Designs on you
Have you ever wondered where all those quirky lamps, plant-holders and furniture designs come from? Amid an increasingly experimentative, young consumer base, independent product designers are flourishing. Humaira Ansari writes.Updated: Aug 25, 2013 02:16 IST
A ticket will get you a ride on the bus, but garlic will get you a seat', reads a phrase on a dining-table mat. The visual on the mat shows several stick figures scrambling for seats on an overcrowded bus. One man, though, has a window seat all to himself, thanks to his garlic-y breath.
The quirky mats were designed by Saanwari Gorwaney, founder of two-year-old online label PoppadumART. Priced at Rs 175 each, they are available at Roti Kapda Makaan, a five-month-old lifestyle store in Mumbai that stocks a wide range of similar products, sourced from more than 30 independent designers across the country.
The items include lamps made from the handlebars and headlights of Royal Enfield bikes, empty vodka bottles draped in fairy lights, and a chair that doubles as a ladder.
"These are products that our customers' parents would probably cringe at. And not all of them are cheap. The Royal Enfield lamps, for instance, cost Rs 10,5000," says Roti Kapda Makaan co-owner Henal Mehta, a former brand manager at a publishing house. "But I have sold six of them in five months. That's because customers are willing to pay for a good design that stands out."
On average, the store gets 5 to 20 footfalls per day, with most customers aged 20 to 45. Despite the monsoon lull, it is netting Rs 2.5 lakh in revenue every month. "Our Facebook page generates a lot of buzz too," says Mehta.
In cities across the country, independent product designers are finding a growing number of takers for increasingly quirky furniture, jewellery, knick-knacks and home décor items.
Most of the items are relatively highly priced and what some would call weird, and yet it is that very element of surprise and uniqueness that has become a selling point for these designers, in a market where the average consumer is younger, wealthier and more experimental than a generation ago.
"Globalisation and exposure to multiple media platforms have widened the outlook of today's youth. They want their Armani, but they also want to experiment and make statements through what they wear and use," says Pradyuman Vyas, director of Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design. "This has given Indian designers a great opportunity to experiment. The changing design aesthetic and consumption patterns, in fact, make this a very exciting time for the Indian product design industry."
Most of these designers operate on a small scale, using umbrella websites or social networking sites to market their goods. The game-changer, of course, was the Internet, with websites and social networking platforms allowing the creative individual to turn their ideas into product lines and reach out more easily to adventurous customers across the country.
Online stores holding offline exhibitions are further boosting sales, with online indie store Quirkshop, for instance, holding a pop-up exhibition for indie product designers in Mumbai and even events such as India Design Week, held in Delhi in February, allotting prominent space to such designers.
For the consumer, this means a vast array of interesting and increasingly personalised options for the simplest products - whether they be smartphone covers, plant-holders or pillowcases.
In Mumbai alone, apart from Roti Kapda Makaan, at least six more stores stock indie labels - Bliss in Andheri, Bombay Store and Tappu Ki Dukaan in Fort, Sanctum in Khar, Filter at Kala Ghoda, and the Chromakey design store on Napean Sea Road.
A walk through the narrow alleys of New Delhi's Hauz Khas Village uncovers another mushrooming tribe of designers-to-be, with scores of retail stores in this upmarket neighbourhood selling indie products ranging from quirky and kitschy to contemporary chic.
"My house is filled with products from indie design labels," says Parvathy Nair, 43, a Mumbai-based marketing director at an IT services firm. "It is a bit like the do-it-yourself principle. You can put together the look of your home yourself and refresh it periodically too, as you discover more products that suit your style."
On the shelves
On a rainy February morning at Delhi's India Design Week, two young furniture designers, Sahil Bagga and Sarthak Sengupta, drew curios visitors with furniture made from brightly coloured shreds of cloth. A chair from this collection won the best product award at the India Design Forum held in Mumbai in March.
One such chair now adorns the lounge area of a Hyderabad salon, whose owner, Mitesh Rajani, 29, bought it online after searching numerous e-stores over two weeks.
"I had never heard of the designers," says Rajani.
"But I loved the piece, and it is now the best piece of furniture in my salon. It's chic, classy and comfortable."
Business has picked up recently for Delhi-based Sahil & Sarthak. When they launched in 2009, they did barely any business. Last month, they netted Rs 3.50 lakh in revenue.
"There are now more young homeowners, who want to define their living spaces," says Sengupta. "That's one reason business is growing."
Clocks, coasters, tablemats, knick-knacks, mugs and stationery - by virtue of sheer scale, the lifestyle tag is one of the most popular categories in independent product design, with prices starting as low as Rs 100.
"Prices are low because these products are often impulse purchases," says Saanwari Gorwaney of indie product design label Poppadum Art.
The former media professional launched her Mumbai-based venture, with a manufacturing unit in Delhi, in 2011. She now makes about Rs 1 lakh a month in revenue, up from Rs 15,000 when she began, retailing online and in six stores across the country.
Ayush Jhunjhunwala, co-founder of The Red Tag, a year-old online Mumbai-based venture that sells quirky mobile phone and tablet computer covers, says independent designers are now acting as levellers in a market that, until recently, offered only cheap Chinese goods and uber-expensive branded ones.
"Consumers are enjoying this indie deviation," says Jhunjhunwala, who retails in ten stores across five cities, and in multiple e-stores, earning Rs 1 lakh a month in revenue, up from Rs 5,000 a year ago.
Glass and ceramics
This is one area where the globalised nature of the urban Indian consumer is most visible, says Shreya Nagpal, 32, founder of 10-month-old indie product design label Age of Sage.
"Some refer to the honey jars that I use for lamps by their technical name, mason jars," she says. "I never heard my grandmother or my mother classifying jars."
Products containing upcycled components are also becoming increasingly popular. At year-old Pune design studio Rebirth, for instance, upcycled glass and ceramic is moulded into household and lifestyle products.
"Products such as customised lamps and dog beds made from recycled rubber tyres are very popular," says Rebirth director Nivedita Joshee.
Antique watch parts always fascinated NIFT graduate Abhisek Basak. Accordingly, in 2011, he launched an online product design label, Absynthe, that sells jewellery, pen drives and watches by fusing metal gears and machine parts with wood, watch dials and crystals.
Retailing mainly via Facebook and umbrella websites, Basak, who also has a full-time corporate job, has seen business grow organically.
"India has traditionally been a country of craftsmen and artisans," he says.
"With industrialisation, we lost out to Western functionality. But now that trend is being reversed as designers and consumers experiment with Indian design aesthetics by adding a contemporary twist."
One such experimental Indian is Geetika Kumar from Lucknow, a 30-year-old fashion designer who recently bought a pen drive pendant from Absynthe.
"My father finds it odd when I wear a copper or brass pendant," she says. "For him gold is the only metal. For me, it's common, boring and passé."
Then & now
In the late 1990s, National Institute of Design alumni such as Mukul Goyal and Vibhor Sogani constituted the first crop of Indian product designers. Outfits such as Bombay Store and Good Earth began to stock indie products. The focus was on ethnic and traditional craft.
In 2004, Happily Unmarried, a Delhi-based product design firm known for its quirky lifestyle products, began marketing pop culture-inspired products online and offline.
As malls mushroomed in the mid-2000s, standalone stores such as Tappu Ki Dukaan and Chumbak followed.
Design students are now increasingly choosing product design as a career. Also jumping on the bandwagon are media, advertising, engineering and management professionals.
Many work out of home, selling their products through umbrella websites, social media platforms, and in the growing number of stores now stocking such goods.