Top industrial designer to lecture on lunchboxes

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The ninth-floor room in Tokyo’s Mejiro where Kenji Ekuan receives guests is a perfect reflection of his personality. One wall is stacked with diplomas, photos and portraits, all neatly framed but in no particular order. Opposite, floor-to-ceiling glass shelving is crammed with memorabilia and knickknacks — a collector’s dream, a cleaner’s nightmare.

On the coffee table is a too-small satin top hat that, with elflike good humor, he balances on his head. “It was a gift earlier this year in Finland. It came with an honorary doctorate from Helsinki’s University of Art and Design. I’m told it’s traditional, but in electric blue?”

In the corner is a glass coffin containing a life-size dummy on large chrome wheels that do not touch the ground. When switched on, the wheels turn, colored lights pulsate and the figure (based on Ekuan) is illuminated from within. “It’s what I call my ‘soulmobile.’ ” He made it 20 years ago, inscribing the sides in Japanese and English with his own spiritual musings.

It is no surprise that Ekuan can bring so many technical and creative accomplishments to bear on a single act of creation. Japan’s top industrial designer is chairman of GK Design Associates, the largest design consultant office in the country, with 250 employees. He is also the first chairman of Design for the World, an international organization utilizing design for humanity based in Barcelona.

When the College Women’s Association of Japan began organizing its 35th Annual Lecture Series for late this month and early next, under the title “Line in Japanese Arts,” he was an obvious choice as one of six guest speakers. He accepted without hesitation because the theme was so interesting, he acknowledged, choosing not to admit to his excellent English before establishing my own pathetic Japanese. (Ah, the games of protocol . . .)

Experts from Japan and abroad will either present an overview or talk specifically about line in architecture, painting and calligraphy. But Ekuan has chosen to speak on the aesthetics of line in relation to the Japanese lunchbox. Why? Because everyone knows it. The “makunouchi” bento box is square, comfortable and familiar, offering limitless possibilities for design within a limited space. “I seek to re-evaluate the contradiction that life is limited but design unlimited.”

The makunouchi (meaning “between curtains” and deriving from kabuki) may have developed in relation to the tea ceremony, but was popularized by merchants in the early Edo period. Merchants were below farmers in social ranking, but affluent. Being easy to carry, lunchboxes became a medium for expressing ideas — the cultivation of a sense of beauty and proportion. It is no accident that a well-prepared lunchbox looks like a painting. And explains why mothers spend so much time and energy on their preparation: Often it is the one way they can express their individuality and creativity.

Kenji Ekuan’s original family name was Yamawaki (mountainside). But his ancestors were Buddhist priests who created the name Ekuan from that of their temple, Eikyuji-an, in Hiroshima. (It still exists but is empty now.) “Ekuan was first registered as a family name in Meiji period. Many people comment on how unusual it is.”

He was 17 when the atomic bomb was dropped on his city. Yet despite the memories, losing both his father (who was a priest) and his sister, he is utterly fatalistic. “It was a long time ago. . . .” His reaction was to look around at the ruins and decide to somehow find the courage to reconstruct the landscape. “For the next few years my dreams were about connecting with the material world through industrial design.”

In 1950, the Occupation Forces established a cultural intellectual education center in Hiroshima to help people understand American culture. “It was a fantastic place. Like a swan in a very dirty wrecked place. 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.’ “

He had always liked to paint and draw, but suddenly his dabblings had become a mission. “Some friends decided to commit themselves to the land, others to trade; we all had to find a way forward. Mine was to design good things to make people’s lives better.” He went to Geidai — Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music — in Ueno, for five years rather than the usual four because he needed credit in subjects that had eluded his interest, such as philosophy and ethics.

“There was no design department back then,” he explained. “I was studying traditional crafts, which provided a good base for under- standing a wide variety of techniques and also general aesthetics. Design to me has always meant making people happy. 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.”

GK (G for group, and K from Koike, the name of a supportive associate professor) was founded while Ekuan was still a student. Several companies approached Geidai, wanting to work with students toward designing new products. Nihon Gakki (Yamaha) commissioned a piano. “Keen to bring Japan out of darkness into light, we stripped off the black finish. The pale natural wood looked far more peaceful,” he said.

“When Maruishi came seeking a new-style bicycle, we created a frame suitable for women. We considered their needs, carrying babies and shopping, and used bright colors, like red, yellow and green. The new design was a big hit, and Tokyo began to look a bit more cheerful as a result.” (Those of us who use the shopping bikes of today now know who to thank.)

Ekuan and five graduate friends established their first office in 1956, not so far from where the office is now. “We were just in front of Miss Vining’s residence.” (Elizabeth Vining was tutor to Crown Prince Akihito, as he was then.) “There weren’t so many jobs back then, but we knew we’d be OK because GK had become known as a design movement; we already had a reputation.”

The years that followed were good for Ekuan and his colleagues. In 1961, GK launched Kikkoman’s famous soy sauce dispenser — glass with a red plastic top.

Closer still to the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, Yamaha got value for their money with a motorbike custom-designed for Japan’s narrow and still largely unpaved roads. “I believe the original in a museum, but don’t ask me where.”

More recently GK was instrumental in designing the bullet train Akita Shinkansen Komachi. “Akita is far from Tokyo, so the concept was welcome.” It went into service in 1997.

Though GK is involved in many projects, Ekuan is personally interested in designing prefabricated houses. That, and building a temple as part of a whole city dedicated to design, where superior items can be paid to rest. But he worries that materialism has gone too far. “Looking out of my window, towards Shinjuku, I think, ‘My goodness!’ I feel guilty, wondering if it is in part my fault that Japanese have lost their ability to communicate with nature.”

So now he is trying to empty Japan again. “I can look back and say, ‘We were given an opportunity, did our best, but made mistakes.’ Regret is wasted effort. So I say, ‘God forgive us,’ and move on, using those mistakes as a reference to the future. Our biggest mistake? Making people the priority. I now believe good design should be in balance with nature.”

Just as now he seeks to rid Japan of material values, so he seeks ways to empty his mind of unresolved clutter. He practices the tea ceremony and zazen meditation, and likes fishing, which — as he admits — is much the same thing. But catching fish is not the goal. He always take the hook out gently, returning the fish to the river with an apology and heartfelt thank-you.

“Whether sitting in my tea ceremony room or on a riverbank, meditation is about being concentrated in a small physical space contemplating the limitless nature of the cosmos,” he observed.

And then chuckled appreciatively. “You’re right. In taking the Japanese lunchbox as my subject, we’re talking about much the same thing.”