Muji is one of the few brands we can universally agree has the right mindset in terms of their convictions on what good design should be. They stand for sustainable, humble products that are also affordable - all things we should strive to create. Muji is shortened from their full brand name, 無印良品 (Mujirushi Ryōhin) which stands for “No Brand Quality Goods”. This is why the company refuses to put branding or logos on their products - an incredible feat of restraint in the capitalist society we live in.
There is one thing about Muji that bothers me though. They emphasize avoidance of waste and the conservation of nature but many of their products simply come off as being cheap and disposable. It’s probably because their brand promise of providing affordable products contradicts with longevity. Sustainability is a complicated problem to solve but it’s an undisputedly good thing to use things you own for as long as possible. To make this happen, we must build well made products that their owners will truly love. Over 70% of all Porsches ever built are still on the road today and though a sports car isn’t the best example of sustainability, we should study what makes these machines so endearing.
If you’re a regular consumer of rice and have ever tried to buy a rice cooker, you know how difficult it is to find one with an inoffensive design. Everything, and I mean it - everything - in the market is utter trash. There’s plenty of functionally brilliant machines out there but they’re universally hideous. Take a look at Zojirushi's or even worse, Cuckoo’s offerings and it'll be hard to restrain from vomitting. This led me to importing a Muji rice cooker from Japan. Before we go on though, it’s worth covering the cooking methodologies used in automated rice cookers:
First are conventional rice cookers. They’re the simplest and therefore the cheapest models you can find. Equipped with a simple thermostat, it simply brings the rice/water to boiling point using a heating plate and then shuts off.
Micom (stands for micro-computerized) rice cookers use the same method of cooking as conventional models but gains a computer chip to control the cooking cycle more intelligently. It makes cooking different kinds of rice possible and allows the cooker to know exactly when all of the water has boiled off.
Induction rice cookers retain all of the functionality of a Micom rice cooker but instead use induction as the method of cooking. Magnetic coils are used to pass current into the cooking pan, allowing a constant temperature to be given throughout the rice. This enables even distribution and instant changes in heat.
Pressure rice cookers are typically considered the ultimate in rice cookers. By using pressure, rice is cooked more quickly, at a higher temperature. This results in softer rice that maintains its softness for longer. A softer rice also means easier digestion, if you’re concerned about that type of thing.
So here it is, the Muji’s rice cooker. Being the epitome of minimalism and democratic design, Muji has opted for the simple and economical Micom solution. As industrial design fans may have noticed, this is the model designed by the legendary Naoto Fukasawa in 2002.
The cooking pan isn’t class leading by design but seems to distribute heat reasonably well and has a convenient Teflon coating. Remember this when you go shopping for rice cookers: even distribution of heat is critical.
Like most rice cookers, Muji’s defaults to a clock view. I don’t speak Japanese so I’ve had to memorize what all of the buttons do. Once you’ve set things up, all you really need is the red (start) button though. The Micom chip allows you to cook in the following modes: rice, rinse-free rice, high speed, congee, bread, cake, boiled egg, and tofu. All I ever use is the rice mode.
In typical Muji fashion, the rice cooker is completely made from PP, or polypropylene, one of the cheapest plastics available. The material choice isn’t helping the rice cooker come off as being well-made but Muji has made off-white PP as their design language, making it almost acceptable here. I’m more concerned about the unrefined steep draft angles and sink marks on the plastic. Muji is certainly cutting corners to keep prices low.
Next to my Muji humidifier. The shiny off-white plastic design language really apparent here.
The control panel is made using the old-school membrane method. The resulting wavy surfaces and mushy button feel aren’t ideal.
The bottom of the unit. Only the rear two feet are rubberized. Notice the unsightly protrusion out back to prevent tipping.
The lid opens using a simple plastic latch.
The lid is spring loaded and opens automatically to 90° once the latch has been released.
At the back are some regulatory markings and a convenient retractable power cord.
The Muji rice cooker is without a doubt, a dull looking and feeling product at first glance. But Naoto Fukasawa’s interaction and dialog with a product always results in a raised sense of awareness for the product. He notices things that many designers would overlook. In the case of this product, it’s the act of serving rice from a rice cooker. When you serve rice, you hold the bowl with one hand a scoop rice with the other. The problem arrives after serving the rice. Where do you put your spatula? In Japanese culture, it would be rude to simply place it on the counter.
This is why the top of the Muji rice cooker has a raised bump; it’s a place to put your spatula after use.
If small problems indicated by discontinuity in a behaviour are resolved, then everything runs smoothly once again.
- Naoto Fukasawa
The spatula rest is a perfect example of Fukasawa’s humanity and warmhearted nature towards design. The rice cooker’s form is the result of the user and their interaction with objects.
It’s a product that has a sense of accommodation and respect. In a world of flashy objects, it’s immensely refined, almost Buddhist to design a product that’s aware of more than just itself.
I usually mix a few types of rice to eat a little bit healthier. I’m currently cooking white rice with some short-grain and sweet brown rice mixed in. Like with pasta, most people over cook their rice and ruin their flavor and texture. Properly cooked short grain rice should be moist and glutinous but every grain should be intact and independent - rice should be cooked al dente.
I’ll be honest though, I actually prefer my rice slightly on the undercooked side, or molto al dente, to use another Italian reference. This is where the Muji’s Micom setup becomes perfect for my tastes. I used to use a pressure rice cooker and found the rice to always come out overcooked. This Muji does the perfect job for me, especially since I end up mixing grains that take longer to cook than white rice. The simple Micom settings don’t accommodate for multi-grain cooking, resulting in slight undercooking - or perfect cooking in my perspective.
Because rice cookers are so appalling in design, this is probably the only one I would buy, which is why I did exactly that. This isn’t the most advanced or functional choice you could go for, but it makes up for those things in a sense of quiet charm. I’m actually writing this after a few months of ownership and Muji recently launched a newer model (the new lineup of Muji electronics looks fantastic by the way) that utilizes the same spatula rest. It has a beautiful marshmallow-like shape and has more resolved details that makes it a huge improvement from mine. Buyer’s remorse is present but I’m lying to myself by saying that the original will always be more valuable.