From Soy Sauce To Bullet Trains: Famed Japanese Designer Dies At 85

February 9, 2015

As with many elite industrial designers, you know his work even if you don’t know his name. Decades after Kenji Ekuan created Kikkoman’s iconic soy sauce bottles with their red caps, he designed Japan’s Komachi bullet train, in a career driven by a desire to make good design accessible to everyone.

Ekuan died Sunday in Tokyo at age 85; Japanese news outlets say he had suffered from a heart disorder.

A native of Hiroshima, Ekuan was 17 when the city was hit by an atomic bomb toward the end of World War II. In the blast, he lost his sister and father, who was a Buddhist priest. He later said the devastation motivated him to start building things.

“Faced with brutal nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for something to touch, something to look at,” he told Japanese broadcaster NHK. “The existence of tangible things is important. It’s evidence that we’re here as human beings.”

The designer created his most ubiquitous product in 1961: a flask-shaped and leak-resistant soy sauce dispenser that is now used around the world. In 2003, his “sublime execution” of chairs for Japan Airlines helped win him recognition from the Raymond Loewy Foundation.

From Agence France-Presse:

“Ekuan, who was also a Buddhist monk, was credited with numerous corporate logos during Japan’s industrial boom era, as well as creating the look of Yamaha’s VMAX motorcycles and the Narita Express train that ferries passengers to and from Tokyo’s main international gateway.”

Ekuan founded what would become the GK Design Group in 1957. In 1970, he became president of the Japan Industrial Designers’ Association. Five years later, he was elected president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

Despite his lofty achievements, Ekuan remained focused on items that were both basic and essential, from tools to Japan’s bento lunchboxes.

Explaining his ideas to Japan Times in 2001, Ekuan said, “Design to me has always meant making people happy. Happy in the sense of creating items that provide comfort, convenience, function, aesthetics and ethics. I used to do a lot of research, fieldwork, wanting to understand the psychology of human needs and response.”

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