Pioneer of Modern Japanese ID Passes

Design World Mourns the Loss of Kenji Ekuan, I/IDSA

Feb 11 2015 - 10:47am

Kenji Ekuan, I/IDSA, considered one of the pioneers of modern Japanese industrial design, has died at the age of 85. His office reports Ekuan died Feb. 8 at a Tokyo hospital from "sick sinus syndrome," a collection of heart rhythm disorders.

Ekuan perhaps was best known for designing the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce bottle in 1961. The teardrop-shaped bottle with a red plastic, anti-drip top is still made today. One is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

"Kenji was an inspirational and aspirational designer," says Charles Austen Angell, chair of IDSA's Board of Directors and CEO and creative dirctor of Modern Edge. "He viewed good design as being composed of both the beautiful simplicity of everyday life, and the far reaching goals for a modern society. This was the power of his work."

"Kenji's greatest happiness was found in making others happy," says John Barratt, the IDSA Board's chair-elect and TEAGUE president and CEO. "He brought pleasure and purpose to everyday lives though his work. He was truly special and will be missed."

"Kenji was the most interesting design personality I ever met," recalls Carroll Gantz, FIDSA, and design historian. "He was warm and friendly to everyone and had a high sense of humor, with an aura of greatness and wisdom about him."

Ekuan was born in Tokyo in 1929. He lost his sister and father when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. He studied to become a monk to follow his father’s calling, but later revealed that the devastation caused by the bomb motivated him to become a "creator of things."

Budd Steinhiber, FIDSA, remembers Ekuan's humbleness; how easily he connected with people and his sense of the simple joy of life. "In his demeanor there was not a trace or sense of celebrity or ego," says Steinhiber, a design consultant based in Hawaii. "He once said 'think of function through the approach of beauty.' Words to live by."

When the Japanese surrendered, Ekuan left the Buddhist temple. He went on to earn degrees from Tokyo's National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA in 1957. Then he returned to Japan, established and became president of GK Industrial Design Associates.

Ekuan designed Yamaha motorcycles; the Narita Express train; and the bullet train connecting Tokyo to northern Japan. In 1975, he was elected president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. In 2000, he received The Order of the Rising Sun, one of the highest recognitions awarded by the Japanese government.

In a 2002 issue of IDSA’s INNOVATION magazine, Ekuan authored “The Challenge.” “World situations have revealed that economic gaps on a regional scale are far greater…. Designers must contribute to filling this gap through professional wisdom…. We should challenge designers to solve human problems beyond the conventional professional wisdom.”

Ekuan also served as chair of the Japan Institute of Design; dean of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture; and trustee of the Art Center College of Design.

His office has announced a private funderal is being held by family and relatives, while a "formal funeral with the ceremony bidding farewell" to Ekuan is planned on March 17 in Tokyo.

Ekuan's legacy is making world headlines. Read more at:

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

Washington Post

National Public Radio


The Huffington Post

Daily Mail

Fox Business News

The Japan Times

Chicago Tribune