Remembering the Japanese designer who was compelled to create something beautiful after seeing Hiroshima's devastation

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. Today, we remember a legendary industrial designer from Japan. Kenji Ekuan was once described as a “grandmaster of seeing” and sadly he’s passed away at the age of 85. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’re probably familiar with Tokyo’s bullet trains, which he designed. If you’ve never been there, I bet you’ve seen something else Kenji Ekuan designed--those Kikkoman soy sauce bottles and their signature red cap. Mark Breitenberg is at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He had a chance to meet Ekuan in Tokyo a few years ago.


Mark Breitenberg: We went to the top floor of the Mori tower in Tokyo, and it was very much like climbing the top of the mountain to see a guru. Kenji would be waiting for you and you’d sit there and drink sake, and he really wanted to hear your thoughts on the international aspect of design. He was very involved in a kind of international design aesthetic and in the importance of designers from all over the world speaking to each other and learning from each other. He was, by that point, very much a kind of sage of design and we were all thrilled to be able to make that pilgrimage.


Werman: What was his idea for the famous bullet train in Japan, just in terms of design? Because it seems a pretty straightforward mission: “You’re about to design the fastest train in the world. Make it aerodynamic and it’ll look fast”? Was it more complicated?


Breitenberg: Not a lot more, I don’t think. There was a kind of elegance that he wanted out of that and I think he wanted it to have an international vernacular. Japan was still emerging, or at least a few decades after the war, and I think he wanted it to have an aesthetic that would speak to the rest of the world and inspire them--again, that same kind of internationalism.


Werman: Did he share with you his story of how he became interested in design? Because I gather from reading his biography, his early life did not seem to be heading in the direction of design.


Breitenberg: He did on a couple of occasions and it’s such a moving story. He told me that he was a young boy, he was 10 or 11, and he was wandering through the devastation of Hiroshima and he just looked at it and it was black and charred, and he told me he had this extraordinary deep desire to create and see beauty again from the ruins that he was seeing as a boy. I can remember that it was so eloquent and poetic, and so moving to hear that story, and that’s what happened. He became one of the key architects of Japan’s industrial recovery through design and he inspired many others to follow that path.


Werman: I read that he wanted to be a monk, or maybe even did become for awhile, a buddhist monk. Is that right?


Breitenberg: He did, and he was monk-like in many ways. I remember we had a meeting of ICSID, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, which he was the president of, in Santiago, Chile. We all met there and he had this sort of sweetness and kindness, this real twinkle in his eye that seemed almost monkish, almost transcendent of the world, especially later in his life. He would sit there and watch us when we were drinking and dancing, and he was in his wheelchair at that point, but he just had a liveliness of mind and a sense of calm and peace that really was monk-like in the end.


Werman: I think about his design for the famous Kikkoman soy sauce bottle with that red cap. That’s very zen in its simplicity. You have a basic bottle, a vessel with a skinny neck and that red cap. So visible. Did he ever tell you where that design came from and just how those simple details became so iconic?


Breitenberg: I don’t remember hearing about the origins of it, but there was certainly a simplicity of design that he wanted. He wanted a design, as I mentioned, that really was international in its ability to translate, and beauty. That’s what came out of Hiroshima. The train is just like that, and so are the Yamaha motorcycles in a way. They’re just absolutely beautiful artifacts, and that was really important to Kenji.


Werman: Just in terms of his own legacy as it resides with you, what is the lesson of design that Kenji Ekuan taught you that will always be how you’ll remember him?


Breitenberg: I think it was the simplicity and beauty of objects. Obviously their functionality is critical and important, but Kenji just wanted a sort of cleanliness. He was of a generation with figures like Dieter Rams in Germany from Braun Design that really wanted this clean elegance, and I think you see that actually very, very influential still today. The iPhone, for example--Jonathan Ive is inspired by Dieter Rams; many of Kenji’s clean lines I think you see shaping designers today. So, there’s a kind of modernist aesthetic that is, if anything, becoming more widespread today than in the last 20 years. It’s had a kind of return. But his influence on me was just the way he carried himself and this kind of happiness and a sort of zen-like peacefulness. I didn’t know him as the executive or the CEO of GK Design. I knew him as a kind of international design figure and he just had a wonderful spirit about him that I’ll never forget.


Werman: Mark Breitenberg at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena telling us about the late Japanese designer, Kenji Ekuan. Thanks Mark, great to meet you.


Breitenberg: Thank you Marco, you too.