The Japan Society
Publications Books & Journals The Japan Society Review

NUNO: Visionary Japanese Textiles

NUNO: Visionary Japanese Textiles
By Sudo Reiko
Edited by Naomi Pollock

Thames and Hudson (2021)
ISBN-13: 978-0500022689
Review by David Tonge

In the late 1990’s I was working at a design company in the Axis building in Roppongi, Tokyo. The Axis building is known as a place to see design and craft related exhibitions as well being the headquarters of Axis magazine, a global design journal. It is also the home of several stores. One of these, located in the basement, is called NUNO, simply meaning “cloth” in Japanese.

While I didn’t know its significance at the time, I would browse their bolts of unique fabrics, buying small samples for reference and the occasional finished piece, such as the scarf I happened to be wearing in the first Autumn chill a few days ago.

Leafing through the impressive NUNO: Visionary Japanese Textiles by Suda Reiko, I was delighted to be reacquainted with their work. This luxurious large format book, bound in NUNO fabric, is encyclopaedic in both content and weight and is a fitting celebration of their work.

So why is NUNO and in particular Suda Reiko important to the world of textiles?

NUNO was founded in the 1980’s by Arai Junichi. Born into a textile manufacturing family based in Gunma Prefecture, Arai was not cut out for business so instead used his knowledge as a textile consultant. After collaborating with the big fashion names including Miyake Issey and Yamamoto Yoji in the 1970’s and 1980’s, he was on the map.

Invited to open a store in the then newly developed and aforementioned Axis building he created a treasure trove of textiles for his customers to experience, and called it NUNO using the kanji character for “cloth” (布) still in use today. Shortly after, Arai was joined by Suda Reiko who like Arai came from a family steeped in traditional Japanese textiles.

Where Arai and his experimental approach left off, Suda continued to develop the output and introduce the name of NUNO to a global audience. With a dizzying list of accolades, she and her team advise companies such as MUJI on the use of recycled fabrics, collaborate with architects and art institutions on global exhibits as well as working with artisans and educating students of textile design, all the while continuing to create unique fabrics and products for public consumption through their stores in Tokyo and beyond.

When thinking of Japanese textiles, we might conjure up an image of dimly lit ateliers with artisans practising the labour-intensive processes required to create fabrics for making kimonos, the indigo dyed fabrics found in everyday household items or the globally coveted Okayama selvedge denim created for jeans. In contrast, but aligned with, Suda’s work stretches, smashes and subverts the strengths and weaknesses of a fabric to find unique applications and aesthetics beyond what we may think of as Japanese. It’s a no holds barred approach and while its (annoyingly) common for people to use the word “disrupter” these days, NUNO truly deserve this mantel within the textile industry.

This context is made simple in the insightful introduction by renowned Japanese architecture and design author Naomi Pollock, who deftly highlights the achievements and charts NUNO’s journey explaining how and why they are so revered and influential in the world of textiles. A fact re-affirmed, if you were fortunate enough to visit, in the recent Japan House London exhibit Making NUNO

But it was when I read the chapter titles that I fell in love with this book. Each of the eight chapters use onomatopoeic descriptors according to the feeling evoked when touching a fabric – Fuwa Fuwa, Shiwa Shiwa, Kiwa Kiwa, Zawa Zawa and so on. No doubt we have all struggled to describe the troubling texture of velvet for example? Even if we don’t speak Japanese, onomatopoeia provides a unique and thought-provoking solution to this problem and a great way to guide you through their work.  

Each of these chapters feature an essay by a luminary of the arts world, including author Murakami Haruki, architect Ito Toyo and musician Arto Lindsay. Perhaps more interesting for me, as a designer, are the ‘Portraits of a Textile’ at the end of each chapter, describing the process and inspiration used to create each fabric, including details from NUNO’s sketch books and photos of team members in the act of creation.

If forced to pick out a favourite it would be Zawa Zawa (p. 258) which is interpreted as ‘The rumble of the unknown,’ as something unnervingly unidentifiable. Surely a fitting way to describe NUNO itself. It starts with four poems about noise by the American musician Arto Lindsay, a long-term collaborator of Sakamoto Ryuichi. Lindsay writes and sings in a surreal haiku-like style. For example in ‘Almost Aphoristic’ (p. 262) he writes:

Noise of hair on skin
Unconscious Noise
Applying Lipstick

… something unnervingly unidentifiable.

But it is the sheer breadth of creative processes and dynamic visual nature of the fabrics that are so compelling. A few to mention are Tataki – a patchwork of prints punched together, Big Ring – a stretchy cotton crepe (the material of my scarf), Computer Chip – a woven and beautifully detailed geometric graphic of a computer chip, Scrapyard Iron Plates – a rust infused printed fabric, and we must not forget Heat-moulded Velvet – where the effect is crinkly, crumbly, and earthy. A velvet I might get to like! While photos cannot do the fabrics justice, these are all beautifully illustrated with full page colour images befitting of a Thames and Hudson art monograph.

If your interest in Japan is in the purely traditional, then this book might not be for you. But if, like me, your interest in Japan is in its ingenuity, creativity and commercial instinct combined with its traditional craft culture, then I can whole heartedly recommend this book for your Christmas list. And when we can travel again, please do visit the NUNO store in Roppongi and experience the emotions that Suda Reiko’s creativity and fabric inspire.

Book Discount

NUNO: Visionary Japanese Textiles is available on the Thames & Hudson website with a 25% discount. To obtain the discount, visit Thames & Hudson online and enter the code NUNO25 at checkout.