Functionally Sublime

When designers Jun’ichi Arai and Reiko Sudo established the textile studio and retail shop Nuno in 1984, using computers in fabric design was avant-garde. Systems that could scan sketches by digital camera and create layouts on computer screens had just been introduced. Now the technology is commonplace, but the moment of revelation sticks in Sudo’s mind. “I was 29, and I had approached Arai as a handweaver,” she says. “He told me I could do my work by hand, but with a scanner—which at that time looked like a big drum—I could transfer my designs to data and use industrial production methods. I was shocked!”

Sudo recovered beautifully. When Arai left Nuno in 1987, Sudo became director and chief creator. She has since steered the company to international prominence: Nuno textiles are featured in the collections of more than a dozen major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Victoria & Albert, and its affordable products are sold through distributors in Australia, Switzerland, and England; and high-end department stores in Japan. Nuno has also just opened a San Diego office to distribute their products in North America, and they are planning to open a United States retail outlet in the near future. I met with Sudo in the Nuno retail space on the sublevel of the Axis Building in Tokyo’s Roppongi—an unlikely place, I had assumed, for a Japanese textile company. Traditionally Japanese textiles use plant matter like indigo for dying and flax and cotton for weaving, so I presumed that this upmarket location was only a sales outlet from which to nab trendy consumers and that the real work must go on in the countryside.

Nuno is the simplest Japanese term for fabric. It’s almost meaningless in its lack of pretension. But Nuno is very much a Tokyo institution. Although it has a warehouse about three hours outside the city and a network of craftsmen scattered throughout the mountains and valleys of Japan, Nuno also has tight connections with plastics and polyester manufacturers and industrial materials researchers.

Its fabrics are a reflection of the Japanese urban environment, which since the end of World War II has developed into a heady amalgamation of futuristic efforts in science and technology and ancient rural sensibilities that are intractable. Nuno’s real work, the conceiving of incredible combinations of methods and materials from past, present, and the near future, is carried out by Sudo, 48, and her staff of 12, in the middle of Tokyo.

Nuno melds the traditional materials, weaves, and dyes of Japanese craft culture—including silk, cotton, handmade paper, salt-shrinking, mud-dyeing, and sashiko cross-stitching—with those of the modern age: newspaper, polyesters, nylon tape, telephone wire, silicone, grafitti, chemical etching, rust-dyeing, heat-shrinking, caustic burning, and fatiguing by hand, machine, and chemicals. Try to describe a few of the studio’s original textiles—now numbering almost 1,500—and you might get something like this: traditional handmade washi (Japanese paper) attached to a velvet base with synthetic glue; Okinawan banana fiber-coated cottons chemically reprocessed; yarn made of stainless-steel wire woven with cotton in a 60:40 ratio. It sounds as if the results, what some call “techno-textiles,” might have some shock value or importance as conceptual art but would hardly be beautiful.

And yet they are. One of Nuno’s most recent shows in the United States was last spring at the Atlanta International Museum of Art and Design. “The first reaction is, ‘look at that color,’ or ‘look at that pattern,’” says Sara Riney, public relations manager for the museum. “Then you start really looking at it, thinking, ‘How did they get these feathers in here?’ or ‘That piece of fabric reminds me of a boa constrictor.’ It’s very deep and multitextured.” Curators love it, but the true beauty of a Nuno piece is in its easy application to life.

Many of the regional specialties of traditional Japanese textiles, like shibori tying, and the cultivation and processing of indigo, banana fiber, and ramie, are or have been close to dying out at one time or another. Unlike creators of the previous generation, Sudo admits no nostalgia for these traditions. Equally valuable to her are the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs, like splatter painting used for automobiles or a new material developed for biodegradable fishing nets (she has buried some fabric made of that in her back garden to see if it will really decompose). She gets a lot of her ideas for new techniques from tiny articles on industry developments hidden away in a corner of the Nikkei Shimbun, Japan’s economic daily. Sudo cold calls development scientists and engineers with whom she then works just to bring regular people another “functional textile,” which is how she defines all of Nuno’s work. MoMA has 24 pieces by Nuno in its collection. “Design, differently from art, is meant to be used,” curator Paola Antonelli says. “We look for the sublime in functional objects, but their functionality is part of that sublime nature.”

The Nuno shop—where customers have a chance to mingle with Sudo and her staff—is lovely. Bolts of fabric that sell for an average of $80 per meter are graded more or less by color and texture and stacked in perfectly accessible cubicles along one wall. Staged around the other walls are finished products: coasters and place mats that would match a traditional Japanese interior, chic clothing for the over-50 female, stoles, handbags, and oversize pillows. Facing the shop window is a long table that nearly butts up against a freestanding wall, which hides the rest of the 275-square-foot operation from view. This table serves alternately as drawing board, packing surface, and boardroom table. The staff meets here spontaneously to discuss the next product or the most recent inspiration.

