01 A Cube’s urban nest with recycled teak legs; 02 Handmade terracotta and steel lamp by A Cube; 03 Master craftsman Prabhudas Bhai, Anand and Anuj Ambalal; 04 Brian DeMuro and Puru Das; 05 Bookshelf by Urbanist; Urbanist’s hathi (elephant) chair; 06 Interior of Lakshman Sagar Resort, Rajasthan; 07 Sahil Bagga & Sarthak Sengupta; 08 Sahil & Sarthak’s Katran Shell Lamps (06-08: images courtesy of British Council, New Delhi); 09 Deconstructed Dining Throne by Gunjan Gupta for Wrap; Gunjan Gupta; 10 Klove Studio’s Fakhtai Jhumka; Prateek Jain and Gautam Seth.
As India’s design entrepreneurs attempt to develop a contemporary indigenous design language, they encounter dialects as diverse as the sub-continent itself.
Trying to decipher luxe Indian product design is like reading a palimpsest: beneath its contemporary surface is layer upon layer of eclectic cultural contexts and concepts, shadows of a past rich in artisanal value, memories of exuberant colour, superimpositions of gilt, and undertones of techniques on the brink of obsolescence. Typecast as the land of the exotic, India has a way with staggered evolution. Like cows sharing the roads with Chevrolets, the coexistence of the traditional and the contemporary is a matter most ordinary. If art evolves to reflect the world we live in, Indian product design is currently a hotpot churning with centuries’ worth of ingredients, spiced up with the connectedness of the new world and tempered with the need for sustainability. As new flavours rise to the surface every now and then, the only common thread is the desire to speak in a global tongue.
From their first chair, built in a garage in 2005, to their recent experiments with walnut and the bentwood technique, A Cube’s designs have been “intuitively Indian.” Brothers Anand and Anuj Ambalal—a business graduate and former financial analyst, respectively—set up the studio in Ahmedabad in 2006 with the help of master craftsman Prabhudas Bhai Mistry.
Inspired by BV Doshi’s contribution to the architectural discourse of Le Corbusier and Khan, which determined the aesthetics of the Indian Modernist Movement in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and responding to Indian spaces in which traditional furniture had lost its relevance, A Cube developed a “contemporary vernacular” design vocabulary.
Most of A Cube’s works are handmade to order. Rather than following clichéd motifs, the “Indianness” of each piece lies in its form, texture, material, colours, and ergonomics that factor in the typical Indian sitting posture, lifestyle, weather conditions, light quality, and availability of raw materials (a crucial point, since it ensures a minimal carbon footprint). Though rooted in the local, the perpetual osmosis between global cultures is bound to ensure that A Cube continues to evolve. acubeinc.net
Puru Das and Brian DeMuro’s designs are “a response to contemporary urbanity, which collapses most notions of the local and global in surprising ways.” Inspired by vintage Milo Baughman chairs and new age Brazilian furniture in New York’s Soho and Tribeca districts, the former advertising (Das) and finance (DeMuro) professionals set up the Urbanist Design Studio in Gurgaon in 1999, right in “the midst of a design evolution.” Their original “high modern style” took “a more poetic turn through form, detail and material” inspired by “the genius loci, the spirit of the place, which is unstable and complex.”
The eclectic Urbanist palette features fine finishes developed at the Urbanist LAB, alongside local ikats, prints, stones, inlays, woods, veneers, and artisanal cast glass, as well as hybridisations of wood and cast glass, metal and stone, hand-carved wood and leather. “When the rest of the world takes inspiration from India, it’s still a form of Orientalism, with its fascination with Indian colours and patterns,” the pair state. “We believe that there is a deeper understanding of India to be achieved by working with her peoples’ skills, aspirations and living traditions.” Despite their anthropological approach to design, their work is not a fossilised replication of what was, but pushes the boundaries of design to create relevance to what is. urbanist.in
SAHIL & SARTHAK DESIGN CO.
Art for art’s sake has never held any appeal for either Sahil Bagga or Sarthak Sengupta. Their quest to find purpose for their artistic endeavours led Sengupta to pursue Accessory and Lifestyle Design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, while Bagga studied Applied Arts at the College of Art, Delhi. After a period of studying at the Politecnico di Milano and working in Milan, they set up Sarthak Sahil Design Co. in 2009. They have since been developing design interventions to “recontextualise the skills” of unconventional artisans like blacksmiths and village day bed weavers, whom they define as “uniquely skilled people.”
Bagga and Sengupta believe that “contemporariness is just the uppermost layer of culture – beyond this lies a depth of tradition and meaning.” Their Glocal (“global” plus “local”) designs, as seen in the Longpi, Rudraksh and Katran collections, are narratives of regional tradition and folklore, in universally functional avatars, which “balance the surface and the spirit” of Indian design. Their patented Zero Kilometre Design, meanwhile, implemented in the Lakshman Sagar Resort Project, illustrates the “ethnic, ethic and ecology” philosophy, through which they creatively cater to the growing demand for green luxury products. sahilsarthak.com
Even without the patronage of maharajas, gilded thrones are still commanding attention on the global design scene, courtesy of Gunjan Gupta’s attempts to harness and commercialise the skills of artisans from Jaipur, Udaipur, Agra, Ferozabad and Delhi, and to resuscitate techniques as rare as they are beautiful.
Gunjan Gupta refers to her designs as a response to being “Indian in a global world.” An interior designer, armed with a master’s degree in furniture design from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, Gunjan Gupta set up the Delhi-based Wrap in 2006. Wrap’s focus on “connecting luxury, craft and design’ involves showcasing its collections on the world’s most illustrious design platforms, including Sotheby’s in London. Collaborations with Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan, Droog Design in Amsterdam, and Swarovski in Paris have meant a cross-flow of influences.
Whether the technique of plating 24-carat gold leaf onto a dining throne; the concept of bicycles as beasts of burden laden with silk or sacks; or the use of indigenous materials, the core stays the same: a fragment of Indian heritage, reinterpreted in an attempt to communicate with a global audience and tagged with an ultra-luxurious label. wrap.co.in
“We create objects that we would like to see in our space,” says Prateek Jain, a business school graduate. He and Gautam Seth, a chemical engineer, developed their own brand of décor when what they found in stores didn’t live up to their expectations. Their first collection, Transparent, Translucent, Opaque—a range of glass, mesh and metal table-top pieces launched in 2005—was an outburst of pure untrained passion.
Three collections later, though their creative range has expanded to include chandeliers, furniture, and installation art, their design driver stays the same: “to create beautiful things.” Nature, mundane objects, cultural references, Islamic architecture and jewellery, intricate Indian motifs like paisley, the lotus, and pearl drops – anything could spark an idea. Glass especially is their favourite medium – they love it for its versatility. Most of their design currently revolves around glass and ways to forge more room for it in a contemporary setting. klovestudio.com
Published in the August/September issue of Surface Asia