SAN FRANCISCO — Silicon Valley is known as a high-tech hub, home to companies like Google, Hewlett Packard, Facebook, Intel, Oracle, Adobe, eBay and Apple — a one-dimensional portrait that’s upended at a new fashion-art installation in San Jose, the valley’s largest city.
“Techstyle Softwear: Surface and Shape” at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles is a collaboration between artist Corinne Okada Takara, apparel designer Colleen Quen and industrial designer Rick Lee, who were asked to interpret Silicon Valley life. Using $55,000 in grants, the project became equal parts artistic expression and inquiry into the valley’s historic cultural diversity.
Not surprisingly, there was also an Internet social-media aspect in which locals were asked to submit favorite valley photos, which in turn inspired Takara’s abstract fabric that was designed using software developed in the region. She also created sound-design prints based on recordings of locals describing their favorite valley imagery.
Takara’s patterns draw on such disparate things as colorful Mexican candy wrappers, modern Joseph Eichler-designed 1950s subdivision houses, redwood trees, Vietnamese tunics, bright Indian saris, Santa Cruz Mountain foothills, shards of blue-and-white Japanese pottery from early agricultural workers and round Chinese restaurant soup bowls also from the same era. To capture the valley’s demographics, including the influx of high-tech entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia in the last several decades, Takara created flowered prints based on the data.
“Its history and diversity isn’t what the rest of the world thinks of Silicon Valley,” said Takara, a local resident of Japanese/European descent who was raised in Hawaii and is a design graduate from Stanford University, where much of the valley’s post-World War II high-tech origins are traced. Before that, the area’s nickname was the Valley of the Heart’s Delight for its lush orchards and flower farms, now occupied by gated high-tech company campuses.
Takara’s digital prints come to life in two gowns designed by Quen in her atelier an hour north in San Francisco, relying on the same traditional French couture techniques she uses to make her signature sculptural gowns and dresses. “It was my job to tell the story,” Quen said.
One gown, The Root, has a far-reaching skirt made of vertical silk panels that flow asymmetrically from the bodice onto the floor, symbolizing the valley and its foothills. Quen, a fourth-generation Chinese American, chose the Chinese soup bowl print to cut across the front. The two bell sleeves conjure up Japanese lanterns, one in a pan-Asian floral print inspired by this growing segment of the valley’s cultural melting pot, and the other representing the glass domed San Jose City Hall designed by New York architect Richard Meier.
Quen’s other gown, The Emotional Transformation, has an opaque full skirt made of boxed panels of boning and sturdy cotton lawn to represent the valley’s farming roots, as well as its solar panels. The boxes are printed with the voice-generated designs.
In turn, the dress is suspended from Lee’s stainless-steel panel installation attached to the ceiling like a multifaceted diamond-shaped sky twinkling around the room and in which the dresses are reflected. “This is my ethereal piece,” said Lee, explaining the surface imagines technology’s limitless frontiers, as well as the extreme wealth it generates, the valley’s big blue sky and its cultural diversity.
Lee, who was raised by Chinese parents in South Korea and Chicago and studied design at the University of Illinois, is known for his spare and whimsical design eye in furniture and home furnishings. It’s a style he developed by studying design under the Milanese modernist Maurizio Morgantini, as well as apprenticing in the early Nineties in his 20s in Milan, including at the Studio Alchimia. Lee and Quen, who are married, also often collaborate, as they did at an installation in the 2008 Shanghai Bienalle.
Lee also learned something else from the Italian modernists. “Design should be romantic and not rushed,” Lee says. “The fun part is the process.”
The exhibition, part of the museum’s TechStyle Bienalle celebrating the intersection of technology and fiber arts, runs through Oct. 31.