As a child, he wandered the streets of his native Hiroshima just after the nuclear devastation, and spoke of hearing the voices of ‘mangled streetcars, bicycles and other objects’, lamenting they could no longer be used.  After his father died from radiation poisoning, Kenji Ekuan became a monk, but changed course to become the most celebrated industrial designer in Japan. He graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955, and set up his own design business in 1957. Regarding ‘futuristic’ design, Ekuan stated, “When we think of the future of design, we might imagine a world where robots are everywhere, but that’s not it.  The ultimate design is little different from the natural world.”

The 1977 Yamaha TZ250, a classic entry-level production racer, with perfect bodywork designed by GK Dynamics

Ekuan’s GK Design Group went on to work with Yamaha, and the VMax is one of Ekuan’s most famous motorcycle designs. Far more famous is his ubiquitous red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle of 1961, which was inspired by watching his mother struggle with transferring a large bottle of soy sauce into a smaller container for the table.  The GK group also designed Japan’s Bullet Train, corporate logos, and musical equipment.  Kenji Ekuan was awarded the ‘Golden Compass’ award in Italy for his lifetime of brilliant design.  Ekuan was born on Sep.11th 1929 in Tokyo, and Feb 10, 2015.

Kenji Ekuan

According to Yamaha, GK Design Group was responsible for nearly all of their motorcycle designs until very recently. In 1989, a separate division within GK Design Group was formed specially to deal with vehicle design, GK Dynamics, which also contracted with Toyota.  It wasn’t until 2014(!) that Yamaha formed an in-house design team, headed by Akihiro ‘Dezi’ Nagaya.

Ubiquitous: no higher accolade for a man’s work – Ekuan’s sketches for the Kikkoman soy sauce bottles

 

I’ve been familiar with the unorthodox design philosophy of GK Dynamics since 1989, when they published ‘Man-Machine-Soul-Energy: the Spirit of Yamaha Motorcycle Design’…which I’ve always referred to as the ‘Yamaha Sex Tract’, as it is the first published motorcycle design document which explores the erotic and sometimes explicitly sexual nature of our relationship of “the second most intimate machine” (my quote – the first most intimate is, of course, the vibrator).

Among Ekuan’s most famous motorcycle designs; the Yamaha VMax

I recommend reading the book if you’re a student of design, or would like to explore how differently the Japanese designers in Kenji Ekuan’s firm thought about and discussed their work – it’s a fascinating glimpse into a wide-open mind and industrial design philosophy, and I doubt any such discussion was ever held at Harley-Davidson or BMW!  And I reckon few industrial designers working for major corporations have publicly acknowledged the debt of modern design to DADAist artist Marcel Duchamp.  It’s remarkable stuff.

An elusive but illuminating read!  And definitely my favorite corporate communication ever; it took years of searching to find a copy, but I recommend finding one.

Here’s a sample from the book, written by current GK Dynamics President Atsushi Ishiyama:

“When I first came into contact with the motorcycle as an object to be designed, my first impression was that it is extremely sexy, even considered in terms of pure shape, the single cylinder engine is truly phallic…the part where the engine connects to the frame is thick, giving it the very shape of a sex symbol.  The muffler also has the unique glow of metal, making it look just like internal organs.  The tank has a richly feminine curve, and the metal frame bites tightly into the engine like a whip.  I am certain the the designers did not have this aspect in mind, but it is quite a shock to anybody who suddenly comes into contact with it for the first time.  The mechanical parts of the engine, the suspension…as well as all other structural parts give the impression of a sexual analogy.  The first time I saw one, I felt like I had come into contact with a very abnormal world.

A great blue many-armed many-headed deity locked in sexual union with his consort, contrasted with the engine layout of the VMax. “Blazing energy soul Source”.  Awesome.

I feel that such works as ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ and ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors’ by the father of modern art Marcel Duchamp were the first artistic expressions of eroticism through mechanism….Duchamp’s fresh approach is seen in his use of mechanism as his means of expression.  The motorcycle is also created upon the basis of a thoroughgoing desire to create a loveable artifical life through a mechanical assembly of the mechanism of human sensitivities.”

No matter your taste regarding the VMax or other Yamaha products, designers Ekuan and Ishiyama have created design for the ages, and have long been an inspiration of mine.

GK Dynamics designed the original and next-gen Bullet trains
Kenji Ekuan’s design team worked with Yamaha from the very beginning, and every iconic model bears their stamp; in this case, their first production racer, the YD1
A 1973 design lecture series in Australia featuring Kenji Ekuan
An early sketch of Yamaha’s Virago, perhaps the most explicit (and successful) attempt to cash in on the Chopper craze
Japan Domestic Market (JDM) stuff we never saw out West; the Yamaha SDR two-stroke café racer.  Looks like fun!