of art. That was when young people all over the country began to wake up to the fact that being desi was far from being unsophisticated. Being desi, in fact, was sweet and funny and cool.
That was then. Now, when we’re pretty pleased with ourselves and our identities, designers of home products and other knick knacks are beginning provide us with things that, as desis, we recognise as ours, appreciate and buy. To display proudly in our homes.
These products range from an Indian WC-shaped ashtray to mythology-inspired rolls of toilet paper, to matchboxes that satirise our urban pretensions, to a timepiece that puts us in our place (at exactly the right time).
These are different products made with different sensibilities and just a few in a wide range of products offered by a variety of designers and entrepreneurs, but they all have a few things in common. They are inspired by our country and its everyday, urban, popular culture. They are wacky and yet useful. And they all display a sense of humour that is intelligent and sharply witty. These are not just bits of kitsch. These are well thought out, well executed pieces of work that tell us loud and clear how proud we are to be who we are – so proud that we can laugh at ourselves.
As a design expert says, “We know where we stand. We are confident of our roots. So a bit of fun doesn’t hurt.”
Meet five designers and entrepreneurs who’ve shown us their Indi-visual styles.
Loose Ends, Bandra, Mumbai
Madhumita Goswami may have studied the business side of advertising at the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA). She may have focused on the business side of advertising when she worked in the industry. But she couldn’t suppress her inner creativity for too long.
That’s why, four years ago, she dumped advertising and set up a store called Loose Ends, selling funky home products from a garage in Mumbai. The idea was to make and retail products that people with a sense of fun would enjoy. It worked. Within a few months, Loose Ends was being sought out.
Though kitsch was on the agenda when Madhumita started Loose Ends, it’s not the store’s focus any more.
“That was just replication,” she says. Instead, over the last six months, Madhumita has redefined what Loose Ends stands for and decided to give the store a certain character. “It’s a place that sells products that have western and contemporary styling but an Indian character and essence,” she says. The decision, she says, was based on consumer response as well as her own bent of mind.
The designs that Madhumita personally oversees, are Indian with contemporary touches. Her Akshar (alphabetical) collection defines the philosophy perfectly. “I have Akshar coasters – coasters with Hindi alphabets. So, a coaster with a ‘P’ in Hindi would mean ‘pinacolada’, and a ‘P’ in Hindi on a tray would mean ‘pizza’. Then there’s the ‘Bhai saab clock’. It’s a pun on people who keep asking others, ‘Bhai saab, time kya hua?’”
Her inspiration is everything. A walk down a road in any Indian city could inspire her in a million different ways, she says. “These would be different from what the West does. They would be unique and also celebrate Indianness.” Madhumita’s take on everything Indian is not complete without a dash of wit. So she also stocks items from Happily Unmarried (profiled later), like the sandaas ashtray which she says is a best seller. “It’s like a shared joke. A joke everyone can understand.”
Nixed Juice Design, GK 1, Delhi
Ask for juice at any juicewalla’s and you’ll get a concoction,” grins Nikki Duggal, creative director of Mixed Juice Design. “India has so many shades, so many different kinds of experiences and people, that it’s mind boggling.”
Mixed Juice Design is a design studio that, aside from working on space design, branding and so on for clients, also creates products for retail. Nikki’s design philosophy is to “produce India-centric products without losing the colour and most important, the humour.” Humour is important, she says, because it helps people deal with issues they often avoid, in a light-hearted manner.
“I wanted to talk about social issues but also have fun,” says Nikki, who has a degree in graphic design from London. “Every product we have has deep thought behind it. I deal with issues like the snobbery associated with being from south Delhi, for instance, as well as superstitions and our attitude to life.” So there are India-inspired matchboxes, playing cards, laptop bags and T-shirts featuring characters Nikki creates. For instance, there’s the ‘Gud Dilli Buoy’ and ‘Gud Dilli Gurl’, stereotypes of the kind of young people apparently found in south Delhi. Stories are constructed around these characters on matchboxes. The Gud Dilli Buoy wakes up at 12.30, drinks through the day and then kills himself. The Gud Dilli Gurl wakes up, gets on the phone for gossip, lunches at the latest ‘it’ place, goes to the beauty parlour, then gets ready to party and screams at the maid.
Initially, Nikki started with kitsch. But as time passed, she decided to focus more on original characters. That way, she can put a message across without being didactic. So since she finds our emphasis on suhaag raat odd in this day of premarital sex, she has a ‘Suhaag Raat’ series. And there’s another series that shows how hypocritical we are in our attitude to sex: “More sex please, we are Indian,” announces one of her characters. “We behave as though sex doesn’t exist. How untrue,” says Nikki.
Design has a certain responsibility, she says, and that responsibility can be met with humour and naughtiness, in a language that people can relate to. “We face so many challenges every day, so we need something that says, ‘It’s okay to smile amidst all the chaos.’”
Play Clan, Select Citywalk, Saket, Delhi
Himanshu Dogra refused to let us shoot him. We pushed him. Finally, we won. So here is Himanshu, against his will. The man who founded Illum Design. The man behind Play Clan, a store in Delhi that sells funky home products. The man who believes the brand should be faceless because, “It’s the creative outlet of around 30 people who work with me.”
