NUNO: Tradition & Technology

‘Inappropriate Technologies’: Tradition, Technology and NUNO

Tradition and technology are unlikely bedfellows. Unless, that is, you are speaking of the Japanese textile design company NUNO, who has spent over two decades nurturing a striking relationship between the two. Founded in 1984, NUNO has established a reputation at the forefront of innovative textile design. A large part of this success can be traced to a balance the company has struck between exploration of new technologies and a desire to recover waning traditional production methods. The match may be an unlikely one, but it has provided ingredients that have fuelled NUNO’s considerable contribution to the field of textile design.

Equally at ease working with new materials and structures as they are resurrecting traditional materials and processes, NUNO’s longstanding Artistic Director Reiko Sudo explains, “I want our fabrics to be enjoyed as fabrics, not for any special use”. The ten-strong team of NUNO designers mine both ends of the design spectrum. Rubber bands, for instance, melting in the sunshine of a windowsill raised the challenge of a new way to create “rubber band lustre onto fabric”. After testing a variety of materials, they finally arrived at silicone resin, printed through silk screens patterned with a series of circles similar to scattered piles of rubber bands seen in their inspiration. A special film provided the final layer of shine to the design. In contrast to such seemingly simple investigations, the decidedly high-tech Burner Dye series is fashioned from scorched metal threads, recycled from discarded ties. The uneven patina that results is wholly unique to each fabric.

In fact, many of the techniques NUNO explores are time rather than technology intensive. Rust, for example, became the dyestuff of choice when designers noticed, “how beautifully rust stains a white plaster wall or white work clothes.” Initial trial and error progressed slowly, largely because the majority of metals, such as nails, on the market today are treated with a rust retardant. Eventually a successful formula was established: well-rusted nails or iron plates are selected, sandwiched between two layers of rayon cloth and covered for two days. (In cold weather heat is added to the recipe via an electric blanket.) When the fabric is rinsed, the dye is fixed and, because the layering of fabric is random, no two lengths are alike. Time, rather than technology, is key.

Sudo often refers to these experiments as “inappropriate technologies”. By this she means the interdisciplinary leaps she has been able to orchestrate and capitalize upon within other industries, such as automotive paint application used to create the Stainless Steel series in the early 1990s, which have broadened the very parameters of textile design. Salt shrinking, is another example. This traditional Japanese technique for finishing textured fabric requires “soaking fabric in a neutral pH saline solution [which] reduces the fibres to the desired density. Originally sea water was used, but effects tended to be unstable; today calcium chloride or calcium nitrate afford more precise control.” When the technique is used in combination with resist dyed fibres, areas exposed to the solution will shrink while those unexposed will not. “Everything from bubble-pack plastic wrap [seen in ‘Bubble Pack’] to moulted snakeskin” are the results.

The final fabrics may be unusual, but this does not always mean that the equipment or techniques NUNO employs are far-fetched. “Graffiti”, for instance, looks like a collection of quickly scribbled marks. Using flocking (a technique commonly associated with an inexpensive way to produce imitation velvet) sparingly on a transparent ground, “lively textures like magnetised iron fillings” are created. In contrast, “Amate” takes its name from a traditional form of bark cloth made in central Mexico and mimics the dry, textured surface of bark with a combination of rayon, polyester and paper. “We wanted to a textile that wouldn’t feel like cloth or paper or leather or metal. In central Mexico, the Indians make a kind of bark cloth called ‘Amate’ by layering crisscrossed strips of tree bark, sometimes leaving a serendipitous scattering of holes. After this image, we screen-printed adhesive in an openwork pattern onto velvet, affixed strong Echizen handmade paper, then scrubbed away the excess with water and brush. The result is reminiscent of wet animal hide.”

A quest for new machinery, or machinery that can be used for alternative applications is also ongoing at NUNO. “Stalagmite” is one such result, a cloth suitable for a window covering or screen that is embroidered using “a special steering wheel embroidery machine, such as used for uchikake wedding kimono.” Designers may have sought new machinery to stitch the fabric, but their point of reference was far into the past, in this case the design based on calcified rock formations. Another example is “Baby Hairs”, a Jacquard woven cloth made from a mixture of Polyester and Saran. Saran tends to find applications in the sports industry because it is flame-resistance and highly water-absorbent. Impregnating the fibres with a solar-energy storing chemical, NUNO created a luminescent fabric in the pattern of the most delicate strands of baby hair.

This tension between old and new and the validity of making reference to both continues to fuel NUNO’s textile explorations. Fabrics such as the maize fibre “Green Fabric” show an ongoing search for the possible textile value of materials derived from other industries. Ironically, it is often the mundane that provides new ideas. Refreshingly, NUNO also takes responsibility for the waste management of its own designs. “Tsugihagi”, for instance, is sewn from the remnants and cut offs of other fabrics in the collection, providing an ever changing and dynamic response to the inevitable waste created through textile production. Remnants are gathered from the fabrics they weave and print and are stitched together onto a thin fabric, which is then dipped in an alkali solution to dissolve the foundation or backing fabric. (Alternatively, a water-soluble base is used a background, which is later washed away.) NUNO refers to this melting pot of fabrics as a “serendipitous survey of NUNO originals of different patterns, colours and materials all in one cloth.” Fabrics such as these offer emerging designers a sage lesson: attention to ecological issues need not result in aesthetic compromises.

NUNO’s frame of reference is a remarkably broad one. Along with an engagement with the possibilities of new technologies, NUNO also finds many answers to design questions in old technologies borrowed from other disciplines. As Sudo explains, “Textiles are not just a pleasure to look at, they are to be experienced with all five senses; the feel of textiles in the hand or on the body, the periodic rustling sounds, even the taste on the lips.”

Surface Design Journal (summer 2007: 6-11)