Woven in Time

Reiko Sudo, textile designer and design advisor at MUJI, recalls the moments and methods that have defined her ongoing relationship with textiles.

Interview by Charlene Chan
Translation by Reiko Yokoi
Photographs courtesy of MUJI

Halfway through a panel discussion, Reiko Sudo halts the conversation, in shock at the amount of waste we generate in Singapore. Having consulted for Japanese retailer MUJI since 2008, she’s led the charge for the brand’s numerous upcycling initiatives, introducing the philosophy of mottai-nai—which conveys a sense of regret over wastage—to their consumers. Sustainability has remained at the core of what she does, from the reuse and repurposing of textiles, to the preservation of traditional craftsmanship.

Elsewhere, Sudo’s work at NUNO Corporation has often been described as experimental. By bringing together pioneering technologies and time-honoured methods, her designs manifest as expressions of our current realities. She says matter-of-factly that she considers her work to be her calling, and shares candidly about her childhood and the values that she weaves throughout her various endeavours.  

Please tell us about your relationship with textiles. How did your interest in textiles begin?

I was from a small countryside town in Japan; the population there was only about 20,000. In spring, a kimono seller would come all the way from Kyoto to my town to sell kimono for the summer. In autumn, he would come with a selection of winter kimono. My relatives would gather in the hall where the seller was, and select their new kimono for the season. 

I would peek inside with a sense of envy: the sounds of fabric being unrolled, the changing colours of fabric on the floor, my grandfather paying the merchant, my mother and auntie sitting on the floor and draping fabric over themselves—those were memories that left a very strong impression on me. As I grew up, times changed and kimono shops opened up in our town. It was no longer necessary for merchants to visit our house, so I never got to experience that.

What do you hope to achieve through your work? 

What I want to do through my work at NUNO is to express the here and now: my life in the present moment, what I’m feeling and where I am. I can introduce how I live in Japan, how I enjoy Japan, or how Japanese craftsmen, artisans and engineers discover materials and techniques. Textiles speak for me more than words do; they are a mode of communication.

What is one textile that holds most meaning for you? 

It would be a piece of textile where I used the method of spattering. Spattering is a colouring method used in Germany to coat plastic with stainless steel material, in order to keep vehicles lightweight, yet appear metallic. I applied that method onto a textile, which was a unique experience for me back then. It was a milestone for me; it gave me the confidence to pursue textile design. 

Before becoming a textile designer, I was a handweaver for about nine years. Then, my idea of designing textiles was that it was less creative; weavers are more artistic and involved in the creative process. In 1982, I met Mr Junichi Arai, a textile designer who later became my mentor and invited me to work with him on the founding of NUNO. I accepted the offer and started doing textile design, but wasn’t convinced about textile design being a creative process. It was only in 1987, when I encountered the method of spattering, that I knew I could pursue this career. 

Is the technique something you continue to use now?

Yes, ever since then. Initially, I worked with car manufacturers because spattering was the technology that they were using. It would cost me about 36 to 40,000 Japanese yen (S$500) per metre, because the volumes of our orders were small. Eventually, a spattering machine specially designed for textiles was invented, and the cost went down to a quarter of what it used to be. I apologise to my buyers who bought it when it was expensive (laughs). 

What is a value you adhere to, whether at NUNO or MUJI?

Regardless of the work I do, the product itself has to look beautiful—it has to have a consistent aesthetic value from start to end. It doesn’t matter how decorative or colourful that item is, or whether it’s a muted, neutral design; an item is beautiful when its designers, manufacturers, and consumers feel a sense of satisfaction at their level, in their area of responsibility. 

The designer, like myself, should feel happy that they designed the product. Likewise, the manufacturer should have a sense of enjoyment or fulfilment, even if it takes them a long time to make something. When an item is chosen by a consumer, they should feel a sense of satisfaction when using it. My ultimate goal is for all stakeholders of the product to share the same contentment—that is reflected in the item itself, and is the kind of relationship that I wish to continue having with manufacturers and consumers.

Reiko Sudo was in Singapore for Creative Reuse: Products, Practices, People, a talk event held on 20 April 2018 in conjunction with MUJI Singapore’s 15th anniversary.