The drive to Gurgaon dispensed with in a smooth and unruffled fashion, I descend from the SUV outside the Chawla abode – and am ushered into its newly-minted space. I am rewinding mentally to my first visit here last year when I had seen it in the last phase of construction and had been suitably impressed by its framework (despite the drenching rains) and the plans that Monica and Hardesh Chawla, who spearhead the interior design and architecture firm Essentia Environments, had drawn up.
Monica now emerges from an inner space on the ground floor and we exchange greetings. I hear footsteps descending the flight of stairs. Hardesh walks in and, on his query as to how I find the finished product, I tell him that it carries the impression of their passion and vision.
Monica and Hardesh lead us through the various areas of the house. We have the choice of walking up to the terrace – that has a beautiful arrangement for entertainment – or taking the small elevator. After a couple of trudges, I opt for the convenience of the latter. Our eyes take in the artefacts, the furniture and the family elements that dot the place. I cannot tear my eye away from the tree that grows upwards from its pride of place in the lower area of the home, almost reaching out towards the sky. Several walls have interesting designs on them – as you enter, one huge one has a beautiful relief that gives it a perfect finish.
After a while, we retire to one of the two dining areas to learn about how they created their perfect home. They have moved in but a few months earlier – and despite the presence of a dog which meanders in and out of the rooms and two sons, the house still has to get that familiar lived-in feel. I set our conversation rolling by focusing on the name – Essentia Environments. Hardesh, who holds an MBA from INSEAD, France and has over 15 years of experience in bringing complex and exciting designs to life, lets his interior designer wife, Monica, take the lead saying, “I can’t really remember and anyway, all married women have a monopoly over the conversation.”
Monica points out, “It was derived from the word ‘essence‘. Both of us lay a great deal of emphasis on the surroundings. So, the name Essentia Environments. For us environment means both the external and the internal. My sensibilities lean toward a fusion of modern and contemporary with the everlasting elegance of old. And, while others may think of it as a combination of tradition and funk, I am happy calling it ’contemporary classic’.
For Monica and Hardesh, work on any interior starts a few months before the actual construction. Interestingly their own home was not initially planned as a place they would live in. It was supposed to be a cumulation of apartments but then, just after they had started work on it, they decided to make it their personal residence. Hardesh points out, “When we changed the focus, the problem was how to adapt the existing framework to our personal use.” Monica adds, “Imagine bringing a 29-bedroom utility space into a seven-bedroom regular home. Our family comprises my in-laws, our two growing sons and of course, the two of us. We did not raze the building to the ground and start afresh. The initial plans had a courtyard and we added everything else that we felt was essential.”
Right through, a sense of space pervades the home. A clever use of glass and neutral shades has enhanced the feeling of openness which also gives a sense of fluidity and connect between different rooms. Monica states, “We have focussed on the visual. Every area has its own privacy but at the same time you can peek into it from the corridors or see it from the outside – the whole effect is airy and visually connected.”
Their sense of aesthetics as seen in their own home finds expression in their work. Even though Monica and Hardesh work on different aspects of a project, they share a common vision. For as Monica says, “Both of us share a single sensibility. We love working with each other. And our interactions translate into learning experiences for our team of 30-odd people.
Growing up, the Chawlas developed their interests differently. Monica, by her own admission has always been a lawns kind of person. She remembers, “I’ve always been quite a decorator. My mom used to say that I insisted on making my parent’s place fresher or I would renovate it by adding or removing things. When I got married she told me that if someone could hire me it would be amazing. I had never planned to be a designer. My mother-in-law gave me a free hand in our home and that is how it all started.” To which Hardesh adds, “When she was a child her dream job was to be a house cleaner for the Queen’s house – the Buckingham Palace!”
They speak about the time they were in Russia in the late 1990s for about 12 years – Hardesh explains that they had many properties there. “They were old and crumbling, the kind that you find in villages. We began doing them up to make them viable commercially. Clients moved in and by word of mouth our work grew. We started with corporates and then continued to residences.” And they realised that creating properties was what they were interested in.
