Spandana Gopal Muses On The Significance That Design Holds For Indians
“We acknowledge the importance of beauty in everyday life — from flowers worn in the hair to the architectural spectacles of multicoloured houses”
Painted trucks, Ganeshas on dashboards and disco rickshaws only skim the surface of the Indian public’s collective imagination. We’ve all fetishised, through our more ‘educated’ and Westernised lenses, about the ‘kitschiness’ of these gestures and objects — but if we look closer, the themes unify a large part of the country’s unspoken rules around object creation and design. Decoration becomes the only means for the maker to express himself, a trademark that sets him apart within a design and object culture that has largely been functioning anonymously — for who knows who designed the lota or the tiffin box or the jhadoo?
Design in the West continues to propagate the ideologies of the German Bauhaus school that called for an integrated approach where form follows function and eliminates unnecessary features within the object. Decoration is therefore a problematic area, as it seemingly serves no functional purpose.
As a design studio, you can’t help but embrace form following function — which is of course what we did when starting out and launching our brand Tiipoi. But working in India, in the middle of all the ‘apparent’ chaos, informal setups and a pretty laid-back attitude to safety and life in general, opened our eyes to other ways whereby an object could take shape. And the closer we looked, the more we saw it — decoration is everywhere.
But what is its purpose in a country of a billion-something people — where daily life continues, unfazed by a lack of resources, infrastructure and basic amenities. This is the context of India, and the landscape within which design has had to function; the brief is based on a totally different set of requirements — spirituality, home-cooked food or beauty in the smallest of things, to name a few. Intangible and invisible, but nonetheless omnipresent, the emotional quotient is high, and lends itself as the inertia that people rely on consistently to both survive and live well.
Decoration and design have always been seen as divorced from each other, but in India they come together and we can only understand this if we acknowledge the importance of beauty in everyday life — from flowers worn in the hair, the discipline of always being adorned and intricate kolam outside doorsteps, to the markets and the architectural spectacles of multicoloured houses.
Designers today can either completely shy away from decoration or embrace it. With the latter, we can offer something to the user that is emotive and allow another dimension of association to develop between the user and object.
Studio Material Immaterial does exactly this. Partners Nitin Barchha and Disney Davis, formally trained architects, work out of their delightful studio in Dadar, Mumbai. Concrete is their material of choice, scaled down to miniature sizes. They use space, light and shadow in a variety of objects including desk accessories, earrings, coat hooks and door handles that are rendered as staircases, patios, amphitheatres and houses. This layer of detailing is decorative, undoubtedly serving no tangible function (or so it seems), but as Nitin puts it, once you interact with a piece you form a relationship with it.
Similarly, London and Mumbai based designer Shubi Sachan has created a collection of objects for performing simple, everyday rituals as part of her master’s thesis project titled Traditional Futures at Central Saint Martins. Using rice ash, a waste byproduct from paddy fields near her ancestral home, she researched Ayurveda and created an incense burner and kohl applicator. This combination of ‘home-grown’ creation acknowledges how people innovate with the materials around them. When these intimate and personal objects are placed out of their context — such as stores overseas — they could appear to be purely decorative.
Graphic design and typography is another area where individualistic expression takes on different avatars — decorative lettering is all but too common across hand-painted signs on shops, doorways and wedding ceremonies. New Delhi-based Ishan Khosla’s studio has initiated a self-funded project that aims to create 29 display typefaces from as many languishing crafts, one from each state of India. Every typeface is made using the craft of a specific region. From Karnataka, chittara, an art form where clay paste is applied to make patterns on floors and walls of huts, usually at the entrance, acts as the muse. Translating it into an alphabet allows the craft to be distilled to its essence, facilitating the emergence of a certain logic and pattern which we often dismiss as mere decoration.
Following this line of thought, the handwoven textiles of Jaipur-based Chinar Farooqi of Injiri come to mind. She highlights the techniques of weaving by re-appropriating selvedge and borders of woven fabrics to create a new product. By using them as embellishments in themselves, Farooqui highlights otherwise invisible features of woven fabric that often go unnoticed.
In contrast, decoration could also serve the purpose of transferring information or concealing it; take my studio Tiipoi’s Mirror 6 collection for example. This particular project was inspired by the casting material and process behind the Aranmula kannadi from Kerala. A 600-year-old process, this technique involves creating spectacular cast-metal mirrors using a secret alloy. The entire process, which takes place within the walls of a home, happens intuitively, almost like preparing a meal. The precise composition of the alloy — involving a combination of bronze, copper, tin and ‘something else’— has been well-protected.
Taking apart a typical handheld Aranmula mirror, we initially dismissed the overly ornate frames as being unnecessary, but as we work closely with the family, we realised that the motivations for the frames were not only to physically protect the mirrors, but by masking the edges, they also help preserve a collective history and identity for hundreds of years.
The anonymous nature of design in India has allowed it to be a very location-specific, organic and democratic process without a single reference point of any canon or history. It is never separated from life, and formal training is never a priority like it is in the West. As a result, people employ their own creativity, using resources that are available to them. This includes families that run factories or age-old communities that practise a certain type of craft and have come to be defined by it.
India is a fast-growing, third-world economy, where a majority of the population is focused on making ends meet. There is a spirit of collective faith and aspiration that drives people, and this invisible, emotional quotient has a utility within this environment. One manifestation of this is decoration — a nod to all the ‘stuff’ we can’t see.