Future, Past & Present: NUNO

Future, Past & Present: Nuno’s Multiple Perspectives on Textile Design

If the textile industry can claim to have celebrities, then Reiko Sudo is certainly one of them. Director and Chief Designer of the Japanese company Nuno, Sudo has garnered name recognition for the company both within her homeland and overseas. The company’s name translates from Japanese very simply into “cloth”, but the contribution Sudo and her small team of designers have made to contemporary textile design belies the simplicity of the term. By all accounts, Sudo is a tireless innovator. “Reiko has an unquenchable curiosity,” remarks Professor Lesley Millar from the University College for the Creative Arts who has worked closely with Sudo on several exhibitions. “She has reinvigorated contemporary textile practice in Japan.”

Nuno was established in 1983 and Sudo has worked at the helm since Junichi Arai’s departure in 1987. The company is now considered by many to be an exemplar of contemporary textile practice. At the heart of this innovation is a synthesis of tradition and technology. For two decades, Nuno’s design ethos has looked back to unearth what traditional textile practice can teach us, while remaining equally open to the possibilities new technologies may be able to offer. Within this duality a third focus is also increasingly evident: one that looks within to scrutinize and improve upon the ecological impact of company’s existing production methods.

Looking back, Japan’s lengthy and sophisticated textile history has provided a fertile foundation for the company. Keiko Kawashima, in her foreword for Nuno’s retrospective exhibition 2121 remarks, “Central to Reiko Sudo’s approach is the priority she accords to the techniques and ideas ‘made in Japan’ as she develops her range of textiles. Dyeing and weaving techniques and ideas unique to Japan are the key for her when creating the textiles that draw world-wide attention.” Innovative woven structures were the company’s early forte long before computer aided design was commonplace. But even then, innovation did not always require complexity.

Fabrics such as Feather Flurries, for example, epitomises the company’s ability to see the benefits of both old and new. Constructed with double weave pockets that hold a single feather, the silk fabric is simple in concept but complex to produce. Computer operated looms must be stopped at the completion of each pocket so that the feathers can be inserted manually before weaving begins again. It is in effect a rare hybrid of mechanical and hand production. Elsewhere, Nuno's production methods remain surprisingly traditional. Nuno Works, for example, is a line predominantly comprised of printed fabrics that launched six years ago. Catering to a much younger audience, the collection is brighter and stronger in palette. But the youthful aesthetic belies Nuno’s commitment to traditional production methods: all the surface design techniques – stencil, silkscreen, and transfer printing – are produced by hand.

A healthy curiosity for the opportunities provided by emerging technologies both within and beyond the textile industry has also defined the company. Referring to these borrowings as “inappropriate technologies” Sudo has deployed techniques from industries as diverse as automotive manufacturing (Splattering and the Stainless series) and food processing (Bashofu). Part of this trans-disciplinary approach stems from Sudo’s textile design education, which took place within a broad based industrial design programme that required students to first work with a gamut of materials. But other ingredients are also at play. Sudo’s vision is one, but also her tenacity to forge and maintain links with seemingly discrete industries.

Born of technologies developed in a variety of industries, Nuno fabrics also function in a variety of contexts. Shoppers at Nuno Works in Tokyo, for example, find bolts of fabric displayed on the shop floor. Conceived as an open studio, each shopper is encouraged to use the fabric in the manner they devise. If unsure how to realise their ideas costumers can call upon in-house design support. At the other end of the spectrum, exhibitions of Nuno fabrics are often akin to a textile art or fine art context. In February of 2008, for example, horizontal cylinders of cloth will be on view at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC under the exhibition title Japan! Culture + Hyperculture. Suspended throughout the large public space, the fabrics will take on a sculptural, rather than functional, role.

Nuno’s third point of focus is increasingly based on self-reflection. “Since 1996 we’ve tried to come up with ways to re-use waste materials and bi-products from weaving,” the company explains. Responses to this challenge range from exploration of alternative, sustainable materials such as corn to the reuse of existing Nuno fabric remnants. Tsunagi is one such solution, created from “ironed ‘stock’ of leftover fabric scraps, cut to size, basted onto silk organdie, all by hand, before finishing with a sewing machine.”

In contrast to the prevailing all-or-nothing approach to green design, Sudo’s response to sustainability is ruled by pragmatism. Speaking to Millar in 2005, she explained, “If one were 100% ecological, there might be no design at all. So there has to be some compromise, some meeting point.” Instead of the industry’s current infatuation – organic cotton – Sudo is more interested in developing long-term recycling options for manmade fibres such as polyester. Other alternatives are also being explored, including a line of Nuno bags designed with Luisa Cevese of Riedizioni that are sold (through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City) with the agreement that they will be returned to Nuno in ten years time for recycling.

Unusually, Nuno fabrics command audiences with both the fashion and interiors industries. Issey Miyake and others have used Nuno fabrics in their fashion collections. Nuno fabrics also decorate interiors as diverse as Tokyo’s upscale Mandarin Oriental hotel and the show rooms of San Diego’s booming downtown development. “NUNO is a real inspiration for the creative industries both in Japan and globally,” Millar notes. “Reiko Sudo supports anything Japanese. This is the real lesson we can learn; she uses Japanese textile materials, Japanese mills. It is a reinvigorated textile model that can be followed by countries with a declining industry, or in England with no industry. Nuno has simply changed people’s understanding of cloth.”

Modern Carpets & Textiles (winter 2007: 55-57)