The young Indian designers stood, with studied insouciance, alongside their product displays in the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi. The default seemed to be pairs of designers: smiling thirtysomethings, male, encased in tight, highly finessed jackets and trousers. You may not have heard of Deepak and Sanjiv Whorra, Prateek Jain and Gautam Seth, or Thukral and Tagra. You probably haven’t handled terracotta iPod docks, geometrically tiled tables in Gujarati marble, or peacock wall-lamps, because most of the designers here are unknown outside India. And yet they have the patronage of international philanthropic foundation BE OPEN.
Elena Baturina, founder of BE OPEN, became fascinated by what she refers to as “new ways of seeing”. Her charitable think-tank is committed to exploring new strands of creativity linked to cultural and social development. She thinks creative ideas do not always have to follow the yellow brick road to profitability.
Granite slabs, separated by strips of loose chippings, are underfoot in the arts centre, where BE OPEN’s Made In . . . India Samskara project is being launched. The texture and layout of the slabs are part of the concept store-style makeover of the interior by the celebrated Indian architect, Anupama Kundoo. The surface of the slabs is roughly pitted with hundreds of thousands of chisel blows made by squatting stonemasons in Tamil Nadu.
The products on show are the work of 1500 craftsmen in various parts of India whose daily earnings are equivalent to between £2 and £6 a day. The goods are superbly finished and aimed, quite specifically, at the top end of the design and fashion markets. Some would regard this architecturally minimalist space as a fame academy, rather than a visionary exercise in celebrating craft skills. But this ambiguity is the whole point.
Those who might casually spend £490 on a pair of Prada pumps, or £14,700 on a Louis Vuitton Vivienne bag may not be aware – or want to be aware – of those who made the goods, or where they were crafted. In the case of those two uber brands, among others, the answer is that they use materials sourced and prepared in India. It is the connection between luxury products, and their making, that this show seeks to communicate through the work of 28 gifted designers who know exactly how their products come into being.
But, in general, it’s the disconnection that rules, skewing the way we perceive things – products, history, food, emotions; not to mention the buildings and spaces around us, where the facetime and thumb-twitch generation gaze down at pixellated screens-cum-plazas on their Androids even as they walk, obliviously, across actual town and city squares. Meanwhile, in consumption mode, according to the architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, our eyes have become the points of sale.
Can architects make a difference? In Delhi, Anupama Kundoo’s treatment of the arts centre’s interior creates a strange kind of stillness in which the rough granite expresses the sheer sweat of craft, by specific hands in specific places across specific periods of time. This is the human factor, so often lost in consumerist translation as we tap in our PIN numbers at Harvey Nichols or John Lewis, GAP or Hilditch & Key.
Kundoo says she tried to design a timeless space, using materials simply. But she also speaks of architecture, and its raw materials, as expressing time. “The relationship between society and its territories is affected by whether things are made by hand or by machine. What is the effect on the mind? I worry about a larger loss: things have been so abruptly industrialised. What does that do to the way we think? I don’t want a future where machines are intelligent and we are robotic.
“Many people might be suspicious that so much trouble has been taken to design an installation that’s so temporary, just two or three weeks,” she adds. “Why bother? But why should there be so many patterns on a butterfly’s wings? You should bother”.
“The way you handle building materials has an impact on social and economic factors; the community in the landscape, and how they live in that landscape.” She gestures at the exhibition space: “And this landscape is assembled from that landscape. I’m not into ostentatious architectural stuff, loud things. I like everything to fit into the larger landscape.”
That larger landscape includes luxury. “Luxury, for me, is time,” she says. “Time and space to appreciate what you have. Saris can take four months to create. A real biriyani takes days to make. Am I eating it too quickly? There’s a lot of unused space in this exhibition – and that’s a luxury, too.”
Kundoo’s landscape includes loss, the steady erosion of the craft skill-base that gives her architecture its most basic meaning. The villages and towns in India where craft workshops are concentrated are threatened by a loss of refined skills handed down through generations of families: the allure and better pay of other kinds of work is pulling young people out of the historic crafts loop. And at the same time, India’s construction boom has dumbed down the levels of craft required for stone, wood, or metal used in new buildings whose design is generally banal, anti-craft, anti-human factor.
It’s no different in Britain, where it is increasingly unusual to encounter well-designed, beautifully made natural materials on, or inside, new buildings. Only a handful of architects seem to have the ability, or opportunity, to use these materials in ways that carry a specific sense of time, place, and craft skills. Our point-of-sale eyes make do with mass-produced metal cladding, dreary terracotta tiles, literally unearthly bricks, wood that looks like plastic, and plastic that resembles wood – catalogue-selected materials that create what Anupama Kundoo describes as neutral space: “That’s scary.”
BEOPEN director Gennady Terebkov speaks of highly crafted Indian products becoming a global brand called Samskara. But what kind of brand, and for whose ultimate benefit? The design and craft quality in the Delhi show is admirable, but it’s the ambiguous work in Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra’s studio that resonates. Their bags, porcelain, and paintings are exquisitely designed critiques of a globalised consumer culture that has largely airbrushed the skill and sweat of craft out of the brandscape.