"I think that the future is design,
and not decor." - Ashiesh Shah
Even though it is an open and fluid space, each part seems to serve its own unique purpose at architect and interior designer Ashiesh Shah's studio, Atelier, in Tardeo, Mumbai. While on one side, a few members of his team are looking at some material samples that have just arrived, another area works like an elegant showcase of Ashiesh's eclectic product designs including the recent and instantly recognisable Jaipur Blue Totem, that stands tall against a wall. Yet another side is occupied by a huge table with a personality worthy of being a proud and constant witness to many stimulating design plans and conversations.
It is on this very table – with a beautiful, work-in-progress light piece hanging above – Payal Khandelwal speaks to Ashiesh about art, design, travel, and the Atelier which aims to gradually transform itself into a space where meaningful conversations can take place, ideas are floated and tested, and perspectives are acknowledged.
Your family has a medical background, so were there any specific influences during your childhood that led you to the world of art and design?
Like every young kid, I went to art and craft classes, and was fortunate to have one very special art teacher, Sheetal Gattani, who is now an artist. She used to live in my building and during the summer holidays, she would often drag me to galleries like Jehangir (Art Gallery) and make me look at art from a serious perspective. I think that gave me a perspective towards my creative side. Obviously, growing up, my first instinct was to be a doctor considering my parents' background, but there was always a side of me that wasn't convinced about it. And the art classes and visits to the galleries changed that.
Also, at the time when we were growing up, there was the advent of Star television which had these lifestyle programs on the homes of rich and famous celebrities, people that you aspire to be. I started seeing the lives of these people and realising the different things that were possible in this world. It was literally a dream world and being a dreamer myself, even today, I found that quite intriguing.
After studying at Rachna Sansad Academy of Architecture in Mumbai, you went to Parsons School of Design in New York. What inspired that move?
I was extremely clueless. Actually I have never planned my life, and even now, there are moments of gear and then a lull, and that's just how I function.
At that time, I felt like I needed to learn something new and different. I didn't want to do a Masters in Architecture and Urban Design/Planning as I was more interested in the micro instead of the macro. And I knew that Masters of Architecture will be all about the macro. Parsons gave me the programming I wanted, and that really moved something in me and started making me look at design as a profession in a much more serious way.
How did New York City serve as an inspiration at that time?
NYC is simply spellbinding. It's a world of its own. It's like New York is on one side, the world on another, and America on the third side. It literally kind of envelopes you so beautifully and enhances all your senses. It lets you be or become who you want to be. It gives you experiences in so many fields that you feel like a kid in a candy store. For example, if you want to just make cushions, you can make a living out of it in NYC. It gives you the freedom of being commercial while using your passion.
Raw Mango, Colaba, Mumbai
When you came back to India, was the lack of an Interior Design 'scene' here a challenge or an opportunity for you?
When I came back, I initially felt very lost. There was no industry as such, and even today I feel that there is no formalised industry for interior design. However, that gave me a sort of beginner's advantage. I realised that there was a big market waiting to be explored, and it was just a matter of time before people started realising the importance of living well. I think I was there at the right time, just a bit before that perhaps.
A few years back, when I told people that I am an architect practicing interiors, a lot of them would say 'Oh yes, Bombay doesn't have space, so you practice interiors', and I was like 'No, I actually enjoy interiors'. Today, people take that a lot more seriously.
So was there a gradual growth or did you experience a major turnaround moment?
Definitely gradual. We are not like film actors that we have one hit and we suddenly become a star (laughs). There were a couple of turnaround projects though. My own apartment that I did was featured extensively from the cover of Elle Decor to Vogue to The New York Times. It gave me a little bit of edge. People started noticing me and seeing some talent in me. Then there were Le Mill and Nido projects in Mumbai which definitely gave me some kind of recognition, and the name started coming into play.
When did you consciously start integrating the key elements in your work - geometry and Wabi Sabi - that you are now well-known for?
For the longest time, people kept asking me about my signature style and I was never worried about it because I always knew it would evolve in its own time. Then I made a bench called the Lingam bench, and everything started rolling from there. I started forming this really strong language of geometry and seeing materials very differently. And that's when I began building a very unique identity.
