Material World | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
June 04, 2020

Material World

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

These “post-climate-change entrepreneurs” are upgrading the quality of our lives with sustainable products that have an eye-catching contemporary aesthetic. Jenny Pinto (Oorjaa), Aakriti Kumar (Differniture), Veena Balakrishnan (Everwards), Priyanka Narula (The Wicker Story), Shashank Gautam (Mianzi), Anika Parashar and Roopam Gupta (The Woman’s Company), Neha Vij (Auro Candles) and Rishab Bothra (Twisty) are all reinventing home decor and lifestyle accessories. Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena quizzes them about their innovatory long-term solutions for our daily needs

What does the name of your company signify?

Jenny Pinto (JP): Oorjaa means different things to different people. To me, it signifies the energy flow that connects us to nature.

Aakriti Kumar (AK): Differniture is an amalgamation of “different” and “furniture”. It is about looking for alternative and innovative ways to approach the age-old craft and trade of furniture-making.

Veena Balakrishnan (VB): Everwards is a play on the words “forever” and “afterwards”. With this brand name, we wanted to symbolically represent ideologies and products that last long and stay forever.

Priyanka Narula (PN): The Wicker Story pays homage to the traditions of weaving in India through the mediums of clothing, furniture, and objects. It is an attempt to connect traditional design methods of the past to new thought processes in design.

Shashank Gautam (SG): Mianzi, in Swahili, means bamboo. The use of this material is integral to our design philosophy, which is to expand the boundaries of conventional raw materials. While “mianzi” may sound abstract to a layperson, it has a visual vigour that is translated in our products.

Anika Parashar and Roopam Gupta (AP and RG): At The Woman’s Company we understand women only as other women can. We endeavour to provide women of today with tailor-made, intimate wellness and hygiene products that are customised for and embrace the changing phases of their bodies while being mindful of the depleting natural environment.

Neha Vij (NV): Auro comes from aurum, the Latin word for gold. It symbolises the first golden rays of sunlight. Just as the early morning sun brings freshness and enhances our moods, our beeswax candles and diffuser oils create a feel good environment at home and offer the aromatherapy benefits of relaxation and stress reduction.

Rishab Bothra (RB): I wanted to come up with a short name, one that would be easy to remember. And I didn’t want people to have to say a different name for each product. So here, they can just refer to every product we offer as a Twisty. There is a twist in each piece: you can tweak them and their portability.

How would you say sustainability plays into your line of work?
JP: Design professionals live in a world where environmental degradation is largely caused by the products and buildings that we ourselves have designed and manufactured using raw materials extracted from nature. Designers, architects and engineers today must remain aware of and be responsible for their choices. But it is not enough to just be sustainable; that’s passé. We must also think of recycled and regenerative design.

AK: For woodworking, the material for production of goods and the finishes one uses are the most important ways to define sustainability. At Differniture, we use reclaimed materials and non-toxic oils and waxes rather than the popular polyester-finished materials that are bad for both the environment and the person handling them.

PN: In design, I believe sustainability refers to the simplicity, minimalism, and efficiency of a product. With reference to materials, it refers to the biodegradability of the product and the green supply chain that promotes zero wastage in the production processes.

SG: Enthused by the concept of hedonistic sustainability, we start with sourcing a locally available raw material that is easily renewable yet strong and flexible, like bamboo. We approach local artisans, and we educate and train them to efficiently exploit its properties. Next, we make efforts to conceptualise distinct designs while keeping the products easy to flat pack so that they occupy less volume during transportation.

AP and RG: We invested a long time into carefully identifying the ingredients that go into our products that touch the most sensitive and intimate parts of a woman’s body. Our background in healthcare gives us the experience to understand how to achieve this. All our products and packaging are biodegradable, sustainable and environmentally friendly.

NV: At Auro, we believe in the power of nature. From the selection of the wax to the quality of essential oils, the cotton and wooden wicks, to the packaging of the product, every ingredient and every process is carefully considered, making our candles an ode to sustainability, purity, and clean light.

