Life at the RCA: Escaping the confines of identity in design

How to weave a double colour a silk sari, Weavers Service Center, Bangalore

How to weave a double colour a silk sari, Weavers Service Center, Bangalore

Avantika Agarwal is presently a student on the Master’s program for design products, at the Royal College of Art in London. Growing up in India, Avantika always had a fondness for art, along with a curiosity of the physical world and how things were made. To combine these two interests she chose to do her BA through Stanford’s mechanical engineering department, in product design, which gave her a solid grounding in engineering and human-centred design.

SG : How important is it to you, being Indian?

AA : I didn’t realise how important it was to me until I came to the RCA and was pushed by my tutors to find my unique voice. It was only then did I begin realising how large an impact my Indian upbringing had on the way I think as a designer – most specifically in the way I view colour and ornamentation. In the past, I’ve always shunned the label of an “Indian designer” because I felt that it brought with it a bunch of stereotypes that I didn’t want to let cloud the perception of my work. For my graduation work, I did a deep-dive back into Indian culture to try and distil exactly what it is about the culture that inspires me and to make me more conscious of the design choices I make.

I read a quote somewhere by Ram Rahman that simply says (about Indian design) “We have always been a decorative people”, and that rings so true to me. Look at our traditional clothing, our places of worship, the way we depict divinity, even our trucks! Colour and decoration spill everywhere in an unapologetic, unbridled exuberance that’s chaotic and all encompassing yet, somewhere, there’s an underlying logic. As a synesthete I am particularly sensitive to colour and so have always had a tendency to be very bold in my choices, often alarming my western colleagues – now I am beginning to realise where this tendency comes from!

SG : The idea of form following function, and decoration being an ‘uncessary cost’ that doesn’t contribute to  good design in a way – I feel in India the context is different. Somehow everyday life sees utility in ornament, in decoration and in ritual.

AA : There’s a bias in Western design towards very conservative colour palates and forms. This dates way back to Goethe talking about how only refined people appreciated monochromes whilst savages were apparently drawn to bright colours – and this attitude continues with artists like Picasso slamming ornamentation, and designers in general looking down upon anything considered superfluous decoration. I have always been confused by this attitude and I honestly believe that a design culture that is solely focussed on function makes products better-faster-cheaper, without considering more humanistic values. We are 3D beings evolved in a euclidean space, made to react to and be stimulated by the physical world. Growing up in a culture that is so appreciative of aesthetics and ornamentation, whose rituals are in fact dependent on it, I appreciate how the value of a product or an experience can go beyond simply how something works – how experiencing beauty and elevating the mundane can touch humans on a very basic, emotional level. I try and remember this when I design.

SG : It’s coming up to your final show, and from our conversation last week you’re working with some pretty interesting materials – Camphor being one of them. At Tiipoi we’re trying to invite a new relationship with India not only with materials but also with processes that have been overlooked because they are the currency of the everyday. Is it important for you as a designer to work with materials from India to have a bigger voice in London?

AA : Not really; I kind of chanced upon working with camphor after a conversation with a close friend and its cultural significance happened to be a nice add on, but it does not necessarily make up my entire concept. I don’t believe that what makes India unique is the materials we use per say, yes, we do have a really interesting palette but it is our entire attitude towards design; the way we decorate everything, the over stimulation of colour, the way we weave rituals into everything we do.

SG : In terms of getting things made the issue we face, as a brand in London manufacturing in India, is being in a space where people expect to see the same things – labourers toiling away in a sweatshop but smiling at the sight of a camera. We talked about this being an issue to say the least of being stereotyped for the nth time. How are you dealing with this at the student level?

AA : It’s definitely difficult, especially since there’s such a resurgence of the “locally made” product; people love and push for knowing the story behind the craftsmen and more than that, designers do fetishize the exotic craftsman toiling away in a sweat shop. I can’t mention the number of times I’ve been pushed to build up that aspect of the story in my work!! Makes me cringe.

But I think something that you said in our conversation makes a lot of sense, you treat these craftsmen as any accomplished manufacturer you would deal with in the west, as any other designer in a studio. And honestly, when I went to visit the weavers yesterday, I was filled with a profound respect for their skills and their attitude towards work. There was no sense of a culture clash, it was the same experience as me visiting any design studio. Rather than photographing their “smiling faces”, it was their intricate handiwork, the way they handled the machines, etc. that I wanted to capture and that they were the most keen to showcase. They wanted me to photograph the nuances of their process, showing off all the little tweaks they had done to streamline the production process, the way any designer in the west shows off his or her studio.

SG : What to you is Indian design? Or Design from India? Do you think you can break free from being a designer with one of these labels?

AA : Sadly, in the design world, “Made in India” usually translates to cheap manufacturing and/or cheap labour. Moves by the government to resuscitate the arts and crafts hasn’t really modernised the craft, their outputs never amounting to more than curios or artefacts to the Western World. I think what you guys are doing is fantastic – looking at the actual manufacturing strengths of the country and really engaging with the craftsmen to produce quality products that are unique to the resources and production methods of India. I think, to probably break free from the label, one must consciously avoid slipping into the stereotypes as mentioned above (smiling craftsmen, etc.), while elevating the status of the craftsman and giving him credit in the design process instead of as just convenient labour.

I had a disturbing conversation with a weaver the other day – he was talking about a decline in their industry because he said Indian designers come to them and pay a pittance for the work they do and then sell their textiles at enormous prices abroad, through exoticising the craft process – and the craftsmen see none of that profit. They in turn get frustrated with their low wages and unsteady income, and so urge their kids to join the IT industry (call centres, etc.) instead of carrying on the craft. I think we need to find a way to meaningfully engage with these craftsmen, and make a mutually beneficially sustainable system to create products of international standards and value.

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Spinning silk with an improvised spinning system based on a bicycle mechanism, Weavers Service Center, Bangalore

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