Samira Rathod, Principal, Samira Rathod Design Associates [SRDA] writes about the predicaments and opportunities of practising interior architecture in India – a context where the discipline is disorganised and there is lack of clarity on the role of design consulting in the interior space.
To write about interior design as a practice is very tough since we do not see Interior design as a formal, organised discipline in India. When we were studying architecture, there was no independent/separate interior design practice in India and no interior designers that were respected or known enough. The profession, at some level, has bifurcated the practice of spatial design into the profession of an architect, the interior designer, and the stylist. The idea of architecture that used to be ‘more sculpture’ is also diminishing. There is an architecture of the city which is homogenous and perhaps monotonous – boxes everywhere and in this landscape, you encounter occasional vivacious buildings. It is thus that largely the interior spaces create an experience of living in our cities. The idea of modern architecture that revolved around a consistent architecture with all in-between spaces for community living has found a perverse version in our modern cities. For instance, the Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier or his buildings in Chandigarh, exist in a dichotomy with the landscape where the landscape is actually intended to be found within the buildings.
In contemporary urban conditions, the idea of Interior Architecture is becoming increasingly important. I believe that the design of interior space is closest to the human scale and thus, the experience of architecture itself.
As an architect, when I design interior spaces, my approach is more inclined towards the design of space and less towards styling. Being equipped to deal with space in its many scales and forms, I find myself comfortable in dealing with the interior space. In my experience, when one looks at the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright when one encounters it, it moves you owing to his passion and dedication to detail in his architecture and in the interior space of his buildings, all the way to the doorknob. In the Fallingwater, with the exception of a chair that was bought by the client, everything is designed by Wright. There is no sense of rejection and his architecture and the interior space seems to be in complete synchrony.
This is true even for the Ronchamp Church [Notre Dame du Haut] that I visited recently. The church and everything within is designed by Corbusier and there is great power in this idea of continuity where all things – from the benches, the flooring, the confession box, the staircase and the railings – are designed by the Master. I think the same phenomenon is at work at Gandhiji’s Ashram at Sabarmati where you know that the architecture and the interior space has a visceral connection to the idea of Satyagraha and frugality and emancipation.
I love to work on a cohesive vision. I have an understanding that the interior space is also where both I and my client want to express themselves. Over the years, I have come to a realisation that this space has to be designed in collaboration with the people who are to use it. While in some projects, I let go but I have also had clients who have approached me because they want the cohesive idea and they know that I would want the interior space to behave in a certain way. I want everything to have a certain connection that comes through deliberate design.
The interior space is no longer a styled ensemble but a specific piece of architecture that is made in close conversation with the client and it is a conversation which enables both to grow.
CRAFTSMANSHIP AND MAKING
As creative thinkers – architects, artists, musicians – all of us have a desire to make something original. The more you pursue that desire the more you discover a unique and perhaps an unprecedented way
of doing things that you believe is your own. Many call this a ‘signature’ but it is not so simple. As one keeps at working on something with a certain rigour and consistency, one develops a degree of mastery in dealing with the said material, medium or technique. This is very different from developing a style that has visual attributes. I am increasingly beginning to understand that there is nothing that I do not like. There is no material that I have a distaste for and no process that I do not want to explore. When we work with materials, we recognise certain attributes of the material and we recognise that as we work with them, they begin to manifest themselves in a particular way that is appreciated by all and this I believe is a reflection of the honesty with which the design process works.
While polishing the wood blue, I want to know the potential of the polish and the way the polish will change the wood. The way polish will interact with the wood becomes the experiment. Everything is particular research for me.
There was a time in history where honesty in expression had a connection with an idea of permanence: an idea that the works of architecture and design will last forever but this idea is in transition now and is challenged by more ephemeral aspects of design. We do not want permanence anymore. We want change and this shift of perception has essentially altered the parameters of Design.
In my work, I am even looking at the idea of architecture from that vantage point where the very definition of architecture which once was grounded, timeless and forever is now changing into grounded, ‘not so timeless’ and ‘never forever’ but perpetually willing to change and adapt. Increasingly thus, in our studio, we have started researching on the dismantling and demolition of projects.
I have grown with the idea of craftsmanship or ‘karigari’. I have always worked extensively on the site. While drawings communicate much of design, the feedback from the design can be clearly articulated on the site. I am constantly talking to the person who is executing the design and this process of conversing while executing helps me understand the ‘making’ of the design. When talking to painters, I am constantly seeking feedback on questions of their selection of material, the mix, the tools, the application process and the way they work with the paint. There is a lot of control, and yet there is serendipity. There are accidents in crafting a design that can lead to further experimentation. Craftsmen work with intuition and they have an intrinsic understanding of the material. They have a relationship with their material. I keep on emphasising in my practice and teaching on the value of making things and the ability to do so eloquently.
I believe that by making things, one can grasp the act of building and this urge to create or make something and to dismantle or break something in order to understand it is always present in children. The instinct stays and it is permanent. This instinctive response to material and crafting is something that no instruction can help develop.
