The innovative materials of Japanese textile designer Sudō Reiko are the subject of a new exhibition

Sudō reflects on his career, sustainability and draws inspiration from “everyday moments” before an upcoming exhibition at Japan House in London.

“My creations often start from small moments of everyday life, where I say to myself: ‘Hmm, it’s interesting, how would that work as a textile? »», Explains designer Sudō Reiko.

Most of her ideas have sprung from what she calls “a sense of wonder at ordinary events.” This way of thinking explains how and why she strives to blend her traditional Japanese culture and practices with cutting edge technology, thus producing innovative materials.

As Japan House in London prepares to open an exhibition exploring Sudō’s life and work, we discuss with her what visitors can expect from the exhibition and how her career has evolved.

Photo courtesy of: CHAT (Center for Heritage, Arts and Textile), Hong Kong

From conception of design to patenting

Born in Ishioka City, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, Sudō began her career as a Textile Laboratory Assistant in the Department of Industrial, Interior and Handicraft Design at Mushashino Art University. She eventually helped found the textile design company Nuno.

Sudō was Nuno’s design director for 30 years. During this time, she was one of the first to embrace sustainable design ideas like using waste and unconventional materials, promoting regional manufacturing, and encouraging traditional craftsmanship.

Japan House’s exhibition will explore these beliefs and processes through five large-scale installations. Each will combine Nuno fabrics with art projections and a range of mediums such as sketches, raw materials and videos. Visitors will be guided through every step of Sudo’s textile design process, she says, from initial concept design to manufacturing and even patenting.

One of these installations will showcase the sustainable approach of Sudō in the broad sense. Kibiso Crisscross, a collaborative project with the Tsuruoka Textile Makers Cooperative, presents the process the team developed to reuse discarded kibiso, the protective outer layer of silk cocoons. A machine that takes those hard leftovers and creates threads from them. The idea is to create “no waste and use everything”, according to the designer.

“Finding something in common with a familiar material will suggest all kinds of possibilities”

She says her process usually begins with what she knows about existing materials, before pushing the boundaries of that knowledge.

Sometimes that means finding a material with properties similar to the one she’s working with and exploring them both. “Even if the goal is different, finding something in common with familiar material will suggest all kinds of possibilities,” she says.

Sudō gives the example of its molten metal materials. “A fabric with steaming on aluminum already existed, which prompted me to think about melting on other metals,” she explains. The end result is a polyester fabric that has the sheen and depth of steel.

The technology to do this was already in place in the auto industry, where stainless steel splatter is used to ply small parts for cars – Sudō says it simply ‘hijacked’ the technology for something new . “Their lot sizes [quantities] were huge, and the technique was designed for hard volumetric objects, so it was an exercise in trial and error to see if it would work on a flat, soft fabric, ”she adds.

“Seasonal events deeply rooted in Japanese life will offer design guidance”

Sudō’s Metal-Fused Textiles show how Sudō pushes the capabilities of technology to match his ideas. The other main influence on her work is her Japanese heritage, she says, and this leads her to connect and work with Japanese artisans and craft practices. “The production process begins by meeting the artisans and technicians and communicating directly to them the feeling behind my creations,” she says.

It also allows him to integrate aspects of Japanese life familiar to those who live in the country. “Often, seasonal events deeply rooted in Japanese life will offer design advice,” Sudō explains. Other times, it’s more everyday events that get her thinking.

For example, Shutter, a woven fabric that is now part of the V&A collection, is a textile based on the gusseted steel shutters that are still commonplace in the old shopping streets of the country. The fabric merges parallel strips of nylon tape to make the shutter pattern.

“We try to change over time”

His approach also allows him to integrate Japanese processes with artisanal practices from other countries. One of her favorite projects, Amate, was inspired by traditional Mexican bark cloth.

The bark cloth process, she explains, involves laying strips of bark across to create “beautifully patterned sheets” of material. It was first taught to him during a trip to Mexico in 1990. For his own take on the practice, Sudō used a strong and light Japanese washi paper instead of bark which was first affixed to a velor base, but now uses a cotton blend. “We try to evolve with the times and find more environmentally friendly hydrophilic materials where we can,” she says.

The Amate material can now be found in the design collections of several international museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“Craftsmen are aging”

Sudō’s practice is strongly influenced by centuries-old artisan knowledge, but she regrets that it is increasingly difficult to access. “Making things in Japan is getting more and more difficult with each passing year,” she says. “Craftsmen are aging, machines wear out and few apprentices carry on traditions. “

This is something Sudō says she actively tries to counter, going through with her crafting intentions and encouraging the continuation of the practices where she can. She quotes the late industrial designer Sori Yanagi: “Being Japanese, being able to communicate in Japanese with Japanese technicians and working in Japan, the things I make naturally become Japanese.

“I was greatly inspired by these words and if I am true to their spirit then I have to take full responsibility for being true to my crafting ideals,” she says.

MAKING NUNO Japanese Textile Innovation by Sudō Reiko will open on May 17 at Japan House in London. You can find more information about the exhibition via the gallery website.

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