Fusing indigenous crafts with a minimalist modern aesthetic, Gunjan Gupta is breaking into the inner circle of the world’s leading contemporary design artists.
In the sleepy lanes of Satbari farms, in Jaunapur, Mehrauli, one of Delhi’s many ‘villages’ within the teeming metropolis, artist-designer Gunjan Gupta’s studio appears large and imposing. However, the iron gates slide back to reveal an eco-friendly studio space, where trees mingle with the brick and stone structures with healthy abandon. Workers potter around assembling many unusual looking shapes. There are pots and amphorae that have the legs of a chair, tea cups shaped like chemistry beakers, potli chairs and a bar made of beaten metal poles where wine bottles peep out of their tubular forms. It also has on display her popular designs like Navratna Tables (table), Bejeweled Navratna Discs (tableware), Tea Stack (tableware) and Rug Interrupted (furnishing).
We are at Wrap Art & Design, Gupta’s 10-year-old haven where her strongly sketched designs and creative boards are made into their corporal metal and wood forms. The 10,000 sq ft studio thrives on bare brick walls and tin sheets that partition off the space that is both display area and workshop for the 41-year-old industrial designer. The Mumbai-bred Gupta got a lot of on-ground exposure while working with interior designer Varsha Desai, before moving to Delhi to start out on her own.
The merit seat
On the verge of packing her bags for Venice where her works will be showcased at Venice Design 2016 (the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia 2016), Gupta takes some time off to tell us about how she used the inverted dome Mughal architecture to inspire her next creation, her plans for the future and what she is looking forward to in 2016. Gupta is known as one of India’s leading product designers and one of the emerging names on the international design circuit. She was first recognised for her gold-and-silver-leaf high-backed ‘Dining Throne’ in 2006, which has now evolved to a pared-down 2012 cousin titled ‘Deconstructed Throne’, which sports a willowy frame and lamé upholstery. Known as the gold and silver chairs, they were created in Jaipur as part of her London MA post-graduation project.
“I am thrilled that our work has been selected for the Venice Biennale (tomorrow to November 27), mostly because it is a juried event based on merit and is one of the biggest architecture biennales that exists in Europe,” says Gupta, whose trademark style involves sculptural form, clean lines and a refined contextualisation of Indian craft traditions. This is not the first time she has been making waves internationally with her presence; she was featured at the prestigious Triennale Di Milano and, in 2012, her Inspired by India series was presented at Sotheby’s, London.
Case for handmade
The Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design graduate practised interior design for eight years before she zeroed in on the bespoke furniture she was designing for her clients. At Palazzo Michiel in Venice this weekend, Gupta will showcase Sacred Geometry. The handmade ensemble of sculptural furniture (tables and consoles) inspired by Mughal Indian architecture will use historical building techniques and materials by traditional Indian craftsman in Rajasthan. “I chose Mughal architecture as the theme behind my works because they encompass the festival theme of time, space and existence. The idea was to work with an inverted dome form inspired by Humayun’s Tomb in the capital. The reason I work with Thathera and Kuftgiri master craftsmen from Jaipur is because most of our crafts is endangered,” says Gupta, while sipping on a cooling glass of locally produced lemonade. “Besides the amazing talent one comes across, I love the ability of Indians to do jugaad (being creative with limited resources). The world can learn a lot from our ability to be thrifty and our talent for improvising,” she says with a big smile.
One of the reasons Gupta cites for the major slow down of the progress of crafts in India is the lack of patronage. “With the market being flooded by manufactured, assembly-line products, we lost patronage of made-by-hand products. That is why there has to be a revival of our indigenous crafts and one way of doing it is by fusing it with a minimalist modern aesthetic,” she explains.
Make in India story
While the Biennale is not a ‘point of sale’ venture, it has an international exposure that will trickle down to greater patronage. “The Biennale has a huge footfall and it also creates interactive booths and software that gives one a career graph of the artists featured and so on,” adds Gupta, who is extremely particular about the touch and feel of her products, which should evoke a sense of India. “It’s important not to be dominated by the West. It is often hard for Indian or Asian design to be taken seriously or allowed into the inner circle of ‘top designers’ and to arrive on the global platform,“ she says.
Besides being Asian, Gupta has the added challenge of working in a field that is often dominated by men. “These challenges have been important to my journey,” she adds, pointing out that many of her contemporaries like Nipa Doshi are women who usually live in the West. “It was a conscious decision to continue to live and work in India and draw from the well of inspiration that is available in our great wide culture,” says Gupta, who also points out that while we have a great ancient tradition, we are young as a contemporary or modern culture. Her pet peeves are badly produced industrial design and “mass produced cookie cutter furniture that give no thought to form or theme”.
Eye on narrative
For Gupta, the key word is innovation. “Whenever I am creating a piece of bespoke furniture I always create a mood board with my team,” she explains, adding, “My pieces focus on practicality without losing the narrative behind them.” A perfect example of bringing narrative and form together is her interiors project with A2, The Park Chennai’s new restaurant. Based on ‘water’ as a design theme, Gupta created furniture that fed into the subject and took it further. Gupta had worked with Park Hotels’ chairperson Priya Paul on customised furniture before, and the A2 project came about as a natural consequence of that.
While she is preparing to take Venice by storm, Gupta intends to bring the attention back to the local. She is undertaking the project of renovating her studio to accommodate a viewing gallery that will be open to the public, so mark your calendars for the next cocktail event at Studio Wrap.
The A2 advantage
Gupta has given The Park Chennai’s new restaurant, A2, shabby-chic interiors with burnt wood and metal, and has designed around a water theme (it is connected to the rooftop bar, Aqua, and features several water vessels). ‘‘I like a straight narrative woven into the concept,’’ says Gupta. This is Studio Wrap’s first restaurant and the designer says the hotel’s tightly-knit team, led by Paul, helped her create a product-driven space that has not been attempted on this scale in the country. If you fancy her potli motif bar stools there or her elegant Eat Stack dinnerware elsewhere, there is some good news — Gupta is planning to make her consumer line more accessible. Fashion too, is on the cards, but it is ‘‘too early to talk.’’
Need to know
● Gupta won the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur award in 2007
● In 2012, she won the Designer of the Year award by Elle Décor
Venice in focus
Thrilled to work with celebrated designers like Karim Rashid at Venice Design 2016, Gupta says it is a landmark moment in a career that gained momentum when she graduated in Furniture Design from Central St Martins, London. Recalling her student years there, when her older daughter was just two years old (she has two daughters now, aged 13 and five), she says it helped to have a supportive husband. ‘‘Stepping back from India and engaging with its culture and history changed my perspective.’’ As for Venice, she says, ‘‘To me it resonates with the endangered craft seen in India.’’ Exploring the concepts of time, space and existence, the sculptural tables she will present in Venice are named anu (atom) and parmanu (split atom). They were made in collaboration with Rajasthan’s Thathera craftsmen.
By Georgina Maddox.