Spandana: You’ve worked for design powerhouse, Seymourpowell, as their first female designer; what was it like?
Afroditi: That’s a good question. It was quite different back then – my second job straight out of university – and at that age I was definitely not fully moulded into a designer. Nonetheless the books you read on design had Seymourpowell all over them, and then suddenly you get a job and you are part of it! That being said, it was a boy’s place and I was their first woman. At the interview they said to me, ‘we would love to employ you for two reasons. A, you are a woman and B, you are intelligent. We’ve been interviewing to find our first female employee.’ I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not – considering they had been running for 14 years already. But then, in 1996, in an industrial design course of 68 students, only 8 of us were female. At that time, product design was called industrial design, so it was very technical, and it somehow put off a lot of female students. It was only after 2000 that things started really changing. They re-branded the whole thing. They made it about creative thinking, conceptualising and understanding contexts.
Spandana: Can you tell us about a project you worked on while you were there?
Afroditi: Well, one of the first projects I worked on was to design a bra for a company in England. And I remember saying to the bosses, ‘well it’s good that now you actually have somebody who’s got breasts!’ It was a great project – we spent about two years developing it because it took that long back then to take products from design stage to production. A bra can be quite a complex product and there can be up to 65 different parts.
Spandana: You mentioned over lunch about your project with an Indian client? Something you said about using existing moulds stuck with me…
Afroditi: Ah yes. Bajaj. They were one of the clients for Seymourpowell. I was working on a project for them, designing ceiling fans, and the result was quite good. But another group in the studio was working on an iron that was quite highly detailed, and they went to India to meet with Bajaj, who said to them, ‘oh we think it’s all proving to be a little bit expensive and we found an old mould in our factory’ (it was for a fridge or something completely unrelated). They said, ‘we will use the same mould to create a handle for the iron.’ Though they missed the whole point of our iron, in many ways, I thought this was quite an innovative idea and very resourceful. And this idea stuck with me for a long time. One could almost make a project out of it – how a factory manufacturing so many different products could re-appropriate moulds to come up with a range of new products. Western design has become about having plenty or too much, and it’s about how to differentiate rather than problem solving.
Spandana: Working on how things stand out as opposed to making design less prominent and intrinsically related to function. Leaving aside Bajaj, I think this is a problem with India as well. Almost all ‘designed objects’ are decorative, for the luxury market.
Afroditi: Yes, exactly. Rather than being resourceful and making do with what you have. Because I come from Greece, I can relate to the latter somehow – there is something poetic and humbling about it. Like opening your fridge and having a cheese and egg and asking, ‘what can I make out of this?’
Spandana: And then Dishoom was your next Indian connection?
Afroditi: Yes, then Dishoom came. And I thought, what an interesting project, and I spent the whole week researching.Then I started panicking. I could research for another year about India and I would still not to know where to start and where to stop, what was right and wrong.
Spandana: They originally said they wanted an Indian wagamama, from what I remember you told me?
Afroditi: Yes, originally – but this changed, of course. They knew pretty much what they wanted their food to taste like – they wanted to move away from the concept of the curry house that people went to after the pub to have a greasy meal. They wanted to serve grilled meats, fresh ingredients and move away from the stuffiness of it all – no tablecloths, etc. – and the oiliness. So, in that sense, I see how it did relate to wagamama for them.
Spandana: So where did you start?
Afroditi: Well, firstly, I thought, if the food is going to be different to what people expect, then the brand and the experience should convey that. So I made a report of what people thought of India, and then Dishoom became the complete opposite of that. I picked out the top 5 clichés from India and reversed them, in a way. So no bright colours, no being decorative, for example. I guess these were some of the clichés in the minds of a British audience that had never been to India. I also made a list of ‘hidden gems’ of India. So, for example, I realised that electricity had come in much later than the colonial buildings. So there was this beautiful architecture – high ceilings, all the cornices and the grandeur – but I would suddenly find wiring across the ceiling, an odd socket, a slow-moving, wall-mounted fan, and a picture frame in a very random place. The whole juxtaposition was somewhat jagged. But it also made me admire how these spaces had evolved – they were not kept pristine and they were somewhat democratic in their evolution. But it took me a year to move from the Indian wagamama to something that was earthy, humble and authentic.
Spandana: So very much about the everyday in India?
Afroditi: Yes, absolutely – very much about everyday democratic types of spaces that everybody would relate to. And, funnily, what I noticed was that the ‘highly designed’ spaces in India were the ones that were imitating the West. And, again, I can relate to this, being Greek, because it’s almost like we are embarrassed about our own culture and need to copy somebody else’s to be safe. For instance, I pointed out to them how cool the packaging for the Chandrika soap was and they said, ‘oh really? We grew up with it in the 70’s’. A year later, they came around to liking it more than before.
Spandana: So how did you arrive at the concept of the Iranian or Bombay café?
Afroditi: I didn’t have a name for these spaces – colonial spaces that were fading, a mixture of Britishness, Europeanness even, almost like a Viennese café, but at the same time, Indian. It was these spaces that we just didn’t know about, and that I just didn’t have a name for. But soon enough we met a lady who was a chef, and when I showed her the material she said, ‘oh yes, this is like an Iranian cafe!’ And I went to these cafés in Bombay and they were exactly how I imagined them to be. Everything then changed – including the menu. It then became about bringing this Bombay café to London.
Spandana: Dishoom was a facelift for Indian restaurants – it was somewhere people wanted to be on a Friday night. It’s buzzy, it’s cool and everyone who sits down to eat is curious and enchanted at the same time. Do you think there is potential to harness other aspects of India in the same way? What about design, for instance?
Afroditi: Of course I see potential – and it’s what you guys are doing, right? I think there is resistance nowadays to standardisation. There is a revisiting of local cultures and an interest in bringing them to the international market. There is also something about the evolution of processes within these cultures that is completely natural. They have endured the course of time, over 100s of years, and so they have a lot of ingenuity and cleverness built into them, rather than somebody just inventing the concept overnight. And apart from this global local trend, I think there is a learning curve that is offered by local cultures that we can harness. Whether they are products or services, they have stood the test of time to adapt and evolve, to exist till today. We should be revisiting the mechanisms and understanding why they are like that, rather than copy-pasting or creating pastiche or imitating styles – for me it’s about why Bajaj reuses their moulds, for instance. It is important to avoid the stereotypes and pitfalls of pastiche and try and achieve everlastingness of a product.
Afroditi Krassa is an award-winning product and interior designer who, after working for the likes of Seymourpowell, Nokia, Jaguar and Casio, founded her own design consultancy, Afroditi Krassa LTD, in London in 2002. She has since worked with leading restaurant, office and retail establishments around the world, and has consistently proven herself to be a pioneer in her field. Afroditi is currently working on the world’s first energy-generating outdoor furniture range for a major European manufacturer. When not designing, she teaches design, writes about design, judges design and, occasionally, dreams of design.