Thirty-something Himanshu, a National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate with a degree in fashion design, dabbled in many things before starting a design studio – Illum – that paved the way for Play Clan, six years later.
“Illum does branding, packaging and the works,” says Himanshu. “But we felt stunted doing just that. Our work was very client based and we had no outlet for our creativity. So I came up with the idea of playing with design, without boundaries and restrictions.”
The design studio comprised a bunch of talented creative people – copywriters, graphic designers and so on.
Design Temple, Colaba, Mumbai
When Divya Thakur, a graduate of the J J School of Arts, Mumbai, started a design studio to work with clients, she had no clue that one day, she’d be making and retailing products with an ‘Indian touch’. Yet, Divya found herself bitten by the creative bug. “I wanted to do something that had no boundary between design and advertising,” she says. “We have a distinct Indian visual language, but we don’t stand out like a sore thumb. The challenge was in showcasing our country sans clichés. I wanted to find a visual language that defined urban India, and propagate it.”
Divya took inspiration from everyday India. The result: A matchbox series on the three monkeys of Gandhiji, toilet paper rolls depicting Duryodhana during the cheerharan of Draupadi, and a shunya (zero) bag celebrating Aryabhatta.
Divya says she wants to come into people’s homes with small, functional products, since functionality is what design is all about. Since the talent pool at her studio mainly comprises graphic artists, her products are limited to stationery – diaries, travel-shunya bags, wellness-incense sticks, storage boxes, matchboxes and toilet paper.
Kitsch was the last thing on her mind. “The dictionary meaning of kitsch is an incongruent mix of elements and colours,” she says. “The language I represent, that of the urban youth, is hardly that. Though they are influenced by the West, they are very sure of their Indianness. They are not incongruent.”
But humour, as defined by the Channel V and MTV take on Indian youth in the ’90s, is important. “It made us confident and also helped us laugh at ourselves.” That’s why we’re okay with buying a first aid box that says, ‘First Vaid Box’ or a jewellery case with a sketch of a highly ornamented woman on the lid, called ‘Buny Thani’. Indian is original, Divya feels. So why do a re-make of a Louis Vuitton when you can do an original Indian piece? And original Indian pieces not only appeal to us, but also to foreigners, who see the real India. “Paris, South Africa, Tokyo – I send stuff everywhere,” Divya says.
Her own favourite product is the ‘parrot diary’. The diary is based on the role of a parrot that repeats things and reminds us to do stuff. And the A to Z pages in the phone book aren’t purely alphabetical. Instead, they use Indian words and people – C is for Chanakya, for instance.
Rahul Anand & Rajat Tuli
Happily Unmarried, Delhi, Goa and elsewhere
What would you call people who hate being taken seriously, but seriously produce an ashtray shaped like a sandaas (the Indian style WC) and expect us to spend good money on it? Would you call them quirky? Funky? Fun? Rajat Tuli and Rahul Anand, co-founders of the brand Happily Unmarried, hate being labelled, but if ‘fun’ is what we want to call their firm, they’re okay with it. “We have been called many things,” says Rajat. “And we are many things. Except consistent.
That’s why we don’t have any one designer conceptualising products for us. We have over 20 designers with individual quirks. The only thing that’s consistent is the fact that our products make people smile.”
How did it start? They were batch mates in the MBA course at MICA, and wanted to represent what the young Indian related to. But after a few years in advertising, even though neither of them had a background in design, they set up Happily Unmarried.
The lack of a design background was a problem initially. “We conceptualised ‘Model P’, an ashtray that is a replica of those huge irons that dhobis use, and went to designers with a brief, but not many of them understood what we wanted,” says Rahul. “Finally, we met a designer who got the idea and helped us work out more. And after we had pieces, we could delineate to other designers what we really wanted.”
The duo wanted products that represented different ideas around India, with loads of humour. “We don’t take ourselves seriously and are not uppity about our products and brand,” says Rajat. “That’s why when we launched in 2002, we had a tagline that said, ‘We have no branches, issues, or helicopters.’ We do have branches now, but nothing else has changed. Also, we encourage people to laugh at themselves.”
One of Happily Unmarried’s first products was the National Permit Shotglass series. A range of shot glasses that represent different states in India through sayings identified with a particular place. The Mumbai shotglass says, ‘East Station, West Station, and Amchi Mumbai’. The Delhi one says, ‘…Hum to aise hi hai ji’, the Bhojpuri one says, ‘Hamar shotglass’.
Rajat believes that, these days, we relate to the desi better than the firangi. “We have a product called ‘A Very Good Screw’. It’s a condom holder with a Western sensibility. In earlier days, it could have appealed to the young and hip. But it’s not doing well,” he says. “Instead, people are picking up stuff that has desi connotations they can relate to, like the dabba CD case, beer glasses with Bollywood lines like ‘Kya tumne phirse sharab pee hai?’ and so on.” That’s why the duo feel that they are on the right track. “We got the idea from Channel V and its ‘we are like this only’ humour,’” says Rahul. “It became acceptable to laugh at ourselves and our Indian identity. We wanted to capture that bindaas attitude. Fun and humour were integral.”
From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special