India by Design


India by Design

From kitchen utensils to funky furniture, table lamps to watches, jewellery and accessories, Indian designers are creating a range of dazzling products and stamping a new design template that projects local flavours in a global language

Does anybody remember a guy called Dharmalingam Udaya Kumar? Not likely, but everybody in India knows his legacy: he is the the IIT Bombay graduate who won the competition to design the rupee symbol. To represent a nation with 16 different languages, he designed it in the Devnagiri script, turning the crossbar on the letter R into the national flag. Unmistakably Indian yet good enough to compare with symbols of international currencies, it is hailed as one of the most progressive design ideas in contemporary India. It also symbolised the coming of age of Indian design which has, at its core, stayed local yet projected global. Design guru Rajeev Sethi’s bench (made in collaboration with Kesariya Ram of Rajasthan and Italian designer Mario Bellini) has been on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York for the last 20 years. It is patently Indian yet its rustic brick colour and curves gives it a universal flair.

This global-local dualism was the core of the recent India Design Forum (IDF) in Delhi, organised by Rajshree Pathy, founder of the Coimbatore Centre of Arts. It was the first platform to bring together 700 design experts from all over the world, and an indication of India’s growing profile in the international design space. It aimed to provoke the government, real estate giants, automobile industry and corporates — the largest consumers — to promote and patronise design. More than that, it brought attention to Indian design as a part of the world’s sustainability discourse. The last decade of design change is so relevant that it is the subject of India Design, a forthcoming exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert museum. “It is to focus on a key moment when India is rising on the global landscape. It aims to capture creativity and innovation that reflects optimism and aspiration,” says its curator Divia Patel.

That is reflected in the designs that we see on a variety of products, from design firm Trampoline’s funky red and black sports chronograph by Bikram Mittra, the elegant multiflow liquidiser from Desmania Design, or the i-cocoon, an uber-cool laptop carry bag in bright pastel shades from VIP, designed by Satyajit Vetoskar. There’s also BPL’s eye-catching Studylight Halo, inspired by an Indian guide by Abhijit Bansod Designs and the deliciously named My Beautiful Backside, a seating system inspired by miniature paintings and designed by Doshi Levien. Even celebrities are tuning in to the design buzz, with starwives Suzanne Roshan and Twinkle Khanna involved in interior design projects for India’s ultra rich.

Yet, contrary to the immediate perception that this boom is about fashion and urban décor, there is a lot else going on. India’s youth dominate the consumer market. For them, design is top priority when it comes to products such as mobile phones, laptops and cars, a need now being met by local industries. From the dinky Nano car to the sleek Mahindra XUV 500, sofas that can be turned upside down to double up as writing tables; from lamps that dim when the user walks out of the periphery of the lighted area to sensor-embedded water taps and battery-operated folding toothbrushes, design has become omnipresent in modern life. “We are entering a very positive period for design. Those who experienced the first phase of design toiled with limited support and recognition but now I hope the response would be better,” says MP Ranjan, an independent design thinker who retired from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad recently. He writes one of the most widely read design blogs.

Design has crept upon us in our daily lives, both as aesthete and utility. Which is why a futuristic designer like Manish Arora saw wisdom in becoming a multidisciplinary artist. You may not be able to carry off a Manish Arora dress but you can wear a Manish Arora Swatch watch, use Good Earth mugs by him or Reebok’s Fish Fry shoes, all upholding his riotous sensibility. Modern jewellery in India is now made from new materials like jute, shells, steel, black metal, recycled paper and seeds, apart from traditional metals, and are finding new markets all over the world..

Contemporary design flows in and out of diverse creative zones forming a culture industry that could soon start contributing substantially to the national GDP. Consider the dimensions of this movement: Rajeev Sethi of the Asian Heritage Foundation, the first Indian curator at America’s Smithsonian Institute in the mid-’80s, continues to be the foremost consultant on design from South Asia. In the mid-2000s, he commissioned a series of art and craft exhibits for the Grand Hyatt hotel in Mumbai. Later, in 2010, he was invited by Louis Vuitton to design Diwali-themed window displays. For the first time in the history of the French brand, more than 450 LV stores across five continents featured columns of LV trunks made from banana leaves designed like lanterns. Sethi also collaborated with LV designer Marc Jacobs to curate vintage saris from different Indian regions for the latter’s line of sari dresses. There are rural artisans who have been taught to make laptop bags from indigenous leather and spectacle suspenders from glass beads — things which charm our trendy wardrobes. Ranjan emphasises the work of NID students where innovation is immense and varied — like a foetal monitor cart for European and American markets — an electronic veena (musical instrument), a water purifier for 2020, signage and bus shelters, Braille phones, multi-fibre fabrics, among many other products.

