On Aug. 6, 1945, a 16-year-old Japanese naval academy student named Kenji Ekuan was on a train headed to see his parents in Hiroshima. He watched as an atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” was dropped on the city. More than 100,000 people were killed. Streets were wiped clean. Past signs of life such as street cars and bicycles became a mere memory — and, to him years later, an inspiration for design.
“After the atomic bomb, everything become nothing,” he said in 2009 in a TV documentary series called “Designer People.” “So there I am standing in the burned city looking down at my house, but nothing. I was so shaken, and I decided to connect to the material things because for a long time, human beings have connected with material things. I thought to myself, ‘We need something to bring back the material things to human life.’”
The Japanese designer died over the weekend at age 85, leaving behind six decades of iconic work: a well-known Yamaha motorcycle, a bullet train and the red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle — a household necessity and art object now sitting in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Paola Antonelli, senior director of architecture and design at MOMA, explained the bottle’s significance to NPR. It works “perfectly,” she said. “You’ve never found a clogged spout. This beautiful, sensible and extremely graceful design is at the same time ancient and extremely contemporary.”
The inspiration for Ekuan’s art was born of a terrible war and the work that went into rebuilding his country.
At World War II’s violent end, Ekuan lost his little sister in the blast. His father, a Buddhist priest, died a year later from radiation exposure. For a short time, Ekuan followed his father, training as a monk at a temple in Kyoto. But his eyes were elsewhere — U.S. military jeeps, soldiers’ uniforms, cultures and traditions different from his own. He called it a “moving exhibition,” according to the New York Times.
U.S. forces set up a cultural education center in Hiroshima to help the Japanese understand Americans.
“It was a fantastic place. Like a swan in a very dirty wrecked place,” he told the Japan Times in 2001. “I remember this elegant smiling woman, wearing lipstick, and nylon stockings and high heels, showing me a book of American design. I even remember the title: ‘Never Leave Well Enough Alone.’”
His passion for art turned into a calling.
“Some friends decided to commit themselves to the land, others to trade; we all had to find a way forward,” he told the newspaper. “Mine was to design good things to make people’s lives better.”
“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.”
Ekuan started studying the popular American newspaper cartoon “Blondie” to learn about the country’s culture and style. He enrolled in the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and graduated in 1955. Two years later, he graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and founded a design studio called GK Industrial Design Associates, which later became known as GK Design Group.
“For the next few years, my dreams were about connecting with the material world through industrial design,” he told the Japan Times.
Ekuan became a star. Even those who never knew his name most certainly knew his work.
He kicked off his design career in 1961 when he created a small soy sauce dispenser for Kikkoman. He said he wanted to make something that would reminded him of childhood, when his mother would pour salty soy sauce from a large half-gallon jug into a small bottle on the dinner table, according to the Japan Times.
He went through more than 100 versions over three years before arriving at the final piece: a glass, teardrop-shaped bottle with a red, plastic cap.
“For me, it represents not the new Japan, but the real Japan,” he said, according to the New York Times. “The shape is so gentle. Of course, during the war, we were forced into acting differently. But for a long time, some 1,000 years, the history of the Japanese people was very gentle.”
“Soy sauce was really important for the identity of Japan after the second World War,” MOMA’s Antonelli told NPR. “It was a way to recover an international profile.” It was originally sold in “really big bottles. Kenji was put in charge to package it in a way that could be understood and exported to the whole world.”
In his book, he said the wooden box divided into four compartments — each one containing a different delicacy — provides a deeper understanding of Japanese civilization.
“Design to me has always meant making people happy,” told the Japan Times in 2001. “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.”
Ekua’s design company said in a statement Monday that he died of “sick sinus syndrome” on Saturday at a Tokyo hospital. Other reports cited heart problems.
“Just like a man is born, become old, ill and dies. Even in a factory, things are born and then they have very useful years and then finally, die,” he said in 2010. “It’s all the same.”
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