A Requiem for Kenji Ekuan & The Kando of GK Design

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Industrial design is not a commonly known, much less well understood, profession. To some it suggests arranging equipment inside factories, to others it means some kind of product engineering. In reality it is the search for, and expression of, human satisfaction in inanimate objects that are mass produced.

That’s quite a mouthful, and to the average person it may sound like jiberish written for some pretentious coffee table book, but it is the truth. At least, it is one version of the truth as seen by the GK Design Group of Tokyo, Japan.

If you ride motorcycles, then you are intimately familiar with the work of this large and internationally respected studio. Since only its second production bike, the indigenously designed YA-1, every Yamaha motorcycle since 1958 has been crafted by GK.

At a time when made-in-Japan meant cheap and poorly manufactured imitation, Yamaha endeavoured to build motorcycles that could capture hearts as much as wallets by using a corporate philosophy they call Kando.

Kando translates roughly as a human state of emotion that combines high excitement with deep satisfaction, and remains to this day the principal pillar on which Yamaha Motor Company operates.

Of course, in this jaded modern world of slick media relations and psychologically researched marketing, all this may just seem like so much hyperbole; another slogan by a global corporation calculated to stand out and generate profits. That’s one truth. Another point of view is that it is all very sincere.

Yamaha and GK Design have been married to each other for a long time and they share this philosophy of Kando. So profound is this almost spiritual orientation that it colors every task, and ultimately the motorcycles they produce.

I say spiritual, because GK founder Kenji Ekuan was trained as a Buddhist priest before moving on to art, and had the vision that design could be used as a tool for human healing and wellness. Today, this sort of thing might sound contrived, but in post war Japan in the 1950’s, soul searching was not unusual.

Like Italy during the same period, the Japanese needed reconstruction; and like the Italians, the Japanese leaned on their proven skills and cultural strengths, which in the case of the Yamaha-GK partnership meant designing superior motorcycles by studying technology and people, and trying to harmonize the results of those studies in the form of motorcycles.

GK is an abbreviation for Group of Koike, and was named after the teacher at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music that had inspired four young artists to form a company of designers. The leading founder was Kenji Ekuan.

After graduating in Japan, Ekuan went to America’s prestigious Art Center college in Pasedena where he learned the modern American art of industrial designer alongside people who would become famous 20th century designers, such as futurist Syd Mead.

On his return to Japan, Ekuan combined automotive styling techniques with his group’s values to impress a fledgling Yamaha Motor Company. It would take decades before this collaboration fully matured, but when it did Yamaha would boast some of the most consistently innovative designs in motorcycling.

The back story above doesn’t seem too relevant to say, an R1 or YZ450F parked in a snow covered garage in 2015, but the link is real, and is vital to understanding why those machines look, feel and operate the way they do.

Japanese motorcycle design has been highly criticized since day one as dull, repetitive and uninspiring, while European design is often seen as visionary and passionate.

Since the unexpected death of famed Italian designer Massimo Tamburini last year, many eulogies extolling his singular genius further reinforced this cultural stereotype. What defines GK, and to some extent the design of the other Japanese brands, is their cultural design philosophy of pluralism.

Japanese work collectively, thinking more about the group than the individual, have a long tradition of polytheism (many gods), and of imbuing soul or spirit into non-living things. Just as a temple or finely crafted idol may carry a soul, so can a machine.

GK call this Man-Machine Soul Energy, a design theory that is supposed to harmonize the body of man with the body of the machine, but also the aspirations of the human spirit with the potential of a motorcycle.

The stereotype we all have about Japanese industry is that of the giant, unfeeling, faceless corporations bent on world domination. That may be true in the board room, but life inside GK Design is nothing of the kind.

I joined the European office in 2000 expecting a glaringly white, computer filled studio with technicians in lab coats and unimaginable motorcycle technology within. To my surprise to discovered that GK Design Europe was a ground floor office in a downtown Amsterdam, slightly larger than an average Starbucks.