I also realised that all this time I was trying to force myself into a bracket and to give my work a language. And from that time, it automatically started falling into place on its own. It was a very smooth journey. I believe that you can't force design as it is so evolutionary. It's on its own trajectory and your own design has a parallel life to you. You can't put that into words or find logic in. You evolve very spiritually when you start finding your geometry and then you keep going deeper. And eventually, it's a search to try and find meaning in everything you do. Then whenever you are making something new, your first question is if we really need to create a new product. Aren't the iconic pieces already iconic?
Apartment, Altamount Road, Mumbai
Does your deep interest in art inspire your clients in any way?
I have converted many of my clients into serious collectors actually. Just recently, I got a text from one of my clients who was looking at Indian contemporary art in a gallery in London and wondering if he should buy, and I told him of course he should.
I am excited about the fact that many people are now looking at homes from being 'designed' to being 'curated'. The homes of tomorrow are not going to be designed, they are going to be curated. It's important to have a world perspective on things. What you put in your apartment is important, and it defines a very, very strong line between design and decor. I think that the future is design, and not decor.
What's your relation with Mumbai city where you live and work out of?
I have a love-hate relationship with Mumbai like most of us do. I love the fact that we have the most interesting people in the city. There is no other city in the world I would want to live in. It's the people who make the city. Sadly, the infrastructure is at a point that we want to run away every other day. But that will evolve; it has to evolve. I do see the city having more patrons though. People like the Jindal family, for example, who have taken it upon themselves to make the city pleasant for everyone, be it through conservation projects, museums, or art collection. These kind of initiatives definitely drive the city forward.
I also feel that in the next generation, you will see many collectors having their own foundations and gifting those to the city museums, the way it happens in the west. This will surely bring a social change in the fabric. Today, the youth doesn't have a unique space to go look at contemporary or modern Indian art, and I think that will change soon.
We know that you travel a lot. How does it inspire your work?
Travel is the only way to educate yourself. It keeps you current and completely clued into where you want to be and how you want to see your practice evolve. I travel for a lot of fairs, biennales, and other things that inspire me. Those are my trips of education to myself. It definitely leads to a lot of personal growth. You get to meet interesting minds and have experiences you won't have while sitting in your chair.
Ashiesh, next to Jaipur Blue Totem
"Art is very important for me because my inspirations come from art. Whenever I see a piece of art that inspires me, it leads me to the drawing board."
Tell us more about this space - Atelier. Are you hoping to make this a public space soon?
It's that in-between space right now. We keep calling it the 'Atelier' on the lines of those old school French ateliers. We want it to be a thinking space where we invite people like you to have conversations on a much deeper, thought-provoking level. What I really miss in India is design and art conversations. We all meet at social events and do our customary air-kisses, but I don't think we ever sit down for a conversation about people's stories, their practices, and their work language. We also want to take what's in our heads to the next level. So many times, what we think in our heads feels great and ready to be executed, but I think there is a third perspective to everything. And 99% of the time, we refuse to acknowledge that perspective. We hope to change that as well.
Sometimes, conversations with people lead to function, but at times, it's nice to have a place with no function too. So right now, we are in a state of flux and not yet ready to open the space up completely.
How do you create room for failures in your daily practice?
I don't think of failures as failures per se. I feel that it's okay to burn yourself sometimes, and my team believes the same. Failures are important in fact. We should fail daily as that's the only way to live. I don't think there can be any evolution if you are winning everyday.
However, it is important to know what doesn't work and how to challenge it, especially when we are designing products. The job of an architect ultimately is to solve problems, and some of the most beautiful ideas in the world have come through serious problems.
Now that you run such an established practice, what do you do to not fall into a comfort zone?
I think that's the main reason why we were getting the Atelier started. Because at some point, it is important to find out how much you can challenge and push yourself. It's important to pick up a challenge in your environment every few years, and start looking at things differently.
Currently, our passion is for the crafts, and I think bringing the crafts of the country into a luxury space is a really challenging job. People might say that if it costed you so less, why is it costing us more, but that's the value we have added. I want to break the notion of crafts being sold in airports and emporiums for INR 200, INR 500, or INR 5000. It's a tough one to crack, but these are the kind of challenges that keep me going. And I have nothing to lose, except for money which can always be worked upon. If we are able to crack this, it will open doors for very big conversations in the future.