India by Design – A conversation with Saloni Mathur

On 5/23/13 6:59 AM, Spandana Gopal wrote:

Hi Saloni,

I am writing to you because I have started leafing through your book, Indian by Design, and would like to tell you that I find it a great resource. I hope I can take up your time with these few paragraphs below. I thank you in advance for reading.

To give you a bit of context – I am originally from Bangalore, and have lived in London for close to 8 years. I worked in contemporary art for a few years and have now migrated to exploring design through my new venture in London – a product and furniture business to launch next year.  I say ‘exploring’ because I am not sure what Indian Design means, or if there is such a thing. I find it a very complex area, and am hoping I will be able to get my head around it at some point.

The aim of my venture is to develop a brand that shares products of Indian origin and inspiration in Europe. But looking at what is currently circulating, I am saddened because it seems that ornament and decoration, and not quality, longevity or function, has come to represent what Indian design means. Japanese brands, for instance, have established themselves in European markets with a distinct presence embodied by a combination of simplicity and excellence in craftsmanship.

Reading your essay about the Liberty’s department store in London threw some light on this area. It was enlightening to understand through your case study ‘the oriental underpinnings’ of such a Victorian department store. The re-appropriation of Paisley, for instance, to suit British taste, the import and dying of Mysore silks and the industrial manufacture of ‘cashmere’, to compete with then considered highly-priced products and exceptional skills of their Indian counterparts, have been thoroughly interesting aspects of the essay.

In the epilogue of your book, you quote Walter Benjamin, who warns us against ‘Heritage’ – a mode of cultural production in the present day laying claim to the past. There are terms such as Indo-chic, and Ethnic Slot which are ever present forms of containment. As an entrepreneur who is conscientious, but ambitious, how do I avoid these complexities? Is there a way that I can share my inspiration without being part of this everlasting post-colonial project?

To quote a designer I am reading at the moment (Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary: Naoto Fukasawa & Jasper Morrison)

“Absence: The Super Normal object can be defined by something that is not present. Or something that it does not have. Style, identity, originality, remarkableness…

Jasper Morrison speaks openly of the ‘loss of innocence’ separating today’s designers from the craftsman and artisans of previous centuries. They manufactured objects of everyday use – a ladle, an axe, a saddle – without seeking to express themselves of their age, or even to hold their ground against the products of their competition or forgeries. Normal design can take place in an Ivory tower or abandon itself to sentimentalities. It has to take the market into account to make an impact. But instead of resorting to cheap tricks or exalted gestures, that impact can only be achieved through sophisticated forms and details that clearly reveal the fruitful legacy of traditions and progenitors in design history.”

With regard to what Morrison says here, my design team has been looking at, for instance, the ‘lota’ or ‘mutqa’. I think that this can be an interesting starting point with regard to exploring how we can share classic Indian design with the rest of the world. I see my project as being over ambitious at times, but I do believe that I need to go through with it, and what I feel. I would love your thoughts with regard to my frantic blurb above, and would be grateful if you could possibly point me in the right direction with regards to how to tackle these issues.

I do apologise if I am a bit unclear and that I have come to you out of the blue. I am happy to follow up with more structured questions (if you have the time to answer them).

I thank you in advance again,

With best wishes,

Spandana Gopal

On Fri, Jun 7, 2013 at 9:28 PM, Saloni Mathur wrote:

Dear Spandana,

Sorry for not replying sooner; I’ve been busy traveling the last couple of weeks, and am just clearing up a back-log of emails.  I’m pleased, of course, to hear that my book has been a helpful resource for you, especially since one doesn’t often hear that outside of the narrow world of academia.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to your question, which is really THE hundred million dollar question, to my mind:  “how do I avoid the complexities” of containment, clichés, stereotypes, etc. that have emerged historically from the colonial past?  Ultimately, I feel it demands creative solutions and new ways of thinking on the part of informed and self-conscious practitioners like yourself.  So my only response is to encourage the intellectual questioning and utopic spirit of your own practice, and suggest that you continue to work hard to not let things settle comfortably into the same old narratives, visual or otherwise — all of which I gather you’re doing already or you wouldn’t have written to me(!).

Regarding the ‘lota’, I assume you know about Charles and Ray Eames account of the ‘lota’ in their 1955 India Report?  If not, I’ve also written an essay about that for Art Journal, which you might find of interest.  Its available on-line at:

Best of luck — and thanks again for your kind note — yours, Saloni

Saloni Mathur
Associate Professor
UCLA | Dept of Art History
405 Hilgard Avenue, 100 Dodd Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1417


American designer, Charles Eames, in his The India Report:

‘Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful.’

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