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September 29, 2017

India-Born Architect Suchi Reddy On Constructing Environments That Make An Emotional Connect

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

She continues to traverse continents bagging impressive projects as we marvel at her contextual, contemporary and universal aesthetic sense

If you were to ask award-winning designer Suchi Reddy about the genesis of her fascination with architecture, she would direct your attention towards a faint scar on her right leg. As you inquire about its origin, you learn that Reddy sustained the injury at the tender age of five when her parents were building their house in Chennai and regularly visiting the construction site. Disregarding her mother’s caveat to be careful around scrap, she had run around the place studying the workers and materials with precocious curiosity, until she cut herself on a jagged metal fragment. Through the delirium of acute pain and wailing, there was a confident ‘click’ at the back of Reddy’s mind, a sound that she would come to recognise as fate deciding her professional calling all those years ago.

Reddy subsequently moved to New York to pursue her artistic dreams where she founded Reddymade Design in 2002. The firm’s sophisticated design aesthetic is evident from its choice of projects which includes a kinetic rain screen facade designed for a building in Chennai, a custom-made modular home in Beverly Hills and a 264-unit condominium project in Florida with lobbies designed by Karl Lagerfeld. She was recently in the news for creating an undulating installation of 7,000 pinwheels in New York’s Prospect Park to commemorate its 150th anniversary, with each pinwheel being nostalgically taken home by citizens at the end of the project. This, Reddy claims, is why design will always be her first love; it touches people in greater ways than the mind can fathom. We chat with the designer-cum-architect about the role of design in society, the challenges that come with her job and the projects that Reddymade Design has in the pipeline….

All architects are secret poets and we express our emotions in a sculptural way through our work. I am inspired by spaces that create a sense of wonder and teach us something about ourselves, a perfect example of which would be Peter Zumthor’s hotel and spa complex, Therme Vals, in Switzerland. I believe intelligent design is always beautiful. I look for potential in every space and amplify it to generate the appropriate design response, gravitating towards clean lines, precise proportions and comfortable textures. I must have been Japanese in a past life!

I love working with natural materials. I make sure to include a smorgasbord of beautiful stones, book-matched wood, paper and fabrics with amazing textures in my palette. I like to stretch the boundaries of how mediums can be transformed; for instance, one of our projects used a special kind of translucent concrete which emanated an ethereal coral glow when viewed in light. I’m very flexible when it comes to exploratory endeavours and don’t generally limit my interests to a fixed genre. If a project involves interesting people, fosters creative thinking and pushes boundaries, it has me at ‘Hello’.

For design to be good, it has to be culture-specific and universal at the same time so that it has a sense of place and history but is still contemporary and relatable. Owing to my roots, infusing Indian elements in international projects is something I get asked about endlessly. To tell you the truth, I incorporate an Indian sensibility into a certain space only when I am certain of its resonance and integrity. My 375-square-foot microapartment in New York City is stark in its minimalism with the exception of a beautiful, white-and-gold brocade from Kolkata that my sister presented to me which I use as a screen for my bed.

I have too many favourite projects to pick just one. My first big project, however, remains very close to my heart. It’s the office we designed for NYC’s Wellspring Capital Management with translucent onyx walls, beautiful wood and tasteful art. The fact that it is quartered in one of my most beloved buildings, Lever House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, makes it a strong contender for first spot. The initiative commissioned by Prospect Park Alliance for 7,000 pinwheels is one of my recent favourites. The fact that each and every pinwheel was taken away by visitors felt like a perpetuation of the park’s celebration. It was an amazing and humbling experience for me.

The brief definitely influences our design especially when it concerns projects with a strong socio-cultural message as in the case of The Women’s Building International Design Competition last year. Damyanti Radheshwar and I opted for a hyperthin concrete facade that was malleable enough to bend into fluid feminine curves to distinguish it from the angular complex next to it. We also fashioned the top of the building to look like a beacon, signifying the unique objective of the edifice and its important voice in the skyline. Another example would be the multi-use structure that I conceptualised in Chennai which included an encompassing exterior fabric that would safeguard it against nature’s elements. Keeping with our ethos of pushing boundaries, we experimented with several materials to determine if we could harness the energy of the sea breezes to generate electricity during a power cut. We are now in the process of translating this vision into a prototype that will eventually allow us to install small versions of these power-generating models in poor neighbourhoods.

The intersection of art and design fascinates me and led to the inception of WeR2 with former gallerist Sara Meltzer in NYC. It is an initiative that commissions artists to reinterpret quotidian objects that make art an essential aspect of daily living and was born from late-night chats about the importance of both those fields in our lives. We decided on a line where we would collaborate with artists of our choice to create wearables and products for houses. My latest catch from this range is a scarf with a print of a sculpture by the artist Tara Donovan. Now that the programme has gained a firm foothold, we are working on several private commissions for museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, SITE Santa Fe and the Parrish Art Museum in New York.

We have to defend design from forces that water down the concept or cut corners to accommodate other factors at the expense of quality. We work fastidiously to meet deadlines and budgets but it is sometimes a challenge to retain the integrity of our original blueprints. I feel personally responsible for people’s lives when I’m designing their homes and try, as much as possible, to reconcile our vision with theirs.

That aha moment is so much fun to explore as we render the design. I love the instance when all aspects of the brief coalesce in my mind to suggest the perfect architectural response. Once a project is realised and we see the joy it generates among people, I feel like I’ve done justice to the five-year-old kid who wanted to become an accomplished architect. I firmly believe that the purpose of architecture is to serve and uplift people. When we construct environments that are conducive to people’s happiness, they step into the world as good individuals.

My work diary is currently choc-a-bloc with projects. We are building a house in upstate New York in collaboration with celebrated artist Ai Weiwei, which is slated for completion this year. We are also working on 40,000 square feet of top-of-the-line amenities for a condominium complex in Florida besides completing two homes in Los Angeles.

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