From Monk to Master Designer
Born in 1929, Kenji Ekuan began life on a path far removed from the design. His training as a Buddhist monk would have, in ordinary circumstances, led him down a very different path. However, destiny had other plans, and Ekuan, with his versatile mind, would become a founding member of GK Design, an internationally celebrated Japanese consultancy (Ekuan, 1998).
Building a Design Legacy
Ekuan’s creative portfolio is as diverse as it is pioneering, including the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, Yamaha motorcycles, the Narita NEX express train, and the Akita bullet train. He’s often hailed as a critical pioneer of industrial design in Japan, seamlessly blending traditional aesthetics with modern design concepts and contributing thought-provoking commentary on the roles objects play in everyday life (Ekuan, 1971; Ekuan, 1986).
GK Design and the ‘Group Koike’
A graduate of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Ekuan trained under the influential teacher Iwataro Koike alongside fellow students Shinji Iwasaki, Kenichi Shibata, and Haratsugu Ito. This group would later form the core of GK Design, aptly named the ‘Group Koike’. Ekuan’s abilities to foster industry relationships and secure pivotal roles in various design organisations played a significant part in the company’s success (Ekuan, 1980).
Accolades and Associations
Ekuan’s contributions to design were widely recognized both in Japan and internationally. He served as the president of the Japan Industrial Designers Association in 1960 and was elected to the presidency of ICSID (the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) in 1976. His accolades include the prestigious biennial Osaka International Design Award in 1987 and the Compasso d’Oro Award for lifetime achievement in design in 2014, among many others (Ekuan, 1998).
Philosophy in Design
Unusually for a designer, Ekuan brought a deeply philosophical approach to his work, a likely influence from his early training as a Buddhist priest. His reflections on the interplay between traditional Japanese values and contemporary design practices, especially the spiritual aspect of material products, are evident in his writings. His essays, such as ‘Smallness as an Idea’ (1984) and ‘The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox’ (1998), provide profound insights into this interrelationship (Ekuan, 1984; Ekuan, 1998).
A Lasting Legacy
Kenji Ekuan passed away in 2015, leaving a rich legacy in Japanese industrial design that continues to influence designers worldwide. Through his revolutionary designs and insightful writings, Ekuan has shaped not just the landscape of Japanese design but the global understanding of how design can seamlessly merge tradition and modernity.
Ekuan, K. (1971). Industrial Design: The World of Dogu, its Origins, its Future.
Ekuan, K. (1980). The Philosophy of Tools.
Ekuan, K. (1984). Smallness as an Idea.
Ekuan, K. (1986). The Buddhist Altar and the Automobile.
Ekuan, K. (1998). The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox.
Woodham, J. (2021). A Dictionary of Modern Design (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.