“When I am working on something, I need to give myself creatively as an artist and simultaneously think like a designer to make something functional.” - Bandana Jain
As soon as we enter Bandana Jain’s studio, we are greeted by a minimal, warmly lit set up. From the intricate sofa that we sit on to the multi-textured map of India that hangs right across us, every piece in her namesake studio reflects Bandana’s refined aesthetics and her love for sustainability. Tucked away in a 100 year-old building in South Mumbai, the studio, alongside its sister enterprise Studio Sylvn, creates furniture, installations and handcrafted décor products out of a rather unconventional, eco-friendly material - corrugated cardboard.
On a balmy evening, Ayushi Shah talks to Bandana about her journey from being a student at Sir JJ School of Arts to finally starting her own venture. Bandana also takes us through the challenges of being an entrepreneur, her rendezvous with sustainability, the importance of collaboration, and why she works with cardboard. Edited excerpts:
How did you know that art was your calling?
I’ve loved drawing and observing things since childhood. I remember getting up early to catch a glimpse of the sunrise, the shapes of clouds, and the colourful birds that would come in our backyard to eat guavas. I remember that the walls of our room were constantly covered with paintings and drawings by me. My parents would often scold me because I was completely engrossed in art and couldn’t think of anything else. I believe this only happens when there is an artist inside you. In a way, I always knew that it is my thing and when I had an opportunity to be an artist, I seized it.
You moved to Mumbai and finished schooling at Sir JJ School of Arts. What are the key learnings that you took back from the course?
I think being with all the fellow students pushed me to do better as an artist, because all they thought about was art. Apart from that, the way the course was designed was instrumental in helping me visualise things a lot. Sometimes, I would look at somebody else’s project which was brilliant but had a very simple or even silly origin, and wonder why didn’t I come up with that.
During the course, I learnt that no idea is silly and in fact, if the idea is simple, it will catch a lot of eyeballs. This immensely helped when I started working with corrugated cardboard. Everyone has seen it and held it at some point, so even when you see it in a different form, you make that connection and can relate to the medium. So, that's what I learnt there – visualisation, innovation and creating connections like these.
You initially started off as a product and furniture designer and are now a full-time artist. Do the two overlap in your work?
There is a very thin line between art and design. When I am working on something, I need to give myself creatively as an artist and simultaneously think like a designer to make something functional. The furniture pieces we make at the studio are like functional art pieces. For instance, the cardboard sofa is inspired by paper roll. The key is that there is a dent in the paper roll and if you put pressure on the paper roll, you can actually see the dent at the bottom of the bench. The backrest that opens tighter on one side is slightly more loose on the other, just the way we experience it while holding rolled paper from one hand. So I do merge art and design together in one way or another.
Does this equation change in any way when you are working with a client?
Sometimes, clients do demand things that are not viable, but most of the times, they understand that this is my medium and give me a lot of liberty especially because the medium is so new. They usually give me a brief about the area and their design language, and ask me to propose something.
Why cardboard as a medium?
Initially, I experimented with a lot of other mediums including slipper wood, bicycle parts like scraps and composite leather. But I felt that out of all of them, corrugated cardboard is the most versatile. For example, for the map of India, I created so many textures out of a single material. The beauty of the material is that you can slice them in different ways to get different textures.
If we had used any other medium, we would have got something quite flat. But with corrugated cardboard sheets, you can slice them in different ways to get different textures. Moreover, it is sustainable and takes a lot of hands, so it creates a lot of employment opportunities as well. It is a new age medium and I want to serve something new to the world.
Image Courtesy: Bandana Jain Studio
What were the initial challenges you faced when you started working with the material and how did you overcome them?
When I started off, the biggest challenge was handling this medium – how to cut it, make it, and preserve it. Once I figured that out, the next challenge was how to position it and find the right market for it - the four P's of marketing basically. It was very difficult because nobody else in the market was doing this, so there was nothing to learn from. It took me almost five years to understand that my market is the premium/luxury segment.
Is cardboard a time consuming medium?
It does take time. The sheets are made of wood pulp so when you are sticking two pieces together, it requires constant and calculated pressing. To maintain that balance, you need to be extremely patient; experience makes you learn the tricks.
"Initially, I experimented with a lot of other mediums including slipper wood, bicycle parts like scraps and composite leather. But I felt that out of all of them, corrugated cardboard is the most versatile."
You are an artist and an entrepreneur. So what are the challenges that came with being an entrepreneur?
Everything is a challenge, to be honest, and team building is one of them because once you have a good team, you are sorted. Managing people and client relationships are important as well. Currently, with a small team, managing all the scenarios and being in every place gets difficult. You have to use both your left and right brain and your centre one also (laughs).
