Posted by: John Elliott | March 15, 2012

India’s design awakening begins in Delhi

India’s modern and contemporary artists enjoy an international following, and the country’s manufacturing industry is becoming recognised abroad. But India’s design industry is scarcely known or recognised, even in India. There are markets for Indian fashion and traditional handicrafts, but little attention is paid to modern design – except maybe for autos, the high-end of home interiors and corporate logos – and there is scant design education.

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“Companies live on design but don’t see it as an important function,” says Rajshree Pathy (left), an Indian entrepreneur and contemporary-art collector, who ran the first India Design Forum in Delhi last weekend.

“India is one of the largest consumers of design, be it automobile, textile, industrial or product design, so there’s no end to the need for design professionals, but CEOs see it as elitist or something just for handicrafts.”

India is now emerging, 20 years after the economy began to open up, into a new consumer society where the drab products, poor quality, shortages, and inefficiencies of India’s pre-1991 controlled economy are becoming less acceptable.

There is a parallel here with the UK. By the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, people were tiring of the bleak decades after the Second World War and began to break out and recognise the importance of design (for British style of the 1950s, see the vast carpet at Delhi’s new airport!).

By the early-1980s, this led to design being accepted in the UK as an interesting and viable profession and that could now happen in India, whose rich cultural history has yet to have a significant influence on modern designs trends.

“We do not know Indian brands but we should, considering the country has the knowledge, infrastructure, intelligence and rich culture to offer the world. If India does not establish some brands soon it will be too late since all the imports will just take over the country,” says Karim Rashid (below), a US-based designer.

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He says it was a shame that the Delhi hotel he stayed in for the forum had “Italian lighting, Italian furniture, German sinks, German faucets, French products” – he was in the Meridien Hotel, which prides itself on its support for modern design but, like most Indian hotels, shies away from exposing its guests to local products (even breakfast marmalade!).

Inspired by the Dubai Design Forum four years ago, Pathy organised the two-day event (which she plans to repeat next year) through her south India-based Coimbatore Centre for Contemporary Art. Working with her daughter Aishwarya, she brought together some 700 Indian designers, architects and students with some famous international figures, such as Rashid, Paola Antonelli, a leading American curator, an America-based designer (below), and Lidewij Edelkoort, a fashion expert from France for a series of lectures and debates. 

However, when she went “knocking on doors” for sponsors in India, Pathy was regularly rebuffed. She says that most of the people she approached saw design as a subject for fashion and luxury goods, with little relevance to their own work.

The conference’s list of 40 sponsors included only two manufacturing and infrastructure companies – Punj Lloyd, a leading engineering group, and Titan, a watch manufacturer in the Tata group. More mainstream Tata companies, such as Tata Motors and Tata Steel, were not there, nor for example were Mahindra and Hero from the auto industry and Godrej and ITC from consumer goods.

“In the West, design plays an integral role in improving the quality of life,” says Atul Punj, chairman of Punj Lloyd. “In India it must have relevance for the masses.” His company chose to support the forum to “help shape design aspirations” in everyday life, including “sustainable cities in India with contemporary design in public utilities, buildings and infrastructure”. Given the unauthorised and uncontrolled expansion of most Indian cities, frequently with poor quality construction, that is a significant aim coming from the head of a major construction group.

Anand Mahindra, who runs the Mahindra group, says he stayed away partly because the India Design Council, which he heads, has yet to decide how to help such ventures. His interest in design is shown by the evolving styling of his company’s passenger vehicles, culminating in its new curvaceous XUV 500 (below) that is a welcome break from the look-alikes that dominate India’s roads. Tata’s Nano mini-car (below) is also the result of extensive design activity.

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Rashid and other speakers talked at the conference about the need to realise that designing involves reacting to “the needs of society, functions and aesthetics”. That was quite different from the more common “styling” that adapted established ideas, as happens with many car designs for example. There was massive potential, he said, to use Indian ideas in contemporary settings, designing for international markets.

“Global brands use design companies in places like Paris and New York that often involve Indian craftsmen and designs, so why isn’t India doing it itself?” asks Pathy. Her answer is that there is “no design thinking”, and that such an initiative-based concept does come easily in a country where all teaching is by rote and “the education system doesn’t allow you to be a creative thinker”.

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A National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, produces a few dozen design graduates but that is a tiny pocket of excellence. Anand Mahindra agrees that design is not yet accepted as enough of a mainstream activity in India and that there are not enough design schools – something his council is working on.

India undoubtedly has the brains and the massive human potential to bridge these gaps, as Mike Knowles, a British furniture designer and dean of the Delhi-based Sushant School of Design, has discovered. “One major advantage India has over other nations is the dynamic qualities of students who quickly grasp the fundamentals of great design, with their many-millennia old culture exploding into creative activity,” he says.

So now is maybe the time for a generational change – the forum’s 700 delegates were noticeably younger than at most Delhi conferences and included 100 students. Currently however, says Knowles, a lack of design education is the main problem. “Most young people with design skills would rather call themselves artists because that’s where the money and glory is”.

An earlier version of this piece is on The Economist‘s books art and culture blog, Prospero http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2012/03/india-design-forum .

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