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Home / Brunch / The new old thing

The new old thing

Crumbling, tarnished, chipped, peeling, unfinished and almost falling apart. Is it cutting-edge décor or just a dump? These days, it’s not always easy to tell. As I look across the lower level of Bandra’s new eatery...

brunch Updated: Mar 02, 2013 19:09 IST
Bhairavi Jhaveri
Bhairavi Jhaveri
Hindustan Times

As I look across the lower level of Bandra’s new eatery, Pali Bhavan, I am awash with memories of my childhood at my grandmother’s bungalow in old Khar. Any minute now, my cousins will call out to me to come and play and I will go running down that stone staircase. At Pali Bhavan, though, there were no cousins – just the waiter asking if I wanted to try the mini vada-pao appetiser. The wooden Gujarati-style window frames, the bent-over reading lamp and rough coat of blue paint on the walls made me travel to the past. But the funky paan dessert served in crockery imported from Scotland is definitely part of the present.

Further into Khar, at the lifestyle store Sanctum, a similar wave of nostalgia swept over me. A display case reminded me of an aunt’s peeling china cabinet. The tarnished metal tins looked like they’d once held hard-boiled sweets. The office cabinets were probably last seen on Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show. The store itself looks like a place that time forgot. Beautiful relics, keepsake boxes and dented vases were all over the place.

PLAY SOME OLDIES: JamJar in Versova keeps the old-time feel going with a real jukebox

It’s strange seeing the long-rejected set against spanking new. If I’d known how hip my grandmother’s house would be one day, perhaps we could have turned it into a buzzing, expat-friendly bar!

This idea of the deliberately dilapidated – you’ll see it in peeling or unevenly painted walls, rusty iron stands and railings, driftwood bric-à-brac, distressed furniture – has come back with a whole new grammar. Old doesn’t just mean a well preserved (or restored) antique. Shabby, vintage and deliberately aged pieces are now paired with a soft contemporary undertone. The resulting look is less-than-spanking-new, less pretty, unfinished, but very cool. Architects the world over are calling it ‘Shabby Chic’ and local restaurants and lifestyle stores are happily picking up on the trend.

Versova’s WTF! and JamJar diner; Andheri’s The Little Door; Bandra’s Pali Bhavan, The Big Nasty and Pali Village Café; Colaba’s Ellipsis; and the crockery at Nariman Point’s new eatery The Sassy Spoon, all look comfortably aged, even though none of them are more than three years old. Shantanu & Nikhil’s designer store Dharti; Sanctum and the wedding shop Marry Me have all made the imperfect and tattered beautiful again.

The spaces give the impression that they’ve always been there – not a bad vibe at all in an age when new brands replace old before we’ve even had time to react.
But transplanting South Indian temple pillars inside a contemporary Indian restaurant in Bandra restaurant isn’t cheap. And breaking down an intact wall just to show off some cracks isn’t good sense either. So why are we doing it?

Perhaps because it gives us something new to look at. “The trend has to do with the fatigue of extreme cutting-edge modernisation, so people are happy to go back to the basics,” says interior designer Tejal Mathur, who has designed Pali Village Café, Pali Bhavan and the Juhu restaurant Facing East in a grungy, dilapidated aesthetic.

Zameer Basrai of The Busride Design Studio, which designed Café Zoe, JamJar and Dharti, agrees. “The quality of material and robustness of detail is completely missing today. Instead of grappling with contemporary design, it is reassuring to look back and adopt design classics with certainty.”

It’s strange. What we’re now seeing as chic and cool are the very things that, as kids, embarrassed us. When friends came over, we’d insist our moms bring out the good china and tuck the usual stainless steel plates out of sight. Now it’s almost hip to lunch in copper, steel or brass bartans. It’s also trendy to work JamJar’s jukebox, squint into a tarnished mirror in a fitting room and climb creaky stairs to reach a shop.

This isn’t the psychedelics of ’70s retro. It’s not the soulless neon of the American ’80s. We’re gravitating to something much older, much more sepia-toned. Think Instagram. “Instagram has started to get a lot of flak online,” says Sandhya Gorthi, the owner of Sanctum, a store that excels in stocking ugly-beautiful knick-knacks. “Critics are asking ‘Why in the world would you want everything to look so uniformly vintage!’ But, if you look at all the elements in vintage design, they just look so damn pretty.”

Designers seem to think beyond just beauty. The trend shows the past to be a growing, evolving thing, unlike actually old structures, which remain static in their ageing process. “It speaks of a timelessness and agelessness, that’s why it is so popular today,” says Rohan Talwar, who owns Ellipsis restaurant. “The trend manages to combine all the appeal and character of antique furniture, with a simple, stylish, uncluttered look,” says Tanu Narang of cottage-style The Little Door.

A lived-in, casual, curling-at-the-edges look can be quite relaxing – after all, we’re most comfortable when we are not in our Sunday best – and that’s exactly what designers and decorators hope for with their vintage-style creations. “Until now, we were used to very formal homes; living rooms that were touch-me-not zones, so shabby chic is a breath of fresh air for India,” says Gorthi. It’s just nice to surround yourself with the less-than-perfect, she adds.

How old are you? Bandra restaurant Pali Bhavan (top) isn’t vintage as it looks; Nariman Point’s The Sassy Spoon has tarnished plates

If faux-familiarity is a big draw, then surely places that are genuinely aged should be more popular. After all, their stories are more real, their corners authentically neglected, their chairs wonky from years of use, and their lighting actually dim from accumulated grime on the lamps. But it’s not grime you want.

It’s today’s attention to detail, well-dusted corners, prompt service and products that ultimately ensure success. Something old is all very well, but only if it’s a backdrop for something new. And therein lies the difference.

What is distressing?
It is the technique of making an object or a piece of furniture or walls look unfinished, worn and weathered. The piece of furniture or the walls are intentionally destroyed to look used and aged with the use of sandpaper, metal chains, nails and paint stripper.

Antiquing goes a step ahead of distressing. The object is given a worn-out look and then embellished with vintage knobs or handles to make it look older or quainter than it is.

The smart way to shambles
Make your home look distressed, but not depressing. City experts show you how Use few utilitarian items. Invest in an interesting desk or letter bureau with unusual handles, pared down country-style couches, big rusted clocks, a stack of trunks in different colours – and decorative items such as taxidermy birds.

Team vintage accessories with modern furniture. Your grandmother’s old sewing machine repurposed as a side table to hold a modern lamp, contemporary chairs against a distressed wall. Don’t go overboard.

Mix and match. Dark wood with light, colour with neutrals; indulge in some trial and error and have fun!

From HT Brunch, March 3

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