Compiled at the request of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the report was written after the Eameses had spent three months exploring design in the subcontinent. In it, they made recommendations for training the nation’s designers, suggesting “an institute of design, research and service which would also be an advanced training medium” – later to be realised as the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. In an effort to elucidate the design such an institute should facilitate, the Eameses selected their preferred example of Indian craft. They chose the lota, an everyday vessel for carrying and pouring water, as “the greatest, the most beautiful” object in Indian vernacular design.
The Eameses were fascinated by Indian handicraft. They observed that “no one man designed the lota but many men over many generations” and that the British too, during the long period of colonisation, had idealised India’s villages and craft practices. But India’s craft tradition was more than just a cultural touchstone, it shaped the nation’s independence movement. In 1918, Mahatma Gandhi called on people to make their own homespun cloth, khādī, in defiance of the British monopoly over cotton manufacture. Craft thus was more than a tradition – it became intertwined with India’s identity and that continued beyond independence in 1947.
Today, a handful of international designers are working with India’s material culture in new ways that are pushing it to the fore of the industry. British designer Tom Dixon incorporated Indian craft into sleek modern forms with his 2006 hand-beaten brass lighting series Beat, which is produced in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, and inspired by the lota itself. At this year’s Milan Design Week, Dutch designers Studio Makkink & Bey displayed a totem of cheese-making utensils they developed in conjunction with artisans in Jaipur, Rajasthan. At Belgium’s Grand Hornu, London-based studio Doshi Levien curated an exhibition of everyday design from Indian markets; on display were objects ranging from a mass-produced chrome coconut grater to a handmade pair of scissors. Increasingly, Indian design is seeping into the mainstream rather than being confined to its own niche.
More telling, however, is the ripple effect that studios like these have had on an emerging generation of Indian designers. Shubhi Sachan, originally from India, is a recent graduate of Central Saint Martins’ Material Futures MA. She based her graduation project on rice-husk ash, a by-product of India’s vast rice industry, which has an output of 100 million tonnes a year. Sachan used the ash to create a set of objects designed to adapt herbal Ayurvedic beauty practices and other traditional rituals, for the modern home. “I found out there is a lot of waste in agricultural production in India and started to look at each category of waste, what it is used for and how it can be used,” she says. “I discovered that rice-husk ash is a greatly unused form of waste.” Rice husk contains activated carbon, a carbon form with low-volume pores that increase the surface area available for chemical reactions. Sachan exploited this property of the ash to produce skin cleansers, toothpaste and black pigment ink. By binding it with traditional Indian scents, she also created incense. “This is basically how they used to make incense – with menthol oil, honey and sandalwood powder,” Sachan says. Her production methods owe a debt to India’s history, but she was also conscious of the need to move forward. “The project was about reviving traditional practices, rather than introducing new ones,” she says, “but at the same time it was about connecting those traditions with contemporary use.” This strain of modernisation was important to the project, fittingly titled Traditional Futures. The products echo traditional Indian household objects, but have strong Scandinavian modernist inflections. The incense burner, for instance, is shaped to abstractly recall an Indian clay water vessel, yet is striking for its grey glass form with clean, modern lines. Inside, incense is placed on a small silver plate, and a silver-coated brass applicator gathers the ash emitted as the incense burns. This residue can then be applied as kohl, a form of natural eyeliner.
There is ritual involved in using Sachan’s products. A glass container is used for grinding rice husk that is mixed with water and essential oils and used to make a black exfoliator or a runny ink used with a specially made fountain pen and glass ink pot. “I’m interested in alleviating an environmental threat,” says Sachan, “but also wanted to create a sensorial experience, reviving these rituals, making them adaptable to today’s lifestyles.”
This sense of adaptation is also present in new brand Tiipoi, launching at the 2014 London Design Festival in September with a mission to reinterpret Indian homeware through design. “Our influences are a range of designers,” says London-based founder and creative director Spandana Gopal. “Our designer Andre Pereira is inspired by Jasper Morrison and Japanese design, for instance. We’re keen on the idea that good design is invisible. If something is designed well, people will respond to it in a way that they may not with something that is decorative and elaborate.”
