by Miryam Muller in

Muji has always approached product design with tremendous self-restraint, but after last year’s devastating earthquake in Tōhoku, the Japanese retailer had a moment of introspection and vowed to streamline its products even more. The company challenged its craftspeople to slash the materials and energy used in each item by 20%. The results--including narrower toilet paper, shortened Q-tips, and a single lid that fits five different-sized pots--were featured in a recent exhibit at the Design Museum in London.

Some of the designs here are truly innovative. There’s a sofa that’s baked in a mold (”just like a Madeleine,” Muji says) instead of made by injecting polyurethane foam into a sofa form--the traditional, and decidedly more wasteful, method. There’s a face lotion that’s 90% water, cutting back on unnecessary ingredients. And the bottle it comes in is so thin, it scrunches up like a plastic bag when drained.

Some of the other designs are certainly poetic, but you wonder if they’ll work. A hole at the tip of an umbrella handle is designed to fit a little name tag, so people can always identify their own umbrella in a bucket of similar umbrellas. The idea is that making it more personally identifiable makes it more personally valuable--and thus less likely to be thrown away. Elsewhere, narrow toilet paper is intended to reduce all the unused stuff that usually just gets wadded up. Would that just encourage people to use more?

Still, it’s rewarding to see a company that has built an empire on “less is more” take pains to push itself further. Here’s hoping some of the products find their way to the shelves.