When she greeted me, Sudo had been preparing for several days and nights to visit her exhibition in Atlanta, where she would speak to textile design students from several universities—but she showed no signs of exhaustion. “Because we all work together, and the whole responsibility is shared among the staff,” she tells me, “I can concentrate, and I don’t get worn out.” For example, one pattern originated with designer Yoko Ando’s desire to find a way to reformulate autumn foliage as a fabric. To show me the results, Sudo pulled out a deep maroon wool creation called Kareha (fallen leaves). Using chemical lacework, the Nuno team strung the negative space through with long loose threads, capturing the “leaves” in an extraordinary web.

Nuno’s egalitarian atmosphere has evolved with the business. Sudo didn’t exactly choose a small business plan, no more than she actively set out to run the Nuno operation. “Things just happened this way. When we started, everyone had to do everything. And our design- and concept-oriented textiles are not necessarily mass-produced objects. Of course, I’m not ruling out mass production either. The fact is, there is no business model for what we do. I think of it as the Nuno model.”

Before founding Nuno, Sudo did freelance work for textile innovator Kanebo Corporation, where she not only designed hit products but recognized that the layering of middlemen between designer and consumer only elevated prices, keeping the textiles from less wealthy consumers. Of course, when requested by curators, she and her staff are happy to participate in international exhibitions, and they often work with well-known architects and interior decorators—but their first interest is in the place textiles can have in the life of the average Joe. This is why the Japanese economic slump has actually had a positive influence on Nuno’s business. “People are probably having guests at home more now,” Sudo muses. “And they realize that they can create their own spaces. And a lot of them are probably totally fed up with European-brand products like Louis Vuitton and Chanel. They come to Nuno as a reaction of sorts.”

Most Japanese under 40 grew up in the postwar industrial glut and have no experience at all in creating things from scratch, but from Nuno they will take home unique yardage, sew it by hand, and transform their plasticized interiors into something truly personal. In today’s deep recession, it’s true that people who used to be in big-money businesses—design included—are simplifying their lifestyles. Some customers are so strapped that they will come and buy half a meter just to make a tote. A simple creation radiates self-confidence, Sudo says, and produces an abundance of spirit immeasurable in cash. “There’s something about this material that makes you think you have a one-off piece, even though it may be produced on a computerized loom,” says Marla Berns, director of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, where a Nuno exhibit showed until mid-July.

In addition to about 15 varieties of comparably conservative patterns displayed in an Axis shop as curtains on a single rod, there are—hanging here and there from the ceiling—12-foot lengths of idiosyncratic fabrics that invite you to find a way to use them. These billow with the passage of designers and customers as they finger the banners and discuss the possibilities. When a customer realizes he’s talking with the actual designer, galaxies of opportunity seem to open up. “Depending on the method,” Sudo tells me, “we can change lengths or widths, or even colors and materials. If someone wants to cover a window that’s narrower than our yardage, we may be able to weave a narrower bolt, or we might offer to trim and hem it. Or if the space is wider than the cloth, we can sew strips together—whatever we can do to help solve the problem.”

Displayed on a rack behind the table, Nuno’s clothing can be tailored to fit you. Once your pattern is in Nuno’s database, you can order it in other materials as your tastes change or your budget allows. If it can be done, Sudo and her staff are happy to oblige. They meld high and low technology to make materials that are accessible to everyone. “Most textile artists do a lot of handwork, and they don’t create the volume,” Berns says. “Sudo produces a volume that allows her to supply many stores in Japan and to keep MoMA supplied. It’s affordable, wearable art.”

Sudo secured her unique vision of the relationship between textile designer and customer as a little girl in early postwar Ibaragi Prefecture, where as part of a large merchant family she timidly enjoyed the only event of which the women of the household were the stars: the purchasing of the season’s kimonos. “My grandfather was from the Meiji period, and it was a point of cultural pride that he knew a lot about textiles.” This revered head of the household would make all the final choices, after allowing the women to state their preferences. Much care was given to appropriate seasonal materials and patterns, and the discussions carried out one season between the side that produced the fabrics and the side that bought them might well bring new innovations the next season. Sudo, now a mature textile designer and producer herself, never forgot the extraordinary atmosphere of those visits by the kimono salesman, when serious talk was devoted to the quality and beauty of functional textiles.

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