In my work with the craftsmen on site, I learn their way of thinking and I try and employ the knowledge in my work. This knowledge is tacit and cannot be made explicit. Use and function add another layer of meaning to space. The endeavour of my design is also to understand the complexity and changing nature of use. How can we create spaces that have multiple meanings and many layers of activity? How can a library be a performance space where the book is the material of its architecture? Alternately, how can the performance be enhanced by being located in the library where books are the acoustic material? I also like to work with air and light – the two omnipresent materials that I want to bring in the discussion – material not just as a surface but as a sensation of space.
I do not think that the world is looking at Interior Design the way I spoke about it. When people like Jean Prouvé or Charles and Ray Eames contemplated a product, space or architecture, they were looking at the big set and all the small things were a part of this big set. For a good piece of design to emerge, processes have to be collaborative. There has to be a collaboration between the designer and the client and between the designer and the craftsman. I collaborate with artists, landscape architects, stylists but as a practice, we are continuously looking at the big set and the collaborations are a part of this big set in the process of moving towards a cohesive vision. The framing of this vision is a critical act of design.
The way Interior Design discipline is shaping up in India presently, in my opinion, it inclines towards styling and décor. A good stylist can have a great eye for the texture and the detail of the space but the styling has its limitations. It cannot solve problems. If a project on a shoe-string budget is presented to the stylist, the stylist is most likely to find issues with the budget. A designer, on the other hand, is equipped to deal with the challenge.
Our pedagogy on Interior Design is not well-structured. Our design education is myopic. We do not teach design to create individuals who can look at a problem with a conviction that the solution lies in design.
In a recent documentary on Netflix, I could observe students
in Eindhoven in Amsterdam working on the design of a rolling pin for flour – a simple device that enables one to make pizza bases. A student had designed the pin in acrylic to enable the user a view of the dough through the pin thus creating a product that generates a changing image as one rolls the pin. The design of the pin enhances the experience of rolling the dough. This visceral connection that design has with human interaction is missing from the majority of discussions in the design schools: the experience of holding a cup when one drinks tea can bring great joy to the act of drinking tea. Design can be engaging at the human scale.
There is a certain dissonance in our instruction-based system of educating designers. The model of apprenticeship is completely absent. I would stress on all design students to work with a fabricator or a carpenter or even work in a textile factory to have a direct and a first-person engagement with the material and with the process.
As architects, one is supposed to have a licence to practice but as an interior designer, there is no such process and this is perhaps where the discipline of interior design in India needs to mobilise. Presently, there is no fraternity; only a club of stylists.
To conclude, I must address the significance and also, the insignificance of the image in design. Image plays a constructive and disruptive role in design. Images – especially the kind that are propagated by platforms like Pinterest – hinder and dumb down the process of design which essentially is hinged on the idea of eloquence and making. With Pinterest, the solution is visible and once the image is made explicit, the discussion on regionalism and individuality that is central to the design of the interior space loses traction with the user or the client. For me, the understanding of the user is essential to design –the background, the tastes, the passions – as much as the understanding of the programme at hand.
Design dwells on the idea of enhancing the experience and an image can cut that process drastically short, thus invariably diminishing the experience. I enjoy engaging. My design is guided by experience and intuition and the image has very little role to play in it.
The advantage of practising in India is the opportunity one gets to take the project right to the end. Patronage is important and we do not have the right kind of patronage in India. We invest very little in research and intellectual development of the project and the institutional work that goes into building a practice has to be subsidised by the practice.
When we innovate, a failed experiment and a successful one cannot be judged separately – that is the basis of research in practice. We do not have patronage for research in India especially in the domain of design. We are disorganised as a discipline and casual in our work culture.
I think if we, as designers, organise ourselves better in the fraternity, we can change the perception of patronage but on the other hand, this informal culture of making allows one to make mistakes. It is affordable to make mistakes in India and that is the most important idea – the one that makes all the difference♦
Full Archival Video of the Conversation (42 MIN):
SAMIRA RATHOD is the principal and founder of Samira Rathod
Design Associates [SRDA] – an acclaimed experimental and critical
contemporary design practice in India. She is the editor and creator
of SPADE and Founder and Director of SPADE India Research Cell
which researches the condition and impact of design in India. Her
recent venture ‘The Big Piano’ looks at furniture as objects of art and craft that can render a visceral experience to material and design. She is an adjunct faculty member at the Kamala Raheja Institute of Architecture in Mumbai and has been invited to be a part of juries and panels all over the country and abroad.
KEYNOTE is an essay by an eminent architect/designer/thinker that frames a critical concern of practising architecture, interior design and pedagogy in India.
[IN]SIDE is a series of bi-annual journals published by Matter in collaboration with H & R Johnson (India) on Contemporary Architecture and Design in India. This interview was recorded as a part of the editorial process for [IN]SIDE Volume 1, Issue 1.