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Fabric Stretched to Imaginative Limits

Using everything from metal to origami-like patterns, NUNO Studio redefines cloth.

April 21, 2002|SCARLET CHENG

It is 6 a.m. in Tokyo.

Reiko Sudo, director and chief designer for one of Japan's leading fabric innovators, NUNO Studio, has finally found time to return a call. With an 8-year-old son at home and nonstop demands at the office, the wee hours of the morning are her own, uninterrupted time, and she is awake, though slightly jetlagged after returning from a business trip to the United States the day before. With a small laugh she says, "My most creative time is between 2:30 and 6 in the morning."

Starting today, some of the fruits of that creative drive will be on display in "Tradition and Innovation: Contemporary Textiles from the NUNO Studio, Tokyo" at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. The show features a selection of the remarkable textiles that have put her company on the A-list of craft and fashion cognoscenti--fabrics with metallic coatings, flocked paper, puckered and ripped surfaces, or simply patterns that are at once familiar and richly mysterious. In the latter category are designs that have been made by such surprisingly humble techniques as burning with gas jets or spray-painting.

In the U.S., NUNO is best known through group museum exhibitions, such as 1990's "Color, Light, Surface" at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and 1997's "Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textile Designs" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But the current show, organized by the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara, focuses solely on her studio.

"I think the inherent beauty of the fabrics themselves--not on the body but as art--is why they've been so exhibited by museums," says Marla Berns, director of the Fowler, who was director of the University Art Museum when the show was conceived. "The techniques they've used to achieve these results are also really interesting."

There are certainly other fabric designers in Japan, says guest curator Lynn Gibor, a frequent visitor to that country, "but I think NUNO is the most influential and I'm inclined to say the most innovative."

NUNO (which means "fabric" in Japanese) was co-founded by Sudo and Junichi Arai, a textile designer, in 1984. At the time, it was a small workshop, and Sudo did everything from design to sales and distribution. Three years later, when Arai left the company, Sudo took the helm. "That was the starting point for me," she says.

A graduate of the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Sudo, now 48, recalls studying a variety of media at school, including clay, metal, wood, plastic and textile. "They wanted you to try everything," she says. "Then at the end of the second year, you got to choose the medium that best expressed your thoughts." Sudo chose textile and industrial design.

In the 1970s, she had been inspired by innovations in textile designs seen in publications and books--including work by U.S.designer Jack Lenor Larsen as well as work being produced in Japan. Sudo's initial goal was to make one-off painted kimonos. "But I realized there was this very expressive way to use fiber," she says. "It was really more conceptual work."

This was the spirit she brought to NUNO. At the beginning, she had just two employees, and, she says, "I thought it would be much nicer that we work together, more like a team." That is how Sudo has run her enterprise, open to suggestions from all the workers, who also take part in the subsequent development.

"I have 12 staff members, and everybody has to do everything--that's the NUNO concept," she says. "Have ideas, help in [developing] the fabric, packing, even selling. We're still small." As director, she decides which ideas to pursue and how assignments are made.

NUNO headquarters are in the upmarket area of Roppongi in Tokyo, with a retail store next door that sells bolts of NUNO fabrics as well as a limited selection of ready-made clothing in simple cuts. (There are nine other outlets throughout Japan.) NUNO also has a workshop in Kiryu, a traditional textile town two hours north of Tokyo that has been revived by a renaissance in Japanese fabric arts. Mass production is farmed out to more than 40 mills all over Japan, and Sudo is continually on the hunt for mills that can produce textile to the studio's exacting specifications.

It was perhaps most difficult to find a mill for "Stainless Steel Gloss," in which polyester fabric is pressed between rollers and then splatter-plated with powdered chrome, nickel and iron to give it a metallic sheen. NUNO experimented until it could combine the metals and the fabric in such a way that the finished product would remain pliable to the touch. When the studio began developing the fabric in 1989, the team went to an automotive company for help with applying the metal powders. Later, a textile mill agreed to install the special equipment necessary to coat the fabric.

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