What motivated you to launch an eco-conscious venture?
JP: My design journey began with handmade paper, as I was inspired by the regenerative aspect of nature. I discovered quite accidentally that beautiful paper could be made from waste agricultural fibres, and I settled on banana plant fibre because the paper it produces is strong, translucent and beautiful. I thought it would be perfect for making lights. The banana plant has a life of about two-three years, after which the trees are mulched, or the fibre is extracted for the textile or craft industries. I love the fact that I can take an organic material reaching its expiration date and convert it to something useful and beautiful. And I know that when the lights we produce come to the end of their lives, the paper can go back into nature’s cycle and cause no harm. AK: I became interested in making things from wood while I studied product design at the Parsons School of Design in New York. The programme was prototype-centric, where an idea conceived on paper had to be converted into a tangible product to understand its durability. When I returned to India, I wanted to explore woodworking — working with craftsmen and artisans who already had the skills to bring my ideas to life.

VB: I launched Everwards after I began following a conscious and mindful lifestyle. I mainly struggled with finding simple and inexpensive steps to make a positive impact and realised this was largely the reason people choose not to follow sustainable practices, even if they would like to. So, I took the time to understand and tackle this problem. We create and curate fun, simple and inexpensive solutions to serious issues through our products, focusing on millennials and Generation Z — we understand their ideas, their language, and their untapped potential. We want to bust the myths around sustainability and make it “cool”.

PN: Organic design and geometry have always inspired my works. The methods of manufacturing that we used previously were usually CNC (computer numerical control), laser-cutting based systems, which were expensive and had wastage as high as 70 per cent. Meanwhile in my city, Hyderabad, nomadic groups of weavers used to sell these ball lamps by the side of the road, and I would imagine applying their skills to my designs. We eventually developed the Imli bench, involving a local weaver in the manufacturing process. Our experiments yielded a product which was jointless, minimal in material use and lightweight, yet strong. This inspired us to explore the idea further, and The Wicker Story was set up.

SG: It all started with the award-winning zero-carbon-footprint building, designed for a competition in 2009, after which we realised the true potential of bamboo. I established Mianzi to revolutionise the way this material can be seen and used in the future, by introducing eco-friendly, yet inventive and aesthetic, bamboo-built options for bicycles, furniture, lifestyle products and architecture. The challenge is to manufacture products that are not only sustainable or aesthetic, but economically viable as well.

AP and RG: The Woman’s Company was born out of trying to find personal hygiene solutions for the lakhs of women who feel their needs are not being catered to, as well as for those who want their daughters and granddaughters to have long-term, viable solutions.

NV: At Auro, we believe in healthier fragrance practices and the power of natural oils — they can have an amazing effect on your mood — and we don’t believe in letting toxins into your home. What goes into candles or diffuser oils eventually ends up in the air you breathe. So, we are very thoughtful with all our ingredients.

Which materials do you favour and which ones do you avoid?
JP: We make lights from three waste materials: our paper is from agri-waste, the wabi-sabi range (faux concrete) is from
waste quarry dust and waste agri fibre, and the cork range is from waste cork. We avoid any hi-energy, hi-tech material, but since ours are lighting products, electricals are unavoidable.

AK: There is something beautiful about the grains of wood and how their shape and colour change from species to species. I keep away from toxic materials and focus primarily on wood. I have dabbled a bit in metal rods and broken shards of toughened glass as inlay.

VB: We try to maximise the use of materials that are deep- rooted in our traditions, plant-based ingredients, and the highly durable and reusable materials commonly found in Indian households, such as glass and stainless steel. We avoid anything that is single-use, especially plastic, and any other material that requires recycling, which is still not the strong suit of Indian waste management systems.

PN: Plastics and artificially made surfaces and textures are a complete no-no for my work. We favour rattan, exposed concrete and bendable wood.

SG: Bamboo is a futuristic and environmentally conscious raw material, with its roots spreading deep into Indian culture and tradition. It intrigues us, and its strength and sustainable availability increase its possibilities of becoming the ‘it’ raw material in the future.

AP and RG: We have consciously built our products with industry differentiators to offer the best to the users and fill the existing gaps in the market. All our products are environmentally safe, biodegradable, and extremely comfortable. The sanitary pads are free from the harmful dioxins that are found in almost all the currently available brands. The “Made in India” pee-stand and pee-stick are plastic-free, foldable, and easy to carry! And the tampons are made of 100 per cent organic cotton and have cardboard applicators, while our menstrual cups are made from medical grade silicon.

NV: We prefer working with a natural material like beeswax, which is renewable and requires minimal processing. It also emits negative ions that bind with pollutants, effectively removing them from the air in your home. We use natural oils and only 100 per cent cotton, all-natural, organic wood wicks. All our products come packaged in eco-friendly packaging; our candles are packed in Kraft paper sheets instead of plastic, with biodegradable labels — we are almost 70 per cent plastic-free at our workspace. RB: We use honeycomb because of its durability, lightweight quality, sustainability, different (naturally occurring) colours and its ability to be shaped into various forms.

