Design of the Idea with Ajay Shah Design Studio [ASDS]

Industrial Playground (now a part of Rubberband) – a furniture design initiative by Ajay Shah Design Studio [ASDS] – juxtaposes playful formal and visual qualities of the objects they make with process-driven industrial manufacturing for characteristic precision and uniformity. Their contemporary aesthetic is derived from the intrinsic quality of materials they work with and the nature of this specific process.

Design, in a context like that of India, can mean many things. From improvisations on existing situations to ideas that are points of the genesis of the new and unexplored avenues; the context of a developing nation enables one to deal with a range of unprecedented challenges. In 1990, Ajay Shah, then a young NID graduate, founded the Circus Design Company after a few stints of working as a designer and a furniture producer. This new company was imagined to be a multi-disciplinary design firm that dealt with design as the process of thought rather than a professional service. The conceptual framework of the present-day Ajay Shah Design Studio can be traced back to this office.

In 2002, a design commission that started out as an interior design assignment began to emerge as a holistic project centred around a brand that unified graphics, furniture, spatial design and communication design in a cohesive exercise that prompted Ajay Shah to establish ASDS. He says,

“For some years, we decided to simply call ourselves `suppliers of ideas and impulses’. I see myself as a `purveyor of good design’.”

This interdisciplinary nature of work defines the studio as it is today. ASDS is a diverse professional company that deals with a multitude of design and production verticals from interior design to communication design and produces many things that include stationery and furniture. As a ‘purveyor of good design’, ASDS has lent a unique aesthetic and appeal to their creations that locates itself between rational functionality, and playful visual and human interfaces.

While much of contemporary design deals in creating objects for lifestyle, the domain of a boutique studio producing unique and crafted pieces was not of Ajay Shah’s interest. His NID background had incited in him a passion for exploring the prospect of materials and an approach to design where the expression of materiality is intrinsically linked to the nature of the material at hand. In this tradition of thought, the wood must behave like wood and serve a purpose that is specific to its nature. Influenced by research in new materials and the power of design to unravel known characteristics of common materials like wood, mild steel and aluminium, the initial work of Ajay Shah’s studio was influenced by global thought-initiatives like the Memphis Movement and industrial design by furniture companies like Steelcase, Herman Miller and Vitra – the brands that dealt with large-batch productions, global standards and precision engineering. Ajay Shah was interested in designing for mass-consumption as against creating hand-crafted pieces for boutique markets.

The contemporary products of Industrial Playground find their roots in this line of thought. “I wanted to find a way to think of furniture from a serious Industrial Designer’s perspective and yet combine a visual playfulness,” says Ajay Shah. While the objects designed within Industrial Playground and Rubberband initiatives have certain toy-like accessibility, they are designed within the discipline of serious, logical and material-driven industrial design that leans towards standardised, large-scale production. While the outcomes of this continuous process of design are varied and frame a diverse catalogue, a uniform ideological foundation is clear in their design character.

The concept of the economy – not from the perspective of affordability but from the perspective of material use – is central to these objects.

The furniture that ASDS has designed as a part of the Industrial Playground and Rubberband catalogues can be imagined as a consistent design effort: a work-in-progress idea that runs like a thread conceptually tying all the objects produced as a result. This idea deals with serious ergonomic furniture design effort, juxtaposing it with strong material associations that reference the industrial production process. A workshop-culture enables ASDS to experiment frequently with the possibilities constantly improvising on design in the making. At the core of the effort, their design process is a combination of sophisticated computer modelling and a back-and-forth idea that involves sketching and making paper models in the studio.

As a furniture designer, there are certain universal standards that one deals with – the dimensions and ergonomics – and while these standards become benchmarks for comfort and utility, the design goes beyond the functional concerns and engages the user with curiosity and play. Constantly experimenting with materials at hand becomes an integral part of the process of design.

Another approach that seems significant to the Industrial Playground aesthetic is to tinker with the known and existing production and design systems to generate surprise outcomes. This process of steady and informed disruption helps them to improvise on existing and popular mechanisms for pieces that are familiar and yet uncannily distinct in personality. Versioning also adds to the incredible variety that is generated from a singular potent idea. In a discussion on the range of furniture created by ASDS, Ajay Shah says,

“I have been reprimanded by people for not thinking of a customer.” This lack of a presumed audience puts the pieces they make independently in the market and attracts a design-aware clientele.

They also become a part of larger interior design projects that the studio works on. The sophistication in detail enables Industrial Playground to appeal to corporate clients who use the furniture in public areas like food-courts, training centres and lounges. The retail space also gives these designs an opportunity to appear at unlikely places.

As a discipline, there is dissonance in terms of what furniture design in India stands for. Till very recently, not much contemporary urban furniture used to be designed in India. In recent times, some companies have invested in the production of contemporary designs from India which have a certain demand and relevance in our context. The present landscape of mass-produced furniture in India is dominated by moulded plastic furniture manufacturers and makers of office furniture. Venturing into a more immediate and relevant domain of institutional furniture, Industrial Playground is also enabled by a fresh demand, the changing ideas about office and study culture and a shift in user behaviour in recent years. This change can also be attributed as one of the factors for the growing appeal and demand for Rubberband – Ajay Shah’s stationery brand and now a label under which the furniture designs are produced can be evaluated to have common philosophical foundations to Industrial Playground. With beautifully produced notebooks, writing bricks and desktop items as a part of the collection, Rubberband leans significantly on the character of paper as a material in its design – an essential quality that contributes to its appeal.

The nature of the design process is important for the kind of work ASDS is interested in. This process is non-linear and does not originate from the visual attributes of the eventual product. In retrospect, the visual attributes and the appeal of the product is a consequence of the design process that involves a careful and sophisticated exploration of formal and material qualities. In this process, there is a distance from stylistic subscriptions and attributes of taste. However, the rigour in the development of design contributes to the eventual visual and tactile appeal of the piece. Going beyond drawings and digital renderings, the studio is invested in making paper models which enable them to involve their faculties more immediately with the product.

Not all furniture designed by ASDS is produced in quantity even though intended for mass production and manufacturing. This pushes them to think consistently about the economy of form and substance to design furniture that serves as both – select pieces in small quantity and production-line prototypes. This comes with a sense of simplicity and clarity – no work has the unnecessary embellishment and no part serves purely as a visual intervention.

In the Indian context, modern furniture design is a discipline in its nascent stages with designers often banking on disorganised professional delivery structures and under-developed prototyping mechanisms to produce sophisticated pieces of work.

Brands like the Industrial Playground are also consciously aiding in changing this narrative by pushing the discipline to organise itself better and by making patrons more aware of the possibilities of Indian industrial design.

As ASDS continues to work on select commissioned projects and developing brands like Rubberband, Ajay Shah says, “Today we are more selective in what we design and what we produce; because we realise that the language of products we like need to be original in thought and stem out of an idea of a material, a function and a corresponding form.” ASDS continues to innovate in the field of furniture design through research-driven initiatives. The resultant objects intrigue and excite us with their playful designs and sophisticated making ♦

Image Credits: Ajay Shah Design Studio [ASDS]

Founded by Ajay Shah in 2002, AJAY SHAH DESIGN STUDIO [ASDS] is an interdisciplinary design firm providing holistic design solutions by unifying product, space and graphic design. A studio that consistently re-invents itself, ASDS has created respected brands like Rubberband and Industrial Playground in its wake. In 2016, Industrial Playground products were merged into Rubberband as an umbrella brand. 

The Studio in Mumbai

OBJECT documents inanimate articles that inhabit the space- products, accessories, furniture, and lighting, while engaging with the designer/s on the processes that make them.


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