They admit that neither of them has had any formal training in interior design or architecture. “We command respect because a lot of our projects are commanding. Unfortunately such is the state of education in India that when an architect graduates, most of them are not ready to practice. They do not have the acumen. You need a lot of hands-on experience which formal study often does not give you,” they lament. Speaking about what is a good interior or a perfect design, Hardesh states, “Good design is always simple and that is why it is usually so complicated to execute. I believe in taking ownership and making my work as beautiful as I can no matter how big or small.”
Global winds have begun to blow across India in all fields. “Everyone is exposed to the same kind of influences and wants to import stuff but if the designs are planned intelligently this will not lead to homogeneity. While imbibing what is good abroad, one has to be sensible in using locally available materials. There is no point in copying blindly,” says Hardesh.
Giving an example from their home, Monica expands, “Open kitchens are becoming popular. But they have to be adapted to the person using it and to the kind of food that is going to be cooked there. For people who may be just stir frying or tossing a salad, the open kitchen plan is good. But for Indian cooking you need a well-ventilated proper kitchen. So, we have two kitchens and I use both, on different occasions.”
Workwise, they feel that the most important quality that their business needs is patience. Monica underlines, “One needs to sit on a drawing for hours, or spend time at sites. If you’re not patient enough then you are the wrong person to be in this business. And we both focus on what we are good at. So, even though we are managing 40-45 live sites at any given point of time, we are not exhausted or burnt out.”
When I ask them how they ensure each space they create is unique, Hardesh explains, “Each space has its own aura. The client’s inputs are very important and we do not impose on them. Yes, our signature is important. People come to us because they’ve seen our work. They like it so we cannot completely do a U-turn and give them something which is not us! But our lifestyle is different from theirs. If your house is not comfortable as per your lifestyle, you can never enjoy the design. So, although you may walk into an apartment and recognise it as our work, we try and keep that to the minimum. But there are some elements that identify us – like the basic colour palette. I do not take it as a compliment if people walk in and say it looks like we did it.”
A great deal of thought naturally went into the creation of their home. “It has a 100 per cent of us in it,” the two state. Hardesh says, “You will not find any obnoxiously priced material here. All the materials – the stone on the wall – are basic. What is important is how they have been laid out – decently, cleanly. It all adds to the aura. There are a lot of coffee shades in the home.”
Like in most of the properties they work on, the colours are muted in their own home as well. Monica says, “There is a reason behind this palette. We believe that if you have to add colours, it should be something that can be replaced easily after a year or so. When we design a colour scheme we ensure that no two colours meet each other. If you do a ceiling as one colour and the wall as another, you will notice that the line where they join is never really perfect. And we add colour with interesting accessories.”
What makes this vibrant in a different way in their space is the art works that dot several walls. Hardesh has a keen eye for art. He admits, “Our tastes are very personal. When we look at a work of art, we either like it or we don’t. As long as the art talks to us, it has done its job. For us, the name of the artist is not important nor is the prestige value.”
All the elements blend perfectly to create a whole. Monica says, “You may notice several things in isolation. We travel a lot and have picked up what we like. But, all the things you see are simple and easy to execute. You cannot get simpler than the doors we have put in. And, it is important that you should not remember one part of the property and go back with that memory. You should remember the whole as a good soothing property. Of course, the tree in the courtyard that forms the centre of the house is a talking point. But, that was one of the first elements that we had decided we wanted.”
Both have their own favourite spots. Hardesh loves the gymnasium, located in the basement. He says, “It is a classy example of taking a problem and converting it into an opportunity. Normally, a basement is the least glamorous area of the house as it does not get a lot of light. We gave it some extra height and created an innovative mezzanine.” They are also particularly fond of the dressing area and the powder room. In Monica’s words, “Hardesh gave me this home which is my domain. I am the owner of this place – every inch of it. But I gave him a lovely gift. He loves to get dressed. He has an enormous collection of shoes and clothes. So I just gave him that dresser which is a walk-in closet and is truly his own space.”
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