How do you convert scrap into something utilitarian and visually pleasing?
AK: Along with using reclaimed and salvaged materials such as pine from shipping containers or fallen trees that succumbed to storms, we have adopted a minimal or zero-waste philosophy. However, some of our projects do generate scrap. A few years ago, I produced the Tessellate collection, exclusively from the leftover pieces of past projects, creating a more complex design of geometric pattterns made by connecting similar shapes.

VB: This skill was a part of my upbringing. Growing up in a middle-class Indian family, you learn a thing or two about repurposing, about how to extract the maximum value out of and repurpose any available resource. Some of the repurposed products in Everwards’ range were born out of these practices. For example, leftover coffee grounds were converted into face and body scrubs, saris and other used clothes were converted into something more functional like bags, scrunchies, pouches, cushion covers, and so on.

PN: I love wicker because weaving is mostly done by hand, and the process allows for the easy integration of materials of varying thicknesses. I can imagine furniture products made by weaving natural rattan with strands of coloured recycled plastic to make beautiful furniture and light pieces.

How usable or durable are these products in the Indian context, particularly taking our climate into consideration?
JP: All three of my materials pose no problems. But paper is vulnerable to moisture, so many of our designs do need some sort of reinforcement.

AK: The durability of reclaimed wood is an added advantage since it has had time to naturally season and dry over the course of its first life, as opposed to a freshly cut log from a saw mill. VB: Most of the materials we work with are native to India, deeply rooted in our traditional and rural lifestyles, and the products that we create are highly durable.

PN: Natural rattan and cane products are rather durable when used indoors. But they need to be kept away from direct exposure to harsh weather.

AP and RG: Organic cotton and biodegradable materials are sustainable and easily usable regardless of the weather.

RB: The products that we sell are new to the Indian market. So, I initially did a trial at my own house, checking for durability, sturdiness, comfort, and the appropriateness/fit as well as the ability of the colours to last in the Indian market. I found everything to be precise. I knew the products had a future, and the best part is that they are eco-friendly.

What is it that has given you the greatest satisfaction in your professional life so far?
JP: I get great satisfaction that paper has become a material that people consider using even in their homes now. When I began in 1998, nobody considered paper for anything, least of all lighting.

AK: With my parents’ support, I was able to push the limits of my design thinking without the pressure of expecting immediate results. It is tricky taking a road less travelled because of all the uncertainties it entails, but it is the most rewarding experience to be recognised for in terms of what you set out to prove to the world.

VB: Product development has been the favourite part of my journey. One of my greatest satisfactions has come from a recent project — we created a planner for 2020. It kindles your creativity, makes you mindful, and brings you joy. It is zero-waste because it is made by repurposing cotton fabric waste, and you don’t have to feel guilty about your consumption anymore.

PN: My master’s in advanced architecture has inspired me to veer towards design innovation, digital technology, and the future of design. Having a background in sustainable design practices in India, I spiralled into conflict for years — design was never balanced between technological and vernacular approaches. My work today speaks of that conflict, where I am projecting wicker as a solution for manufacturing complex geometries for advanced design and architecture.

AP and RG: Our Woman’s Stand and Pee Stick is a fantastic product. It is ergonomically created for a woman’s body and is compact and made of recyclable, biodegradable Kraft paper. With contact diseases and infections increasing, it is an essential product. The reality is that UTIs (urinary tract infections) and other bacterial and contact infections can spread through shared toilets. Our pee stick reduces the risk of those infections and can change the face of women’s health.

NV: Buta, or paisley, is a motif of Persian origin. The post- Mughal version of the design became popular in the 19th century through Kashmiri shawls in India. Our paisley candle, inspired by that pattern, is a perfect blend of tradition and modernity. Each candle is hand- poured and finished in the studio. We have always been inspired by India and its rich history. To be able to reflect that and take it to a global level has been a turning point.

Which is your one stand-out product?
AK: I would say it is the wooden upholstery series. The perception is that wood is rigid and hard. So, engineering it to be comfortable and flexible was a challenge for us.

VB: I would pick three: the straightforward planner because it was a passion project to bring creativity, quirkiness, mindfulness, and zero-waste together; the 100 per cent plant-based powder shampoo (the water that is drained will be chemical-free, so you can even let it into your garden); and the repurposed coffee scrub, which was our first product.

