Distinctively uncompromising

Globalisation can sometimes deliver unexpected consequences. Nearly 20 years after economic reforms propelled the country’s decision-makers to look outwards, urban Indians are turning their gaze inwards to reinvent one of the most basic and intimate aspects of their lives: their homes.

A surge in international travel and first-time home ownership by nuclear families has precipitated a re-assessment of modern lifestyles. Aditi Vijayakar, executive director for residential services at estate agency Cushman & Wakefield, finds that “residential developers in India are catering to a far more discerning audience of well-travelled businessmen who expect better quality homes than five years ago.”

“Earlier, young couples would only be able to decorate one room in their parents’ home. Living on their own, often away from their home towns, they’re discovering that it’s ok to spend on their homes,” adds Latika Khosla, founder of Freedom Tree Design, a colour and trends consultancy.

Priya Paul, chairwoman of Park Hotels, the country’s first boutique hotel chain, and a respected design patron, has also noticed that “from the late 1990s guests became more receptive to contemporary styling,” often expressing the desire to “have a home like the Park in Bangalore or Chennai”.

A brighter spotlight on home interiors has spawned a new generation of design entrepreneurs, who are beginning to express “India Modern” – a confident, hybrid aesthetic sensibility. Flagship lifestyle stores in Mumbai and high-end furniture workshops on the outskirts of Delhi persuade wealthy clients to replace ornamentation with drama in their ancestral mansions. A wide and experimental range of accessories in contemporary materials tempts young flat-dwellers to venture beyond familiar ethnic textiles and soft furnishings.

The emerging design language is rooted in India’s genetic code of skilled craftsmanship, augmented by a property boom and fortified by the country’s growing voice in the global arena. Henry Wilson, a photographer and author of India Contemporary, writes that “one band of designers is celebrating their country’s ability to come up with a manner of its own that is commensurate with its cultural heritage and its new-found global pre-eminence”.

Still in its early days, it nevertheless marks a coming of age for urban interior design in India, which historically drew on rural architecture or Mughal and European colonial grandeur for inspiration. In keeping with a culture that thrives on plethora, India’s design entrepreneurs employ a variety of ways to reinterpret tradition.

Most prominently, they rely on the arresting visual appeal of Indian-inspired products. Vikram Goyal, an early proponent of the India Modern term, offers larger-than-life sculptures in hand-beaten and spun metal. Clean lines add a sense of modernity to age-old decorative accessories, elevating them from artisanal objects to designer pieces. Previously an economist with Morgan Stanley, Goyal says that his “customers are well-off and entertain their clients from abroad. They don’t want to live in a house that could be one from China or Taiwan. They want a reflection of their Indian identity and our products – the lotuses, peacocks and diyas [tea-light holders] – resonate with them.”

Gunjan Gupta, a UK-trained furniture designer, is more conceptual and describes her style as “austerity with audacity”. Inspired by the historical patronage of luxury craftsmanship by Indian royalty, she innovates with traditional materials, forms and techniques to produce functional, yet aesthetically stunning, bespoke conversation pieces. Her most recent lines include Stacks, a modern take on Indian dinnerware that doubles up as sculpture, and Dumroo, a silver and granite-wrapped stool in the shape of a local musical instrument. She deliberately courted a western audience at the start of her career, by exhibiting at 100% Design in London and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, before establishing her Delhi studio. International credibility, she says, “really put her at the edge”, winning her access to India’s most discerning private clients.

Other designers produce objects that are cosmopolitan in style, by employing historic craft techniques and meticulous customisation. Vibhor Sogani’s stainless steel chandeliers are composed of custom-made shells, hand-finished and fitted with wood, through a highly specialised technique called patra. Sogani, an industrial designer from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, says he is “comfortable with a visual language that is global, simple in form and has repetition and pattern while using Indian techniques.”

In a similar vein, English furniture designer Mike Knowles has a versatile repertoire of furniture that sits comfortably in homes and gardens in London, Ludhiana and anywhere in between. “When we first started a company called India Chic in Delhi 10 years ago a glamorous socialite told us that our clients wouldn’t understand it, that we couldn’t put the words ‘India’ and ‘chic’ together in our industry,” he recalls. However, his optimism paid off and he continues to profess that “there are so many things I want to create that I could not in the west. Having a master craftsman who understands the structure of a chair and designs it with you is an indulgence, if you want to put it that way.”

Storytelling is one of the most engaging approaches to India Modern. Divya Thakur, the founder of Design Temple, a Mumbai-based design studio, introduces grandma’s rituals to younger audiences through a lively, irreverent product collection with items such as the Handy Aujar toolbox and the First Vaid medicine kit. “We don’t want to preach to a younger lot. The downside of globalisation is that it flattens everything. India has the advantage of standing out without compromising, that’s why we felt the need to do these products”, she says.

Her views are echoed by Simran Lal, whose family owns Good Earth, the first high-end lifestyle retailer with a national presence, and the brand most synonymous with the India Modern theme. Good Earth’s “casual chic” retail theatre has been deftly orchestrated to juxtapose Indian craft and custom alongside boutique European brands such as Eisch wine glasses and Molton Brown cosmetics.

A burgeoning design consciousness has not escaped the attentions of mass manufacturers of furniture and furnishings. Godrej & Boyce, a century-old furnituremaker, will this week launch a range of kitchen cabinets with vibrant, retro prints created by textile designer Krsna Mehta.

While India Modern is in its infancy and clients and designers continue to grapple with the best way to express it, demand is assured. International estate agency Knight Frank estimates that “367,000 residential units, equating to approximately 533m sq ft are expected to come up in India’s seven major cities by the end of 2011.” As this year’s wedding season gets under way, house-proud brides might discover that they no longer need to forage in antiques markets to decorate their new homes, or wait for the annual summer pilgrimage to Harrods, and can head instead to Delhi’s Khan Market and Mumbai’s Raghuvanshi Mills.



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