A/D/O by MINI | Sophie Rowley: Unraveling Textiles

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Sophie Rowley: Unraveling Textiles

The Berlin-based designer transforms waste resources into beautiful new materials and was a finalist for this year’s Loewe Craft Prize with her innovative “reverse” weaving.

New Zealand-German designer Sophie Rowley is a master of experimental craftsmanship, dedicated to pushing the boundaries of materiality. “I think my work is defined by resourcefulness,” she told The Journal. “I take something mundane or undervalued and turn it into something that will be appreciated, by applying a process and time.” Best known for her repurposing of waste materials into beguiling new forms, she was also a finalist for this year’s Loewe Craft Prize with Khadi Frays, a series of multi-layered wall hangings, which saw her deftly reverse traditional hand-weaving techniques.

Now based in Berlin, where she set up her studio in 2017, Rowley’s passion for craft and form stems from her childhood spent in Auckland and Tübingen in southern Germany. “I always had a pair of scissors in my hands,” she said. Her mother, an able craftswomen, taught Rowley and her siblings macrame, knitting and quiltmaking; her similarly dextrous grandmother instructed her in sewing; her father, an architect, helped to shape her keen eye for structure.

Sophie Rowley's work with leftover materials include re-firing glass to form textured surfaces.

Rowley initially intended to pursue a career in fashion, undertaking a BA in Fashion and Textile Design at HTW Berlin, with a focus on embroidery. After graduating, however, she opted to expand her practice, enrolling in the Material Futures MA at Central Saint Martins in London. “It’s all about research-based design and material development,” she described. “That’s when I started to work with waste.”

While Rowley is an avid advocate of sustainable design, her entry into the world of waste stemmed from financial necessity and a desire to innovate. “The workshops had all this equipment for developing new crafts,” she said. “I was interested in applying such techniques to waste materials – partly because I couldn’t afford to buy expensive ones! I began experimenting with styrofoam, paper, textile waste and glass, inspired by their individual properties and recycling processes.”

Rowley's Material Illusions project conjures nature-simulating surfaces from man-made waste.

Her Masters project, Material Illusions, saw Rowley champion waste streams as a “future quarry” worthy of the admiration usually reserved for raw resources. Using discarded scraps of various materials, she produced “a man-made, nature-simulating sample palette”, conjuring up “coral” from styrofoam and “marble” from denim, and using this to produce sculptural ornaments and bespoke furniture. 

“Often a waste resource will have a pre-existing aesthetic that a raw one doesn’t, which informs my redesign process,” Rowley explained. Her reclaimed glass, for instance, was made by fusing together recycled fragments in a kiln set at different temperatures, resulting in a multi-textured material with a likeness to ice. Embracing the “bubbly granules” of the original shards, which only partially melted during the firing process, she created a set of pale green platters from the reconfigured glass, named after the Perito Moreno glaciers in Argentina.

The Bahia Denim collection is made by molding denim offcuts into furniture pieces.

Her acclaimed Bahia Denim, meanwhile, takes its name from the Brazilian blue marble it resembles, and is made by draping denim offcuts over a mould and binding them in layers using bioresin. Flat slabs are then carved from the resulting solid form, revealing marble-like swirls beneath. “The scraps are all different colors and sizes so rather than try to uniformize them, I was inspired to create something with a purposefully irregular surface or pattern,” Rowley said. She used the material to make elegantly rendered stools and a series of playful, geometric tables.

Rowley won a New Design Britain award for Material Illusions in 2015, thereafter securing a commission from David Chipperfield Architects: a series of material studies replicating water in its three states of matter for a pop-up water bar at London department store Selfridges. Rowley then worked for the acclaimed designer Faye Toogood, heading up her limited-edition fashion line, Made In House, before spending a year at an innovation center in Mumbai, run by electronics brand Godrej and Boyce. There, she helped to conceive new materials and products which could be manufactured by local craftspeople from the company’s industrial garbage. 

Rowley's Khadi Frays textiles were a finalist for the Loewe Craft Prize.

India’s sumptuous colors and bustling textile industry inspired Rowley to begin working with fabric once more. “There were all these handspun, handwoven linens and cottons and I began experimenting with them,” she said of devising the technique behind her Jonathan Anderson-approved Khadi Frays pieces.

To make each poetic wall hanging, Rowley painstakingly deconstructed a solid block of multiple weaves, layer by layer, removing over 10,000 threads to create a poetic tableau of multidimensional frayed lines. “They’re based on perspectives,” the designer expanded. “I use a lot of architectural references, looking at forms in buildings to see if I can replicate the shapes I see in fabric.”

More Material Illusions pieces include a soapstone-like sample made from styrofoam.

The success of her textile pieces, upon her return to Berlin, was somewhat of a surprise to the 33-year-old designer. “I began making them to decorate my flat, then my friends asked me to make some, then I submitted them to the Loewe Craft Prize and here we are,” she said. “I’m really happy because textile-making is very much within my comfort zone, whereas developing materials is very challenging and requires a lot of experimentation. I’d like to start working with a material engineer to make it easier to industrialize my materials, but I really like the balance of working between material design and textiles.”

Rowley is currently busy doing just that. Her forthcoming projects include making new textile works for exhibition at The Salon Art + Design in New York, with Barcelona’s Side Gallery; refining some of her material investigations from the Material Illusions project for implementation on a more commercial scale; and a yet-to-be-revealed collaboration with one of the world’s leading architecture firms.

Text by Daisy Woodward.

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