by Gunjan Gupta
The Import-Export Paradox
The Wrap Thrones – a part of Wrap Designs’ launch collection – were first showcased at 100% Design in London, in 2006, and have since then been showcased across key design events globally. Exemplifying the brand’s vision of international contemporary design, drawing from India’s vast repository of luxury handcrafts, the collections have been acquired by collectors across the world, and have appeared in almost every leading international design publication, including the cover of a European magazine. In struggling to address these collections to an Indian clientele however, I have observed that a large part of the contemporary furniture in India’s burgeoning luxury market, comprises either of Western imports or locally manufactured imitations of the same. India’s heritage of high-end craft skills in furniture are rendered pejorative within the Indian milieu – seduced by Westernisation and machine perfection – and exist largely through exports to markets in other affluent countries.
Historically, such patronage for Indian craftsmanship abroad has parallels. Awed by the rich traditions in wood and metal, and the absence of local infrastructure to manufacture Western style elevated furniture, European settlers from the 17th-18th centuries onwards, commissioned local craftsman to make basic forms along European lines; sometimes allowing them to draw freely from their own material culture, and sometimes – perhaps – guiding such synthesis. This cross influencing of craft, techniques and motifs used, gave rise to a wide range of luxury goods that were breathtaking in their appeal, and became highly sort- after in the West. In attempting therefore, to create such synergies in the present scenario, our projects mostly begin with a research through Indian art history and culture, for historical contexts based on the client’s brief and obvious current requirements. For instance, if we are looking to work with floral motifs, we usually draw upon Indian references like foliage in Indian miniature paintings, and other wood, textile and metal crafts. Often, this is challenging, as clients are more inclined towards existing references from copied furniture and design elements from abroad.
The Wrap Thrones
In the case of the wrap thrones, I was looking for such an anchor as inspiration in furniture. Dr. Amin Jaffer’s extensive research into Indian luxury craft, revealed some facts: Prior to European presence, Indian society principally sat cross-legged on textiles placed on the floor, and this posture in which they socialized and ate, determined their needs, and informed the functional objects that surrounded them. Elevated furniture had references through chowkis used in Hindu religious rituals, and thrones. And, on their own, thrones represented a lavish tradition of decoration, with sometimes these being embellished with precious stones, made entirely or plated with gold and silver, and containing the most intricate carvings. The technique identified for this project was that of silver and gold foil appliqué/wrapping – Chandi ke Patre ka Kaam and Varksaaz – ancient Indian techniques on the verge of obsolescence, and incidentally, one of India’s first decorative arts used for thrones. In the challenge to move beyond the surface application of silver and gold foil as ‘covering’, the traditional notion of such techniques for thrones with detailed figurative carvings was also given away – towards a new idea of ‘wrapping’ – with conceptual references to its meanings attached with the great artist Christo, and the concept was carried across the construction process in the wrapping of silver foil around teak panels.
Instead of using gold and silver as an end in itself, we explored the reflective properties between silver and gold, and of their different shades. An intensive model-making exercise led to geometry being used to create alchemy between the connecting planes. The reflected gold seductively increases and decreases, finally enveloping the viewer/user in its luminescent embrace, the light quality invoking an ambience of reflecting lit diyas on the walls of Hindu temples for the evening aartis, where such silver and gold foil is often used to mark the idols. With gold being used on these thrones being 24 Carat, these represent the ultimate luxury for interiors!
Perceptions of Indian manufacture
The last few months, we have been reflecting further on simplifying these as a collection of ‘Deconstructed Thrones’, which will be presented in The Milan Furniture Fair in early 2012, a very different context than 100% Design where the thrones were launched. And this journey has made me further reflect on the reasons machine-made products from other countries at such Fairs are considered the ultimate mark of achievement, and why the handmade from India is considered inferior. Perhaps, this is because export enterprises treat crafts as a form of ‘mass production’ by ‘hand processes’. And, perhaps, this itself has a deeper origin?
At the turn of the 19th century there was a shift in the power equations between the European ‘colonizers’ and the Indian ‘colonized’ cultures, and the highly coveted objects – as have been discussed above for their synergies of aesthetics – were labelled as ‘stylistically confused’ by the former, and rejected by the Indian elite in favour of European goods that were representative of status and allegiance to the assumed political authority. This marked a sharp decline in the patronage and production of Indian luxury furniture. And what remained was the hardwood furniture of this time made for the peripatetic official population who demanded of their furniture simply, that it be affordable and hardy. Indian furniture, largely, has come to be recognised through this aesthetic even today.
Design Processes at Wrap
We normally begin the design process with a story board, which contains historical references, connects with international forecasted trends, inspirational images and narratives. This leads to a series of sketches by me, which are then converted into renders or small-scale models based on the nature of the design. This, is the most important and time-consuming process as a range of ideas are tested before the team of designers arrive at a selection. We normally do 2 to 3 versions of the same idea. This is followed by a full-scale prototype of the piece to test comfort, stability and structure, and. This is usually done in an inexpensive substitute material, and the key concern at this stage is marry the concept with function. The design team and production work closely during this, and once the design is frozen, the CAD drawings and production parameters are defined. The decorative finishes are tested simultaneously alongside the prototyping process. The design team works with artisanal communities across India to test materials and finishes against the Quality Assurance Guidelines of the company. Very often the artisans are invited to reside at the Wrap facility during the sampling process. This is a tricky part of the design development as the cost of materials is sometimes quite high and several samples need to be created. The designs are also, often changed at this stage by the production team to concur with a manufacturing rationale. Most of the Wrap objects involve more than one craft element and hence the Wrap facility unites and assembles the various activities into a stringent production process. It is also at this stage that experts are invited from across the world to work with the artisans through training workshops to achieve the optimum quality through advanced tools and technology. And, I am personally involved in every stage of the design development of Wrap objects before it goes into production.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gunjan Gupta is a furniture designer, and Founder-Director of WRAP, a contemporary luxury brand based in New Delhi. An M.A. in Furniture Design from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, London; she has been the recipient of the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur (Design) Award in India in 2007. In 2009, she was invited to curate an exhibition on Indian design at the Experimenta Design Biennale, Lisbon.