Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Carol Collet: breaking smart-textile stereotypes


“There is a sci-fi aesthetic permeating much of smart textile design,” Carole Collet, Course Director of the MA Design for Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins, observes. Not one to accept the status quo, Collet’s response to this ubiquity of sterilized style is to combine the values of historical textiles with the possibilities of smart textiles. “My parents had a flower shop papered with toile de Jouy,” she offers as an explanation for her interest in joining old and new. Childhood memories of flowers and traditional textiles may sound like precisely the sort of thing that has long been banished from a contemporary design vocabulary, but in Collet’s mind they are precisely what the smart textiles need.

Collet has carved a unique niche for her work in the world of smart textiles, one that makes room for poetics, emotion and history alongside the newest technologies. For the past decade, her design work has questioned, not the role of technology in the development of smart textiles, but its very texture and colour. Rather than being defined by technology, Collet takes an unlikely route and consistently returns to the values of hand production and craft to understand just what new textile technology might be able to offer.

In tandem with her own design practice, Collet is Course Director of the MA Design for Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins. Under her guidance, the course adopted the name we know it by today in 2001 and, in the time since, has undergone what Collet describes as a “re-branding exercise”. Very much focused on the future, the course now proposes that “the twenty-first century marks the beginning of a new textile revolution, and we believe it is smart, invisible, ethical and poetic.” With these four considerations in mind, students tackle both the tangible and the yet to be realised possibilities of the textile’s future. Particular emphasis rests on explorations of sustainability within textile design in short, medium or long-term scenarios.

While London and Central Saint Martins have acted as Collet’s second home for more than a decade, the French designer cites Paris as a deciding factor to the issues she now explores through textiles. Growing up, she explains, “I lived in a village sheltered from pollution.” Moving to Paris to study textile design at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Appliques Duperre made her acutely aware that her passion for design was in fact contributing to the pollution problem. It was not until she embarked upon her own MA studies at Central Saint Martins in London that she realised her concerns were in fact something that she as a designer could begin to do something about.

In 1993, Collet’s MA research was one of the first explorations into the then emerging field of eco-textiles. “The early 1990’s were beginning to see an interest in ecologically sound design”, Collet explains. Ironically, Collet observed that this shift was driven more by changes in legislation that made companies more responsible for environmental impact than altruistic motives. “The Polluter Pays Act”, for example, made companies’ responsible for water pollution through a system of penalties and fines, which brought about some changes within the textile industry,” she observed. But, “the trend grew into a PR exercise that was in excess of consumer demand.” Nonetheless, a fledging interest in the impact textile production has on the environment had begun and Collet’s MA research led to some of the earliest design and consultancy work in the field.

The industry has, of course, grown-up a little since its early attempts to clean up its act and acknowledge both the pollution it is responsible for as well as the possibilities technology has to offer. In the ensuing years Collet’s design work has been consistent in its interrogation of the textile’s need for both tradition and innovation. Even in her most technologically advanced experiments reference to traditional textile patterns are often in evidence. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, for example, are an ongoing source of inspiration. In place of woven cloth, Collet’s contemporary story telling uses print techniques, which she explains, offer a way to “challenge surface and create activity.” Contemporary versions of other historical landmarks in the textile canon include toile de Jouy prints, which are reworked to offer not a record not of bucolic landscapes, but of shifting urban settings. In her tongue-in-cheek toile de Hackney elements such as graffiti and rubbish appear and disappear by way of thermo-chromic inks. In future versions she hopes to further explore shape memory alloys.

A decade after Collet’s first explorations of sustainable textile design as a student at Central Saint Martins saw Collet’s “Remote Home, One Home, Two Cities” exhibited simultaneously at the Science Museum, in London and at the Raumlabor Gallery, in Berlin (May 2003). In collaboration with architect Tobi Schneidler from the Smart Studio at the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, the project was borne out of a desire to achieve “innovative textile use in a domestic space.” Designed to function as “an extension of the body” the project used Internet technology via a computer server in each space to allow everything in the room to be smart. In lieu of the slick aesthetic Collet insisted on “bringing a sense of craft to Remote Home.” The sofa, for example, which moves to prevent you from sitting on it if its remote partner is in use, is covered not with a clinical white or black synthetic as you might expect, but in a heavy hand knitted woollen cover. The upholstery helps to focus attention on texture and thus touch, which is otherwise absent from the Remote Home scenario.

But how can smart textiles be sustainable? “The origin of the original tapestries was to keep rooms warm, but we now tend to forget that our textiles can also be functional,” she laments. Collet’s approach looks to the past for many of the ideas she brings to textile technologies, which in turn enhance both functional and aesthetic value. “I want to develop textile materials so that they are the structure, rather than applied to the structure.” This integral approach to design includes ideas that require the development of technologies as yet unavailable to us. For instance, florals, the ubiquitous subject of textile pattern making could, she suggests, evolve into something both smart and sustainable. “A wall panel could absorb UV light by day and power electrics or heat the room by night,” she muses. “The panels could change colour at the click of a switch, allowing for a dynamic design that extends the object’s life.” “Multifunctional fabrics offer the opportunity not only to communicate to others in the space, but also alter the mood of the space.” Another current area of research includes what Collet refers to as “the table landscape”. “Our eating habits are changing rapidly,” she observes, “and that changes the conventions of how we use textiles.” Where will this all lead? “I am not only interested in finding answers,” she explains. “I am looking for further questions that will add dimension and quality to design.”

Future Materials (June 2007: 24-25)