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Pretty Smart Textiles

At the intersection of art, fashion and technology, the exhibition Pretty Smart Textiles brings together for the first time, e-textiles made by emerging artists and designers in the Netherlands.

By Jeanne Tan / 10-06-2010

Think interactive electronic textiles that play melodies, a carpet made from conductive thread which picks up frequencies of sound,  an electro-luminescent rug or a glove that is able to read your personality through your handshake. 

The exhibition Pretty Smart Textiles held at Nutshuis in The Hague, explores the latest innovations today in e-textiles created by Dutch artists and designers. Artists and designers featured include Daan Roosegaarde, Maartje Dijkstra, Meg Grant, Nicky Assmann, Dorith Sjardijn, Melissa Coleman, Heike Sperber, Marina Venendaal, Karina van Heck, Florian Kräutli, Aduen Darriba, Joachim Rotteveel, Anouk Wipprecht, Charlotte ‘t Hart, Evelyn Lebis, Paula Kassenaar, Paula Segura Meccia and Mark Kwikkers.

Design.nl spoke to the curators Melissa Coleman and Dorith Sjardijn about the thinking behind the exhibition and the future of smart textiles.  

How did you get the idea for this exhibition, and why now?
We are both designers in the field of e-textiles and saw that there was a lot of interesting work currently being made in The Netherlands. We wanted to show this work to a broader audience. It’s quite rare, even globally, to see so many e-textiles together in one exhibition, but in the Netherlands there are perhaps relatively more artists and designers working on this. And we are also quite organized as a group. The reason it’s happening now is that this field is only just starting to mature. This specific exhibition concept - of showing work exclusively from the Netherlands - could not have been realized much earlier.

Tell us about some of the most innovative and fascinating textiles on show.
Looking exclusively from a materials point of view, the work that captivates the most is Daan Roosegaarde’s ‘Intimacy’ which uses an e-foil that becomes transparent with electricity. Because the material is so uncommon, people find themselves for a moment in this undefined mental space where they wonder if what they are seeing is really happening. This is the ‘magic factor’. Electronics can give textiles a new sense of poetry, because suddenly they can do things we only imagined. The textiles on show all move, transform, talk, sing or illuminate in order fascinate and engage visitors.

Some of the reactions from visitors?
Visitors love the interactive works in particular. At the opening they all flocked to the works where they could do something. While putting the final touches to the exhibition after the opening we would sometimes randomly hear parts of a song, which meant that the people working in the canteen were playing with the Braille tapestry. The funniest thing that happens in the exhibition is that people keep lifting Dorith’s tufted light carpet because they think there is really a light underneath the carpet, instead of inside of it. But what has surprised me the most is that really every work has its share of fans. The works are very diverse, so I guess there’s something there for everybody.

Where do you think Smart Textiles is at currently and where can we expect it to go from here?

The field of Smart Textiles is still very experimental, but in the next few years we will probably see different directions in this field crystallizing. In the world of fashion, designers have discovered illuminated heels, which have been shown on the catwalk by Rodarte, Jimmy Choo and Karl Lagerfeld. Within the high segment, textile buyers are simply waiting for the moment when illuminating textiles will have become production ready. We are also expecting a lot from interior- and product design with e-textiles. Smart Textiles will be easier to accept in furniture than in clothing.

Why easier in furniture than clothing?

It's a psychological thing. E-textiles in fashion are worn on the body and thus automatically more intimate and harder to maintain (due to washing requirements). Pop star-led dresses are really only show pieces and maybe not more uncomfortable than other extreme pieces. For the general public we think e-textiles will take the way of: Furniture -> Accessories -> Clothing.

What do Smart Textiles mean not only for the fashion industry but for our every day lives in general?

On the short term we expect the knowledge of e-textiles to seep through into the minds of the general public through pop stars such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Xtina who are now all appearing on stage in light emitting dresses. Maybe LEDs will be the new bling to appear in video clips. We think that e-textiles right now still have quite a geeky reputation. Most people will think of those ugly equalizer shirts when they think of electronics in clothing. Hopefully companies will employ good designers for the next generation of Smart Textiles for a larger audience to create attractive products. We firmly believe it can be done! Really the field of smart textiles is so broad that to answer what the development of Smart Textiles will mean for the general public is conjecture. To quote Kevin Kelly, we thought the Internet would be TV, only better. Instead it has revolutionized our ways of communication and how we process information. The same could perhaps be true for Smart Textiles. But right now we’re all waiting for that elusive killer app.

What questions are raised with the use of Smart textiles?
The main question for companies is how to get Smart Textiles produced and sold to the general public. The prototypes people are making now are all one-offs usually involving a lot of handwork. Also there are concerns about e-textiles. One problem is the speed with which a lot of these products go through batteries which is really quite bad for the environment. We should try not to just get them manufactured, but to do it in an ecologically friendly way. Another thing people are concerned about is if their wearable electronics will not put them in danger of electrocution, but that is just a question of good product design. To us the main question is, if people will really want their clothing and interior to become smarter. But we suspect they do. Technology is now already so interwoven in our day-to-day lives that this may not be such a big step after all.

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