Kenji Ekuan, designer of bullet trains and soy sauce bottle, dies aged 85

Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan, whose works include a bullet train and the red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, has died at the age of 85.

The Komachi bullet train

Source: Hikosaemon

The Komachi bullet train

Ekuan is known for the ubiquitous soy sauce bottle, which has sold millions around the world. His other works include the Yamaha VMAX motorcycle, the Komachi bullet train connecting Tokyo and northern Japan and the Narita Express train.

He was known for his motto “design is a source of life-enhancement” and has been hailed as the “founding father of Japanese industrial design”.

Ekuan was born in 1929 in Tokyo and initially followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming a monk at the Hiroshima Temple.

He witnessed the horrors of the aftermath of the World War Two atomic bombing of the city. After the war he trained as a designer, graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955.

In 1957 Ekuan founded consultancy GK Industrial Design Associates, where he would remain for the rest of his life, serving as president and later chairman.

Seymourpowell co-founder Dick Powell says: “GK Design was Japan’s leading independent design consultancy for many years – a major achievement in an industrial culture which never really embraced the European model of thriving independent design businesses.

GK created many seminal products (perhaps most famously, the soya sauce bottle) and worked extensively in transportation: anyone who has flown to Tokyo will have travelled on GK’s Narita Express.

But, for me, Ekuan’s greatest achievement was the lifelong relationship GK had with Yamaha Motors – for many years, GK was effectively Yamaha’s in-house design team, creating hundreds of new models of bikes, outboards and much else besides … and yet it remained an independent business. Kenji Ekuan was the founding father of Japanese industrial design.

The Kikkoman soy sauce bottle

Source: Kiersten Chou

The Kikkoman soy sauce bottle

Ekuan’s design for the Kikkoman sauce bottle was created in 1961 and has been in use ever since. It features the instantly recognisable red plastic top and is in the collections of both MoMA in New York and Design Zentrum Nordrhein-Westfalen.

PriestmanGoode co-founder Paul Priestman says: “Few industrial designers have found their way into so many millions of households across the globe. But from Mexico to Shanghai, Ekuan’s Kikkoman soy sauce bottle is instantly recognisable and embodies simple, elegant, intelligent design.”

Ekuan received a number of awards and honours throughout his career, including the Sir Misha Black Medal in 1995 and the Order of the Rising Sun in Japan in 2000.

Priestman says: “The world has lost a true luminary, but Ekuan’s legacy lives on not only in his products but in the work he did to promote the importance of design in the democratisation of goods. As the designer of a few trains myself, I’ve also always admired his designs for the Komachi bullet train, a perfect mix of form and function.”

Tangerine chief executive Martin Darbyshire says: “Kenji Ekuan was an enchanting person who cared deeply about the role of design and the impact it could have on peoples’ lives. Even though he founded and developed a very successful design agency, that created some truly iconic work, he was always humble, genuinely interested in the opinions of others, and gently encouraging of one to adopt a philosophical perspective. A true master and one of a kind.”

Ekuan died in Tokyo on 7 February of a heart problem, his consultancy is reported to have said.

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