first-time Muji shopper might notice when walking into a store.

Lloyd Alter at sister site TreeHugger attempted to decipher a rough Google translation from the Japanese-only Muji Vertical House website and found that Vertical House is designed to be very energy-efficient with high levels of insulation and plenty of natural daylighting.

Of course, prefabricated home building is inherently less wasteful and offers a higher degree of efficiency than stick-built construction. And while the very fact that Vertical House and other Muji prefab offerings will probably be demolished after a decade or two is cringe-y, it’s all a bit easier to-swallow than the prevailing predilection in Japan for super-ephemeral stick-built homes.

First established in 1980 as an “antithesis to the habits of consumer society at that time,” Muji maintains nearly 300 retail stores in Japan (some are huge) along with numerous locations across Asia and Europe. The retailer has found a particularly fervent following in Paris. While North American Muji outposts have been popping up in and around New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco over the past few years, Canada will be getting its first next month with the opening of a store in Toronto.

Is there a home-centric retailer that you’d like to see sell prefab homes? IKEA? Pottery Barn? West Elm? HomeGoods? (My head hurts just thinking about that last one). 

Via [Quartz], [ArchDaily] via [TreeHugger]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.