Tiipoi’s range includes a tableware collection made from traditional Indian materials – brass, copper, wood and stone – but Gopal has also employed the skills of metalworkers in southern India to create a large Aranmula mirror, a craft from the southwest state of Kerala. Aranmula mirrors are cast from a bronze, copper and tin alloy, and highly polished to create a reflective surface. “This sort of mirror is very common in Kerala,” Gopal says. “The largest one in this style is in the British Museum’s collection, but we created a slightly bigger one, half a metre in diameter. It broke in the cast five times and took three and a half months to make.” Made using a process of alloy formation passed down through generations of craftsmen, the polished-alloy Tiipoi mirror is set in a round, modern sheesham wood frame with exposed jagged edges, rather than set in brass with obscured edges, as in the Keralan manner.
Among contemporary Indian designers there is a growing consciousness about Indian design’s character and how its aesthetic should be represented. If Shubhi Sachan and Spandana Gopal can be classed as Indian designers despite having only worked as designers outside India, then their work is representative of this emerging trend. Yet in India, craft has found form in modern design for many years: the dialogue between the two is well-established. An exhibition at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts earlier this year, Made in India, featured products by Indian designers working with craft whose output fits into the contemporary marketplace. So far, this work has had limited international reach.
One designer who exhibited, Gunjan Gupta, set up her Delhi-based studio Wrap Art & Design after graduating from Central Saint Martins’ MA Furniture Design in 2006. Her work consciously advocates sustainability and handicraft, while her furniture incorporates everyday items such as a found bicycle, jute sacks and a washerwoman’s bundle. Despite the importance of craft in the Indian psyche, Gupta says it remains under-recognised in the context of the wider luxury market.
“There is a lack of appreciation of Indian materials and production in a country that values machine-made products,” she says. “People make decisions based on quality and finish but don’t appreciate the handmade, or that something handcrafted isn’t going to look like a manufactured product from Italy.” Gupta’s clients are mainly outside India, where her use of found objects and craft have found traction. “The products I make for the Indian market are very different,” she says. “People in India don’t want the India story in their homes. If they do, they want it in a more abstract way.”
Nipa Doshi of Doshi Levien is perhaps the most internationally visible of Indian designers. Working with her partner Jonathan Levien, Doshi has a high regard for everyday Indian objects and materials, yet argues for the need to look beyond them and that Indian designers must broaden their horizons rather than become embedded in their material and craft heritage. “I’ve never worked as a designer in India,” she says, “I am influenced by Indian material culture, because it’s where I’m from. But it’s not my ambition to take traditional design into a contemporary context.”
Doshi Levien has often gestured explicitly towards Indian objects and styles; 2008 seat My Beautiful Backside, produced by Moroso, is a backless divan stocked with a constellation of wool and felt cushions. The piece was inspired by an Indian miniature painting of a princess, yet is not obviously Indian in aesthetic. In fact, it is industrially made in Italy.
Industry is vital to Doshi Levien’s commercial existence and Doshi says Indian designers need more opportunities to manufacture their work. Craft, she believes, has become prevalent in Indian design partly for practical, not cultural, reasons. “Indian product design doesn’t really have a presence at international design fairs because there isn’t the industry in India to support it,” says Doshi. “The creative work in India instead is happening in fashion, architecture, technology and other areas of culture such as film and even advertising.”
Doshi’s views exemplify a desire among Indian designers for greater manufacturing opportunities; a need for the industrial infrastructure necessary to support a design community. “Virtually every Indian designer is inspired by traditional craft but they need opportunities in order to move beyond that,” she says. “Only then can Indian product design be acknowledged internationally.”
Fifty-six years ago, Charles and Ray Eames used their India Report to point out that India had to anchor its craft history in a serious, modernising design context. “Not a self-conscious effort to develop an aesthetic,” they wrote, “it is a relentless search for quality that must be maintained if this new republic is to survive.”
It’s a point that seems relevant now more than ever. India is undergoing rapid modernisation in every possible way. By 2026 it is expected that 590 million people will live in its cities, with dozens of new urban centres such as Navi Mumbai or the planned “smart city” of Dholera rising to meet this need. Meanwhile, the country’s middle class is forecast to become the biggest in the world, reaching 475 million people by 2030, a change that will dramatically shape India’s design community and outlook. The meaning of contemporary design in India must be addressed from the top down, not just through craft, from the bottom up.