This blog is authored by Prof A. Balasubramaniam, Dean, Institute of Design, and originally authored in the UK’s iED
Design has been an inherent part of everyday life in India. The intricate embellishments on textiles, the detailed work on wooden architecture, the elaborate knowledge of metallurgy used in basic metal crafts, the decorative art on walls in houses or faces of dancers, the stunning design of the monuments are all testimony to the fact that India is a design-rich country.
It was against this background that the National Institute of Design, (NID) Ahmedabad, was set up by the Government of India in 1961, which was the beginning of professional design education in our country. The NID was established on the basis of the India Report, a document worked upon by renowned designer duo Charles and Ray Eames. The Eames report spoke elaborately on preparing young professionals who would help sustain and enrich the Indian ethos through design.
Design in India started out by catering to the small industries and crafts, but it has been mapped, by late Prof. MP Ranjan, that design is needed in all 230 sectors of the economy. Today, the profession has discovered its calling. Design, especially product design, has been able to branch off in multiple directions: medical and health product design, agricultural products and equipment design, design for handicrafts, design for IT, including digital products, social design and experience design.
Design in India is maturing now as a fully-‑ edged profession that includes Indian brands that are finding their feet in international markets.
SHOWING THE WAY
Tata Motors, the company that owns the Jaguar brand, had proved this by developing the cheapest car in the world. The TATA NANO introduced the term ‘frugal engineering’ by designing and manufacturing the INR 100,000 passenger car (approximately £1,200). The car made the world sit up and take notice of India’s capability to re-invent such vehicles. It was also the beginning of India-centric product design. Certainly, it appealed to the aspirations of families that wanted to grow from owning two-wheelers to cars.
I come from a generation that had the choice of two car models: the Ambassador, which is nothing but the Morris Cowley, and the Fiat, from Italy. Customers could choose a car model by just tossing a coin. Design had no role to play in the sellers’ market. With the opening up of the economy and car models being launched every month, designers are called upon to develop new products. Cost cuts, inventory reduction, streamlining production, better aesthetics and good ergonomics were the factors that drove businesses to hire design professionals.
When customers craved for choice, it was the white goods industries that woke up to the bene ts of product design. Automobile manufacturers followed suit. Medical equipment, agricultural implements and other socially relevant, but for-pro t, organisations started using Indian designers who were quick to apply their problem-solving techniques for better use. A lot of my contemporary designers also took to entrepreneurship and establishing their own brand of products. Some of these entrepreneurial ventures went on to become global brands.
Mukul Goyal, a product designer, is one such entrepreneur, who works with metal artisans and develops new products that were made by the ancient technique of lost-wax process. Mukul established his business – one that made stylish products for everyday use that were desirable in outlook and exciting to use. His brand now sells the world over, and is known for the elegance and craftsmanship that has become the hallmark of Indian design.
He took his inspiration from a craft technique and gave it a global twist. Instead of making highly decorative products, he created fun products that can be used at home and the workplace.
Designers from India have this advantage of dipping into the know-how that ancient crafts offer all around. Interesting processes, intricate forms, an array of materials and awe-inspiring hand skills all contribute to the Indian design idiom. Traditional knowledge contributes to the design programmes that is found missing in design education in other countries. The design education at NID and other institutions prepares one for this. Elaborate craft-documentation exercises carried out by generations of students have helped not only in documentation of the craft techniques, but also in enriching the design curriculum. Textiles, metal, wood, terracotta and bamboo products from various parts of the country have undergone up-market makeovers through design intervention, resulting in clean, fashionable products that are finding new urban markets all over the world.
SHOOTS OF CREATIVITY
Sandeep Sangaru, a furniture designer, uses indigenous bamboo and transforms them into stylish furniture that is manufactured using a combination of traditional processes and engineering. His products are exported even to China, where bamboo products are found in abundance. Named as a ‘young and promising’ designer, his latest work was showcased at the recent London Design Festival. His furniture in bamboo, using trusses to create book shelves and sofas, are exported to major countries, as they are both sophisticated and sustainable.
Bamboo, as a material, is found in abundance in the country. As it is as strong as steel and more sustainable than wood, many designers in India are using it for everything from utility products to toys, to contemporary furniture, to building bridges and houses.
My own bamboo design of office and hotel products for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) project was, happily, well received by the target audience. Artisans in Assam were trained to make these products, using local handicraft processes, resulting in a variety of new products that found new markets.
Pravinsinh Solanki, another accomplished furniture designer and an academic has designed a series of clothes hangers in bamboo that are derived from slicing the bamboo at creative angles. Keeping in mind the advantage of bamboo, he explored versatile forms that use no adhesive, resulting in well- furnished and minimalistic design. These stylish hangers have been exhibited in The World Bamboo Museum, Damyang, South Korea.
Clearly, this is India’s unique contribution to design. Designers have been able to leverage working with hand-made processes, indigenous materials and skilled artisans at the grass-root levels to produce products for a global audience. And the markets for these products are growing. This also gives the Indian designer an edge over designers from other countries.
The foray of Indian design into craft design has also resulted in other countries taking interest in working in India. Oxfam Great Britain, and Traidcraft, two organisations that take pride in fair trade products, regularly develop craft products for their international markets. In this process, they work with local designers to design and develop products that are marketed to their clientele in the UK and elsewhere.
Several years ago, TIME magazine wrote a cover story on Indian CEOs. Back then, Unilever, Pepsi, Microsoft, Citibank, MasterCard, Google and many other Fortune 500 companies had CEOs of Indian origin. The article mentioned that the attributes Indians have are apparently tailor-made for operating in the chaotic world today: multi-culturalism, ability to work under complex constraints, working with meagre or depleting resources and speaking the global business language – English.
Multi-culturalism is in India’s DNA. Working in chaotic conditions is a given. Frugal or meagre resources is an everyday problem. Add a dash of creativity, awareness of traditional knowledge and ease with the English language, and designers in India are getting ready to take on the world and embrace the future.