Three full time designers sat end-to-end with a couple of communal desks on one side, while a dusty TDR 250 sat on deflated tires in a corner. We talked about bikes at coffee breaks, the older guys exchanged stories about kids, and we all rode to the races at Assen each summer.

The headquarters near Toyko’s trendy Shibuya district is a far more Bohemian environment. These people are bona fide motorcycle nuts, and hot-blooded human beings through and through.

Atsushi Ishiyama, the managing director, has an air-cooled Ducati single cylinder engine mounted on a wooden frame on his desk. Throughout the studio where 25 odd designers work packed together, tiny Bandai motorcycle models and manga robots are strewn liberally on all the shelves, posters of custom bikes and architecture exhibits hang on walls, and photos of smiling family members litter the desks.

Unlike the offices inside Yamaha itself, GK’s Tokyo studio is loud, smoke filled, animated, and decidedly messy. One of the most important people in today’s GK Dynamics studio, (Dynamics is the division dedicated to Yamaha products) is a tall man with a pony tail named Jun Tamura.

Although he currently holds a management position, you wouldn’t know it. He likes Spider Man comics, laughs a lot and is permanently attired in a denim jacket and western style shirts.

He is also a prolific and enormously influential designer, having authored, among others, the 2000 R1, the R7, Warrior, 2005 Fazer/FZ6, and the iconic MT-01. It is the latter that perhaps more than any other bike so boldly captures the spirit of GK Design, and the atmosphere that nurtures it.

The original MT-01 was presented as a concept bike at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, and was the direct result of Tamura’s love of pushrod V-twin engines and high performance.

The Warrior, the first modern power cruiser to boast contemporary sport motorcycle technology, was already in development but Tamura wanted to go beyond the long and low expression of American motorcycling. The MT-01 was the result, a manga-like caricature of a naked roadster that over-emphasized the massive 1700cc motor and blended chassis parts together.

The bazooka exhausts were formed into the frame, while all other components not visually related to propulsion were comically minimized. Yamaha had that year introduced the first LED brake light in a mass-production vehicle with the ’99 R6, and was preparing to launch the ’03 R6 with four projector headlights, another first.

The design required a minimal profile, but no existing projector was compact enough. Tamura found an interesting solution. Finishing a Coke a few days before the clay model was due, he noticed that the concave bottom of the aluminum can was the perfect size as the ideal projector light would be.

He had a craftsman cut it off, polish the inside and attach it on the face of the lamp shroud. Once the rest of the model was painted, it looked convincing.

Search any image of the show bike, and you’ll be looking at a light that once held in sugared water. Years later the production version would use a compact parabolic light to match the Coke can’s looks.

There are many stories that defy the stereotype surrounding corporate Yamaha. The LED headlamps I fashioned on the MT-03 concept were ripped out of three identical Cateye bicycle lights that I had coincidentally seen at a bicycle show in Amsterdam a month previously.

The rear lights of the original ’98 R1, those unimaginative circles that rest on a shapeless black plastic box underneath the most influential sport motorcycle design of the late 90’s was an accident.

The designer, exhausted and out of time during the final clay model preparation was ordered to indicate “some kind of lights” before the presentation to the Yamaha board. The boss assured him that it wasn’t important, there would be time later to refine them.

The designer took a fresh log of styling clay, which comes in cylinders, and cut off two thin slices. The square support underneath the tail was made minutes before the meeting, and so lacked any design intent.

The board loved it. They loved the iconic overall design so much that they assumed the rear lights were a deliberate attempt at understatement. One European product planner said it made the bike look purposeful. The lights were never changed.

GK has many offices around the world that design Yamaha motorcycles catering to those markets. The small studio in Thailand helps the designers interpret the Kando of Southeast Asia, the world’s second largest motorcycle market.