Like you said, it was very difficult for you to initially break into a market. Did people have misconceptions about the medium?
It was more like there was no conception about the medium at all (laughs). Initially, people would be amazed looking at the products but were unsure about buying them. However, I feel that people are way more experimental now and also have a higher buying capacity.
With regards to the material itself, most people are worried about its durability, dust accumulation, and whether it will sustain the monsoon season! The third is a very traditional question. But the thing is that corrugated cardboard is as good as wood because we use virgin quality cardboards that are 100% made of wood pulp. So the material is very strong and the construction makes it even more stronger. It is water resistant, so a little bit of water spillage does not affect it. Interestingly, because of static energy, dust might rest on it but never settles on it. All the products are termite proof as well.
‘Fabricated Tales: The Series’ is inspired by your childhood home and memories. Do you often take inspiration from the places you live in?
Being an artist, I am inspired by every single thing I see. Inspiration can come from anywhere, be it food, nature, or people.
Although I have not done anything specifically Mumbai-related, I think that the city is extremely inspiring, supportive and safe. The city, in many intangible ways, gives you the scope to innovate and explore. For example, because of the safety factor, I was able to visit so many slum areas, among other places, to figure out the source for the medium while doing my research.
I also like the kind of acceptability that this city offers. No other place in India offers you that kind of acceptance for anything. People here are very open about things and being a woman, I can say that they respect you and support you unconditionally.
Apart from work, do you also try and live a sustainable lifestyle actively?
Yes, I do. I religiously follow practices like avoiding plastic bottles as much as possible. Drinking from a plastic bottle only takes a few minutes, but it stays here for thousand years and impacts the marine life and the entire ecosystem.
How we use or drink our water reflects on the kind of society we are. I believe that we should promote sustainability through our own habits. I am trying to avoid ‘fast fashion’ as well. The textile industry is one of the most polluting industries – it takes 27,000 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt! I have started investing in the quality of my clothes and I make sure that whatever I buy, it’s long-lasting. This is the lifestyle I follow and I keep thinking about how to add more value to it.
Looking back, which project are you most proud of and why?
I recently did an installation project for the Jaya He museum at the T2 airport which is inspired by the Ajanta Caves. Called ‘Preserve the Pride’, it is about conservation. I made it in a way that it looked like a distorted cave where the pillars were cleft, and the overall cave is in a fragile state. I made 22 statues that are fading in front of that. Our heritage is our history - it shows where we belong and where we come from. It was a piece where I could give a message to the society that we should conserve our heritage and do our bit as visitors and administrators, and it came out great.
Preserve the Pride Installation | Image Courtesy: Chinmay Pednekar
"Although I have not done anything specifically Mumbai-related, I think that the city is extremely inspiring, supportive and safe. The city, in many intangible ways, gives you the scope to innovate and explore."
Tell us about the studio we are in right now. How does the space and the area inspire you?
I got quite lucky with this space. The building is made of wood and is around 100 years old which explains the ceiling’s height, which adds a lot of space and area to the studio. I created this space in a way that it eludes a lot of warmth and openness. One should be able to see, touch and experience the pieces properly. And being located in South Mumbai has its own vibes. The studio is exactly how I wanted it to be - a peaceful, hidden gem.
Could you also tell us a little about the workshop?
The workshop is divided into three parts. One part is for storage and the other one is for smaller products that my employees work on. The third part is for the big projects that I do. If you go there, you will only see cardboard (laughs).
You work with women from rural Maharashtra as well. How has that experience been?
Collaboration is the key to success. When you collaborate, there is an infusion of two different minds. The women I work with are consistent, efficient and extremely reliable. When you constantly work with a material, you have some particular thoughts in your mind, but then they come up with certain ideas as well, which is exciting. We have a lot of stuff, especially lamps, that has been created by them.
Once, we gave them a few circular frames and asked them to make something on their own. They ended up doing really intricate work on them and added small pieces to make a really nice lamp.
As an artist, what are the things you do to constantly reinvent yourself?
Travelling is very refreshing, and when I travel, I always come back with a different mindset and new thoughts.
Is there any place in particular that has really inspired you?
Zermatt in Switzerland is actually where I conceived the idea to go eco-friendly and live a sustainable lifestyle. It is an eco-village where no vehicles are allowed, barring a few battery operated taxis. I visited the place before starting my studio.
Another place is the Netherlands, which is where I realised that we need to create more awareness about sustainability and be more mature towards our lifestyle.
What are you working on next?
This year, I actually want to plan what’s next for us. My vision is to form an industry around what we create. For example, adopt a few villages and create a network where we make products and sell them across the world. On the client side, there are a lot of murals and sculptures that are in the pipeline.