The shapely Kikkoman carafe is synonymous with the Japanese soy brand. Arguably this gentle dispenser is as recognisable as a Coke bottle. Over 300 million of the saucy table-top bottles have been sold worldwide since it was designed in 1961 by Kenji Ekuan. At the time of his death in February 2015 aged 85, Ekuan was the highly respected chairman of GK Design Group in Japan. He helped form the group in Japan in 1957 when still in his twenties and is respected for much of his work in industrial design including versions of the Yamaha VMAS motorcycle and contributions to the bullet train network.
Form follows function, however the perfect solution is not always immediately apparent to a designer and takes much persistence in the pursuit of true elegance. The primary challenges were to create a drip-less spout with a controlled flow, and the iconic 150ml bottle was the result of over 100 prototypes spanning three years. The final red-cap answer is based on the principles of an inverted teapot spout. The elegant curves of Ekuan’s lovely glass flask enjoy the same domestic marriage of beauty and functionality as the ubiquitous glass milk bottle; however the Kikkoman shape persists unchanged and continues to be welcome on tables in both homes and restaurants. The bottle is designed to be washed and reused - and for this I enjoy the thick printed yellow Kikkoman type and the dense plastic imperial red cap with satisfying screw action.
"Design is a source of life enhancement”
His design principles were founded in a desire for a democratisation of objects that should be accessible to everyone. "I believe that it is the essential purpose of industrial design to serve the people, be they rich or poor.” (Red Dot interview following his design award in 2007) He was greatly influenced by the impact the Hiroshima devastation and lost his father and a sister as a result of the US bombings. Ekuan once wrote that he “heard the voices of street cars, bicycles and other objects mangled and abandoned, saying they had wished to have been utilized more” (Japan Times)
“The Japanese concept of attention to others differs slightly from the Western approach. Japanese designers are normally anxious to accommodate all the wishes users may possibly have.” The humility and simplicity in this message should be taken on board by all designers who want to create successful objects for living. Ekuan eschewed futurism for it’s own sake and the Kikkoman bottle was in fact an exercise in traditionalism and mirrors a minimalist Japanese aesthetic. Through the use of modern industrial materials (glass and plastic) the gentle Kikkoman bottle transports traditional Japanese designs values around the world. The Ekuan aesthetic drew on traditional Japanese aesthetics coupled with western influence; keeping one eye on formal Japanese principles yet embracing materialism.
Ekuan was a much lauded designer who thought deeply about the role of a designer and the responsibility he has to the objects he creates and the people he creates them for.
A bottle of Kikkoman resides in the Red Dot Design Museum in Essen and the MoMA collection in New York however can be seen on tables all over the world. A small collection of vintage Japanese sake bottles shown below for interest.