Silver Code

Title: Silver Code or Giniro-no-kigou
Artist: Ryokichi Mukai, Japanese (1918-2010)
Accession #: U2013.52
Dimensions: 80 ft. x 35 ft.
Materials: Mylar, nylon, polyester, silk, polyethylene

7 people. 4 months. 1 loom.

Originally designed by the Japanese sculptor Ryokichi Mukai, the curtain was woven at the Kawashima Textile Mill in 1969.  It took seven people, four months, working on what was then the world's largest loom to weave the tapestry in time for shipping to the United States.

Photograph of weavers on the loom at the Kawashima Textile Mill in Kyoto, Japan. 1969.

by Claire Kruesel, Iowa State University MFA in Creative Writing, '2015

Like a museum with shifting exhibits, Stephens Auditorium brings world-class performance art to Ames year-round. Between stage and audience hangs the auditorium’s permanent exhibit: its massive 80x35-foot stage curtain, woven in Kyoto, Japan in 1969. Though this tapestry boldly transcends the blank-slate personality of a traditional red velour stage curtain, imagine that in 2013, this curtain didn’t even have a title or designer on record. Last year, University Museums Director Lynette Pohlman organized a collaborative effort to research and conserve this impressive example of textile art, which has now been titled Silver Code and attributed to Japanese artist Ryokichi Mukai (1918–2010). When Iowa State’s Art on Campus Collection — the largest public art collection among the nation’s public universities —welcomed Silver Code into its ranks, the textile became grand, indeed. A gem not only of Stephens Auditorium, but of the University Museums collection itself, the curtain showcases a fusion of art and structure that embodies the visionary, interdisciplinary spirit of Iowa State University. The curtain presides, always on the clock, as a strong example of artist Ryokichi Mukai’s preference for enduring, functional art that interacts with its viewers. 


Although Ryokichi Mukai designed several tapestries, the artist’s central medium was not textiles, but metal. His iconic towering abstract sculpture Ant Castle II —made in 1962 from factory scraps — still stands outdoors in Tokiwa Sculpture Park in Ube, Japan. Though Silver Code lives indoors, it channels Mukai’s basic artistic tenets: just like his sculptures invite hands to their surfaces, so does the curtain’s complex, architectural texture invite the touch of our eyes. Like Mukai’s many public sculptures, the curtain’s function as mediator between audience and performance positions Silver Code as more than just static, stationary art. Its abstract design, too, echoes design motifs employed across Mukai’s repertoire: bull’s-eye circles, matrices of dots, and “gears” infuse many of his sculptures and textiles with a sense of continuity, order, and subtle rebellion against technology. The exclamatory tufts of shiny mylar are one of Silver Code’s most noticeable design elements, and echo Mukai’s penchant for working with aluminum, which offered unique structural challenges and symbolized the post-war Atomic Age effort to negotiate a balance with burgeoning technology. Iowa State’s Silver Code, as a grand and expansive example of Ryokichi Mukai’s artistic themes and Japan’s leadership in textile excellence, holds its own as an international cornerstone of the University Museums’ collection and a dynamic player in C. Y. Stephens’ broad artistic appeal.


Decoding Silver Code began with its local provenance as a generous gift from J. W. (Bill) Fisher (see sidebar). Creative, fair, and generous, J. W. Fisher repeatedly spun his advantages and worldly perspective into advancements both in technology and the arts. In 1969, Silver Code was much more than a $20,000 donation; it was a monumental, internationally significant textile. It was J. W. Fisher’s way of crowning Stephens Auditorium so everyone would know that with the Iowa State Center, Iowa State was truly heralding a new era.


How did J. W. Fisher become familiar with Kyoto’s textiles? And why did he commission a Japanese artist to design the curtain? The answer lies in Fisher’s love of travel (in one classic photo, the industrialist and his wife Dorothy (nee Meyer; 1914–1998, Alum, 1936) sit astride camels in front of the Sphinx). In 1960 Fisher Controls built a factory in Japan, and in 1968, J. W. Fisher tempered business travel by experiencing Japanese culture: it was at the Chiba Cultural Hall in Chiba, Japan where the likes of Silver Code first spoke to him. There, a stage curtain of similar design to the one in Stephens Auditorium inspired Fisher to commission the curtain’s creators — Ryokichi Mukai and Kawashima Textile Mills — to execute a version exclusively for Stephens Auditorium. Fisher requested that the curtain symbolize Iowa State’s leadership in agriculture and technology, and include the colors cardinal and gold.