In Los Angeles, GKDI fashions the Star-line of cruisers, the dirt bikes and snowmobiles — how someone in southern California can appreciate the finer points of snowmobiling I can’t imagine — and in Amsterdam GK Design Europe crafts the machines destined for European production.

None of those studios are linked to Yamaha corporation directly. In fact, GK Design Group is 100% independent, despite depending on Yamaha Motor for the bulk of its work.

It is an arrangement that is typical of Japanese companies, and one that affords security whilst at the same time encouraging an atmosphere of design risk.

GK fiercely defends its point of view, what they see as design truth, knowing that some marketing or budget type at Yamaha cannot punish the design department if they disagree, something that often happens inside other companies.

Are Yamaha Motorcycles more inspiring than others? Does Yamaha design rate with the finest European examples? Although the answer may be subjective, I will argue that that GK has been able to match and best Western “genius” regularly by citing the praise of one of Europe’s most storied designer brands.

Gianandrea Fabbro, author of the Ducati 1098, told the Italian press that his benchmark was the R7. It was the only foreign motorcycle they had in the studio for reference.

Antoher Ducati man, designer Bart J. Groesbeek, was poached from GK Design Europe after he created the Yamaha BT1100 roadster, whose lines he echoed strongly in the new Monster and Diavel.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, it was the 2002 R1 that was pronouced “The Most Beautiful Motorcycle” at the Milan EICMA show in 2001. The only non-Italian motorcycle ever to win that coveted epithet.

Truth is another word for opinion, according to Buddhist thinking. The GK method of motorcycle design is one that attempts to forge genuine relationships between beauty in nature, and the stimulations that people feel on motorcycles.

This is done in the context of modern, industrial hyper technolgy and the Japanese way of manufacturing. This is GK’s truth. It may not always produce designs that spark awe in eyes of bikers everywhere, but when they get it right, I think the results carry a lot of soul.

Ekuan-san was many things, but above all he was a very warm human being, passionate about life and beauty. I was lucky enough to meet him three times, each of which was an encounter with a smiling old man with fire in his eyes. He didn’t talk about motorcycles, he talked about good form and meaning.

As a very young and inexperienced designer, overwhelmed by the scale of Yamaha and its global motorcycle business, Ekuan-san brought a lot of perspective.

GK design regarded motorcycles as potential extensions of the soul, and as hokey as that may sound to cynical westerners, Ekuan-san’s leadership made us all believers.

I tried, anyway, to make each line count as I sketched. Working for the GK Design Group was the best job I ever had, and I miss it terribly. Many will miss Kenji Ekuan, and his lasting impact on motorcycle design throughout the world.

GK Design: Epilogue

In a sad bit of news that escaped most media last year, Yamaha’s minority owner, Toyota, announced that motorcycle styling would now fall under the purview of the car studio, effectively pushing GK out of the picture after more than 50 years of successful collaboration.

I spoke with some former colleagues and they are more than merely dislodged by loss of work, they are crestfallen. How Yamaha’s instruments of joy can be styled alongside gormless products like Corollas and Camrys is beyond imagining, and certainly means the end of Ekuan-san’s Kando philosophy.

The GK Design Group continues, with its many specialized divisions, to be a creative force for companies across Japan and the world.

For the record, Kenji Ekuan’s English language Wikipedia page is vague, and seems to have mis-informed mainstream media outlets. Ekuan-san did not personally design the V-Max, or any other motorcycle after about 1965.

As is the custom in design studio reporting, the studio chief takes responsibility for work produced by the team. This is not meant to take away from Ekuan-san, but rather to celebrate the GK team, and its many talented members who have anonymously given us so many wonderful designs over the years.

Michael Uhlarik is an international award winning motorcycle designer and industry analyst with 14 years of experience with major OEMs in Asia, Europe and North America.

He is also, together with partner Kevin O’Neil, behind the Amarok Racing team, and the P1 electric motorcycle experiment. He lives with his family in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is about as far away from the center of the motorcycle universe as one can get. This may or may not be a coincidence.