There are also not-for-profit organisations, like the Delhi-based and awarded Goonj, which make utilitarian products out of “everything and anything” discarded by urban India into goods for the underprivileged. The privileged are spoilt for choice in the realm of hotels, super luxury spas and spanking new airports, all global in design but Indian in concept. The Oberoi’s Vilas properties are a prime example, creating ultra-luxury resorts with strong local sensibilites in Udaipur and Jaipur, while the Amarvilas in Agra, where every room gives guests a view of the Taj Mahal, breathes in the architecture of the Mughals. Indeed, buildings are the most visible symbols of new India. The Pearl Academy campus in Jaipur is a memorable blend of interiors and exteriors where elements of the thermally adaptive space borrow from the tradition of passive cooling techniques used in desert climates like Rajasthan. The use of local materials like stone, mosaic flooring with steel, glass and concrete are aligned with a progressive design intent. The V and A exhibition takes cognisance of this multiplicity. “It will explore design for and by all levels of society. It will include the Tata Nano, high-end fashion, NGOs and mobile phone technology,” says Patel.

India’s larger, multidisciplinary dialogue with the world through spiritual and health tourism, literature, music and cinema festivals too has opened up design opportunities. Noted Mumbai designer Divya Thakur of Design Temple, who took to design after dabbling in the advertising industry, went on to do several multi-disciplinary projects like title design for Mira Nair’s film The Namesake, publication design for Lights Camera Masala, a contemporary Bollywood book, as well as stunningly creative sofas, multi-utility “holy book shelves” and lamps that look like temple bells.

What makes Indian design different then? Isn’t global design all of this, choked with modern yet homogenous ideas? “In the new hybrid age, Indian design is an intersection between man (craftsperson), style and evolving technology,” argues Sethi. ” It must be a triumph of the local informed by the global,” he adds.

Indian design now increasingly means functionality with an artisanal approach and old-world qualities complemented by a futuristic form. Thakur’s recent creation Edition One at Design Temple displays products with an Indian idiom. Matchboxes with Gandhiji’s three monkeys, and Cheerharan (disrobing) toilet paper with a villainous figure on it. “I believe there are many inspirations in the Indian way of living that can be made into fantastic products for global or local consumption by those with a global state of mind,” says Thakur.

The formerly held notion that design from India was questionable in terms of quality, finish and durability has dissipated. Besides being attentive to form, Indian design products are qualitatively superior and have a popular sensibility, like Gurgaon-based product designer Mukul Goyal who makes decorative and utility objects from metal, chromed or nickel plated brass, latticed steel and aluminium. His repertoire includes tableware and barware, office accessories and decorative items like vases with stem organisers, frames, bookmarks, cheese boards etc. One of his funkiest lines is the Wijo series made of thermoplastic elastometer with flexible arms and legs to keep cables in place.

Goyal, who has a market for his products in Ghana, Kazakhstan and Iran besides UK, US and Australia, believes it is all about striking an emotional connect with a market. His series, inspired by “human forms” (see photos), are a big hit abroad. Vendors sitting in old markets holding large containers are the muse of some; another piece has a magic carpet-like base. “It is important to bring out the inner artist in a designer so that he can provoke an emotional connect with buyers,” he says.

The dialogue on design is also becoming dynamic because India’s people-centric and sustainable design solutions are making sense to the world. “In a market saturated with sameness, where everything is a commodity, design is required for distinction. You need design to compete,” says Fabindia managing director William Bissell. Fabindia offers numerous design solutions, from garments and home décor to organic products but Bissell argues that it stands outside the “competitive design” space. “Our products have an intrinsic value. It’s like being a zookeeper to keep the endangered species alive so that craft diversity is not lost,” says Bissell.

Yet, it is this very diversity that gives Indian design an edge. Words like organic, artisanal and sustainable are in a friendly wrangle with innovation, durability and technological finesse. In theory, one negates the other, in reality, they co-exist here. “Rootedness remains complex. We are the size of Europe and the complexity of the world,” says historian and designer Aman Nath, who is in the process of reinterpreting the Jodhpur IIT campus to make it a “building of relevance with an Indian conscience.” It is not easy. “Yet, Indians have got their act together. It is a two-way exchange and the world is interested in us. Twenty years ago, artist Subodh Gupta, with all his baltis (one of the artists recent installations), would not have been invited to show in Paris,” adds Nath.

It’s like coming back at least half circle. India is expected to uphold its artisanal identity yet be technologically forward. “India matters because it can show a different path by addressing with immediacy the values that have been lost in the developed world,” says Patel, adding that India doesn’t need to make high end products for affluent consumers to make a mark in the global design movement.

Invited to independent India by Jawaharlal Nehru (who rightly fretted about India’s tradition versus modern design challenges) to provide a roadmap for design education, American designers Charles and Ray Eames wrote the India Report in 1958 that would become the charter of NID, an institution that has produced a host of top designers. They envisioned a movement for social change which didn’t exactly happen. But now Indian product designers are ensuring that change is coming, and in a forceful way. India by design is very much a work in visible progress.