Photograph of the Chiba Cultural Center, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, ca. 1968.  Photo courtesy of the Ames Historical Society.

Woven by hand on what was once the world’s largest loom, the curtain’s very construction represented an Iowa State appropriate fusion of progressive arts and impressive engineering. Outweighing expectations by 1600 pounds, the textile cost $50,000 just to ship, and required rigging adaptations once it arrived on-set in Ames. However, when Silver Code premiered with Stephens Auditorium opening night in 1969, its audience appeal was immediate. Some people read agricultural motifs into its abstract design; some, a gear recalling Iowa State’s engineering excellence. The shared reaction was of recognition and appreciation for the glimmering curtain, decidedly beautiful in its solid construction and modern design. Even close to forty-five years later, the curtain conceals and reveals in continuous service and style, just like the award-winning architecture that houses it.

Ultimately, University Museums’ goal is to restore the curtain to that captivating shine of its opening days, when the New York Philharmonic enraptured a sold-out house for five straight days and Silver Code was the talk of the town. Conserving this exemplary curtain contributes to Iowa State’s greatest legacy: the union of the practical arts and sciences, roots of Land-grant education, with the humanities in creating, and conserving, a vision for a better life and a more well-rounded citizenry.

Rolling the tapestry in Kyoto for shipping to the United States, 1969.


In August 2013 conservators began work to clean and repair the curtain.  After 45 years and more than 3,500 curtain calls, this tapestry was in urgent need of conservation and repair.  As part of a joint effort between Iowa State’s University Museums and the Iowa State Center, conservators conducted an 8 month cleaning process that was carried out in situ in the auditorium on days when there was not otherwise a performance.  Much of the work was conducted by using an automated lift to reach the upper reaches of the curtain. 


Kate Greder working on the curtain.

Because the top five feet of the curtain were unreachable because of the proscenium, auditorium foremen released the side guide wires and lowered the curtain for one week so conservators could reach the top of the curtain with their vacuum and paint brushes.   

The rod pocket on the back of the curtain was ailing and conservators replaced the fabric, hand sewing an exact replica of the original stitch work done at the textile mill in Japan. 

Officially accessioned into the Art on Campus Collection, Iowa State's University Museums will now protect the tapestry so it remains hanging in the auditorium for as long as possible. 


The Red

The Silver


Below, before treatmen- Top, after treatment

This summer (2014) a team of people from Iowa State and the theatre rigging company iWeiss re-rigged the curtain.  In an effort to fix the sag at the bottom of the curtain, replace the backing, and support the hanging system for the curtain, the curtain was laid down on the stage floor while conservators and theater technicians took life saving measures to ensure the curtain remains hanging for years to come. 

Videos of the curtain raising and lowering:

Photos from iWeiss visit​

iWiess down


To contribute to the conservation of Silver Code online go to

Please make your donation to the University Museums Special Projects fund under Gift Designations, and indicate C.Y. Stephens Curtain Conservation in the notes field.

To mail your contribution to the conservation of Silver Code please indicate the University Museums Special Projects fund number 2311822 and C.Y. Stephens Curtain Conservation in your check’s memo field. Checks can be mailed to the Iowa State University Foundation, P.O. Box 868, Ames, IA, 50010-0868. 


FACEBOOK - Follow the Curtain on Facebook.

PRESS RELEASE with images

VIDEO by ISU News Service

Des Moines Register Article

The curtain has received a lot of attention recently.  Most notably from:

The Des Moines Register in December 2014, when they featured an article in the Sunday paper.

Iowa Public Radio’s Iowa Arts Showcase on March 8th, 2014.

The Spring 2014 edition of Iowa Architecture Magazine.

Ames Tribune
January 9, 2014

Iowa State Daily (campus newspaper)
November 21, 2013

VISIONS Magazine (ISU Alumni Magazine)
Winter Edition 2013

Visit Ames Webpage
December 16, 2013

Iowa State News Service
January 8, 2013

Inside Iowa State (ISU news for faculty and staff)
January 9, 2013

Iowa State Center Webpage
January 10, 2014


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