ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The enduring legacy of Kenji Ekuan is on tables and restaurants all over the world. Chances are you have used or at least seen this design marvel, the red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle. He created the leak-resistant dispenser in 1961. Ekuan, who died this weekend at age 85, also designed the bullet train which connects Tokyo and northern Japan among other things. Joining me to talk about his illustrious career is Paola Antonelli. She is senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and she knew Mr. Ekuan. Welcome to the program.
PAOLA ANTONELLI: Oh, thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Well, the Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser, you have to explain, is actually a part of the Museum of Modern Art's collection. Why?
ANTONELLI: The bottle is in the collection because it is working perfectly. I mean, you've never found a clogged spout, I don't think, even if you leave the soy sauce there in your fridge for a long time. And also, this beautiful, sensible and extremely graceful design is at the same time ancient and extremely contemporary.
SIEGEL: So you're saying both as an example of design - well, implied in design is also that it's an efficient invention.
ANTONELLI: Definitely. But also, it's important to think of what it represents for Japan. Kenji was born before the Second World War, of course, but he went through it. And actually, his dad died of radiation poisoning after Hiroshima. And Kenji himself became a monk, and then he left this particular part of his life to become a designer.
But soy sauce was really important for the identity of Japan after the Second World War. It was a way to actually recover an international profile. And originally, the soy sauce was sold in really big bottles. And Kenji was put in charge to package it in a way that could be understood and exported to the whole world. And he did succeeded.
SIEGEL: I mentioned the Komachi bullet train that he designed. What else is he known for designing?
ANTONELLI: You name it. Anything that product designers design, he designed. You know, from trains to soy sauce bottles to motorcycles to headphones to beds - you name it - everything.
SIEGEL: Is there some visual or tangible thing that his designs have in common? Could you look at an object and say, I bet that was Kenji's design?
ANTONELLI: The beauty of it is that he did not have a formalist style. Every object was taken on its own terms and was redesigned from scratch. So the Kikkoman soy sauce is so idiosyncratic and individualistic that it could never be simply a style. That's what best designers do. They don't have a style.
SIEGEL: You knew him. Tell us a little bit about what kind of person he was.
ANTONELLI: I knew him, indeed, and he was quite amazing. At the time that I met him, his beard - his, like, typical, you know, monk beard was even longer. And so he had this very, very wise appearance to himself. And I remembered - I was a journalist at that time. I think it was in the mid-'90s. And I asked him, why is it that Japanese manufacturers and Japanese developers are calling in all of these designers and architects from the Western world when they have already so much tradition to take from? And he explained to me that it was a matter of copying, understanding, taking inspiration in order to develop one's own language. So in other words, he was telling me, we're just getting ready to take over the world. And that's what happened indeed.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Well, Paola Antonelli, thank you very much for talking with us about your friend.
ANTONELLI: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Paola Antonelli is senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She joined us to talk about the legacy of Kenji Ekuan who died this weekend in Tokyo at age 85 - among his many designs, the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce bottle.