PN: The Imli bench. That is where my journey began. SG: The bamboo bicycle, which is aesthetically superb and has a handmade bamboo frame. It has a higher specific tensile strength than steel and a higher specific compressive strength than concrete. This allows it to carry he􏰃y loads with ease. And this is coupled with hand-picked parts to ensure a premium finish. Its features (such as vibration damping) create adequate stability even on bumpy roads.

RB: The foldable benches which can form into a circle — so a bench becomes a table. A six-seater bench can also be used as a four-seater, and you can give a new shape to the remaining two seats. It then looks as if you have a new product in your home. NV: Our mountain oil diffuser.

Can you tell us about an unusual inspiration that drove the idea behind a particular product?
AK: The very first product I designed was a topographic coffee table. I have had a constant connect with the Himalayas, where I spent a large amount of time exploring the mountains with my family as a child. The first product I designed was therefore inspired by the undulation of the earth’s surface, especially in steep mountainsides in the form of step farms or terrace gardens. This inspired me to create a zero-waste coffee table comprising two parts: the smaller one was extracted from the larger one and topped with a thick glass to turn the sculpture into a functional product.

SG: Our first product, the bamboo butterfly chair, was inspired by the questions that, as a team, we asked ourselves when we wanted to furnish our homes. We wanted furniture that sported sleek, lightweight designs that were sturdy and easy enough to be transported if we had to shift homes.

NV: Whenever we connect with the Himalayas, our aura receives a calming, high frequency energy. Inspired by this mighty range and its aromatic forests, our hand-crafted concrete mountain oil diffuser offers both, a sculptural form as well as a purposeful design.

What is the Indian consumer’s response to sustainable home decor products?
JP: I still do not see these products becoming a priority within the Indian home decor space.

AK: I have been doing this for over five years, and I’m happy to say that people are positive and appreciative towards a sustainable approach to design. They are beginning to understand the need to be as environmentally conscious as the western markets. VB: There is definitely a growth taking place. We are not in the decor space right now, but more in the functional home- ware space. We have seen people get fascinated by the twist given to simple, familiar materials, and sometimes they pick the products simply because of the innovation, even if they do not fully support sustainability.

SG: In general, people consider sustainability as a trend to be followed rather than as an imperative choice to be made for the sake of our environment and future. Understanding consumer demands, we need to make a conscious effort to market products that are contemporary, yet sustainable.

NV: The progress has been slow because there is lack of awareness in the market. However, more people are making these conscious choices now, and I have no doubt that sustainability will become the new normal.

RB: The response has been positive and encouraging. People are curious about the crazy stuff we are doing. And through word-of- mouth, we are seeing a greater acceptance of sustainable creations. People are ready for the change and want to know what’s next.

What are the eco-friendly products that have found a place in your life/home?
JP: I only use natural and Indian materials, as well as reused or upcycled furniture. In the past ten years, I have tried to buy good quality, enduring designs, so I need to upgrade or buy less.

AK: Apart from my own furniture and lighting, I like to pick up decor made out of natural materials. There are also a lot of smaller products that I prefer, like reusable bamboo straws. I have used old glass bottles in the bathrooms of my home in Goa, and the natural light streams in through their different hues.

VB: Each product created by Everwards started in my home. Since I’ve been trying to live a responsible lifestyle, every change began within my four walls. Everyone in my household also is eco-conscious. For example, we collect the water from rinsing or uncooked food and utensils separately, so that we can redirect it to our home garden. Lately, we have been growing vegetables too. We use a soda-maker to avoid buying plastic bottles; we shop second-hand for our clothes; our refrigerator is completely plastic free — all thanks to Everwards’ upcycled drawstring bags.

PN: More than believing in eco-friendly products, we believe in sustainable living, which is based on the concept of minimised needs and conscious consumption. A large part of what we consume comes from local, homegrown brands.

NV: Bamboo toothbrushes that are sustainable and biodegradable; reusable cloth bags, because refusing to use plastic bags is the easiest step we can take; water aerators, a one-stop solution to the problem of running taps — they can save nearly 35-40 per cent of water per minute. I buy products with minimal packaging. I read labels for toxic and harmful chemicals, and I believe that there is no greater luxury than sustainability. For me, the key is to go minimalist: reduce, reuse, recycle.

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