Yuh Okano: Tradition and Technology

Yuh Okano: A Fusion of Tradition and Technology

Okano has lived and worked as a textile designer in her native Japan since completing her BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. For most of the 1990s, Okano was employed as assistant to Junichi Arai, the celebrated textile designer. In 1999, she started her own design company, Textiles Yuh, bringing to it years of experience gained by working in the industry. Her fabrics were part of the ground breaking exhibition, Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles, that opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (November 1998) and offered a rare opportunity to see contemporary textiles displayed in a major fine art museum.

The MOMA exhibition solidified a fact that was already acknowledged among many designers. Japanese textile design has long explored cutting edge innovations in materials, structure, and approach to design. This innovation and appreciation for the textile arts can be seen, in part, to stem from the country’s rich tradition of textile design. Historically, personal taste, wealth and social standing have been expressed through the kimono, the national dress. Since the standardization of pattern of the garment is worn by members of almost all social groups, the fabric of the kimono became an important vehicle for artistic expression.[1]

The textile arts have faced little competition from alternative forms of adornment within Japan. Even as late as the twentieth century, jewelry making was limited to the production of ornate hair combs.[2] As a result, the textile arts of weaving, dyeing, and embroidery received great attention from craftsmen, designers, and consumers alike. Yuh Okano’s fabrics belong to this long history of reverence and regard for the textile arts. They represent a fusion of traditional knowledge with an eagerness and curiosity to embrace technological opportunities.

Okano uses the ancient resist technique of shibori to dye polyester fabrics. The results represent a fruitful combination of the new design possibilities offered by synthetic fabrics and Okano’s sophisticated command of the shibori dye process. At this fertile crossroads of new and old, she has added a large portion of her own creative imagination.

Typically, shibori involves a labor-intensive process of binding small areas of a cloth with string. The string acts as a resist, protecting the cloth under the string from the dye in the dye bath. Okano has evolved her own methods by inserting small resin beads into the cloth before tying off the areas to be protected from the dye. The fabric is then dyed with disperse dyes in multiple baths. After the dye is set through a steaming process, the resin beads are removed to reveal dyed surfaces covered in protrusions of pod and thorn-like shapes. The polyester fabric is then heat-set to maintain the forms.

Okano characteristically explains, “This novel synthesis, the synthesis of artificial and primeval, I believe, is what the current of our time demands me to do. “Throughout history, the trends and dictates of the times have often influenced, if not determined, the course of textile production. Japan’s Edo period, while known for its policy of cultural isolation, was also a time during which great creative energy emerged. The most highly regarded kimonos of the time were treated with a shibori process over the entire surface of the fabric.[3] It is interesting to note that, during this period, the distinctive shibori patterns were often prohibited to the merchant classes through sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws can be found the world over and emerge to protect, in this case, elite classes by outlawing the purchase of the fabric by the general public. As a result, a group of copycat techniques evolved that used wax resist and stencilling rather than traditional methods to produce similar patterns.[4]

With sumptuary laws a thing of the past, Okano explains that her work is a reaction to precisely the opposite of the Edo period’s isolationist stance. The bombardment of noise and images from the media and the frantic pace of today’s life are seen by Okano to be responsible for the deterioration of our collective tactile senses. While an over-stimulation of the senses, especially sight and hearing, is a seemingly inescapable presence in today’s modern world, she hopes her work will revive our ability to observe and appreciate tangible sensations.

Okano’s fabrics, used in installations as well as for scarves and clothing, seemingly capture both the organic and the alien. It is her hope that the surface textures and colors of the fabrics will trigger a subconscious recollection of the primeval world of tactile and visual stimulation. Okano is the first to see the irony in the fact that these ancient references are expressed through the quintessentially modern fabric of polyester. But the fiber undoubtedly serves the purpose well. When worn, the heat-set shapes bring the scarves to life, revealing seams of hidden colors in the ever-shifting proportions of the antennae shapes that cover their surfaces. As she explains, “despite its own intrinsically artificial nature, polyester now seems to have its own body temperature – like a primeval creature.”

Surface Design Journal fall 2002: 15-17.

[1] Jennifer Harris, Textiles 50,000 Years (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: 1993) p. 142.
[2] Contemporary Japanese Jewellery, British Crafts Council traveling exhibition (November 2001 – May 2002).
[3] Harris, p. 147.
[4] Harris, p. 148.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2002: 15-17)