Kenji Ekuan invented the soy bottle that pours from either side.

That was 20 years and 200 million bottles ago. Ekuan, president of the GK Industrial Design Associates in Tokyo, is a round man with a beard. He shakes hands as well as bows.

He is one of 2,000 industrial designers from 37 countries attending Worldesign 85, a week-long meeting of people who shape the world, at the Sheraton Washington.

Ekuan aspires to be a philosopher. Instead of soy sauce bottles, his exhibit "Cosmic Carousel: The Eternal Challenge of Human Creation" includes a landscape model, a Buddhist shrine, a rampant motorcycle and a glowing plastic human form in a glass coffin mounted on four large bicycle (rickshaw?) wheels.

In conversation, Ekuan worries about Japanese children who "discommunicate" with their parents. "Lack of material goods during the war and after . . . Now only believe in material things . . . We want to make equal the soul and material world . . . The airplane has two wings . . . Material world without spiritual world is like one-wing airplane."

Pressed, he comes down to earth on the problems of design.

He explains, with some digressions for translations, the reason for the great Japanese success in world trade: the great number of Japanese researchers sent abroad by the government and private corporations.

"If people want to sell to other cultures, they should learn about their customers. If America wants to sell to Japan, they should send people not for a week but five or 10 years, to live not downtown, but in the neighborhoods so they could understand Japanese house, kitchen.

"Japanese love to make something. It is the mission of Japanese to make something. They would make things even if no one bought them. Perhaps it is the mission of America to research science instead of making things."

"Lots of evidence shows people do a great deal of work when they are not officially at work," notes Niels Diffrient, designer of a chair that's a major hit of the Worldesign exhibit. The chair, with as many arms as Siva, allows a person to use a computer, write, read or contemplate in a pose similar to that of a Roman at a banquet.

Diffrient calls it his "Jefferson Lounge Chair/Table" after the one the former president designed for his study. Jefferson's had candle stands tacked on to each side, as well as a table with a reading rack and an ottoman. Diffrient's has all of the above, improved: Each critical part reclines, swings backward and forward, and goes up and down.

"The chair aims to break down the Judeo-Christian attitude that you must suffer to work. The appearance of rest is just a disguise. When you are comfortable, your stress level goes down, your blood pressure is lower. You can spend your time working instead of being uncomfortable."

Diffrient, who lives in Connecticut, cites Winston Churchill as a man who dictated all his letters from bed. "And later in the day, he wrote standing up.

"Sitting upright is worse than athletics in the damage it does to the body. Humans weren't designed for sitting. We don't have the muscular ability."

Diffrient advocates furniture that "fits like a suit of clothes. When a man goes into a department store, he doesn't expect to buy a suit or shoes which would fit anyone else. So why should anybody expect a chair which fits a 6-foot-7-inch man to fit a 4-foot-10-inch woman?"

To this end, Diffrient's office furniture adjusts to fit both. The table top goes up and down, to fit with the chair and its adjustable seat, back and arms. "And you don't need a man and a boy to make the adjustments. We're an advanced civilization, we need to work in a better way."

As for design, Diffrient thinks, "If it feels good, it looks good."

Out of Emilio Ambasz's inside coat pocket comes a pen with a flexible middle and a top you can't lose because it won't come off. The clip is designed not to tear shirts. It's basic black to blend into the lining-scape. "I had it put together by a toolmaker. I'll test it for two years. I have to be sure that it won't break in the middle and it does what I think it will. Then, I'll take it to a manufacturer, show it works, say it costs 6 cents to make and license it to them."

Ambasz, an Argentina-born architect, is truly a world, or better, a universal, designer: a diesel engine for Cummins Engine Co.; the Logotec spotlight, a German track-lighting system; the Vertebra chair, which adjusts automatically without levers or buttons; the San Antonio Botanical Conservatory, with earth-insulated plant containers ("Texas has enclaves of people with the highest fortune and taste"); an underground tree grove for the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain; earth-bermed (sheltered) buildings, including laboratory buildings in Austin and a house in Cordoba, Spain, with a meditation tower enclosing a waterfall; and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York.

He's former curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art, where he introduced America to the jazzy Italian design of 1972 in "Italy: The Domestic Landscape." "Italian design then influenced everyone to be freer, more open, colorful. Now Italian design is slightly tired, but they make objects with a tremendous quality of detail, well built, refined, supremely exquisite in workmanship."

Massimo and Letta Vignelli design Xerox packaging, books about Philip Johnson and South African women artists, a new "handkerchief" chair for stacking auditorium seating, Italian marble tables and Japanese Sasaki china, among other things. Massimo Vignelli says, "Thank God Post-Modern is gone. Acceleration is so fast today that if you bank on a design, you're out. We're still tied to fashion. The impact made by Post-Modern is deep, part of the pluralism which began in the mid '70s and still is rampant. It's given us a much wider vocabulary of ornament. Now we need to learn how to use it, not by duplicating reality but interpreting it."

Jeffrey J. Osborne, Knoll International's vice president of design, believes Harry Bertoia's stacking wire Diamond Chair is the greatest design of the mid-20th century. Osborne says current design has been held back by "the lack of new materials. But we have new forms coming to be made of titanium, a space material."

The orginator of Mind Maps/Brain Patterns, Tony Buzan of England, explored the "New Dimensions of Creativity" in three sessions during the conference. At the first, he asked for the best ideas for the nonuse of paper clips. From the audience, he chose these: A paper clip is not used as a wrist watch, to repair a balloon, to fly to the moon, for sex. He was immediately challenged by his audience, which claimed to know ways paper clips could be used for all those things.

Margaret Thatcher, according to Emilio Ambrasz, once was hard to persuade that design, not price, is the major factor in world sales. Yet the British government received Worldesign's top award this week.

Deane Richardson, Worldesign chairman, said that in 1944, the British government made design part of its industrial policy and established the Design Council as its vehicle. In January 1982, she convened a conference of designers and business leaders. "Mrs. Thatcher's initiative has given birth to a wide range of new activities."

Those activities, Richardson said, include design education in schools, and incentives for manufacturers to use design consultants.

IDEA85 awards went to: the FACPAC computer disc storage system by W. Robert Worrell; Brigade Firefighter Helmet by Alex Bally; the showroom for Artemide at Dallas World Trade Center by Vignelli Associates; Ethospace office work stations by Bill Stumpf and Jack Kelley for Herman Miller; BGM Blood Gas Analyser by Gianfranco Zaccai for Instrumentation Laboratory Spa, Milan; Metaphor work station by Mike Nuttall and Jim Yurchenco; BASF/STP antifreeze bottle by Gerstman+Myers; Visulite and Visulex Directories and Polysign Fiberlas by Ronald Cobb, Charles Lollis and Elyse Reeves; Nexus Brailler by Peter C.F. Wung, and an Articulated Musical Instrument, by Syracuse University student David FitzGerald.

Worldesign was sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America with the International Council.