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"It would be really great to have a dedicated design gallery in India." - Rooshad Shroff

An assemblage of furniture pieces designed by architect and interior designer Rooshad Shroff, '15,556' exhibition at Pundole’s in 2017 brought forth spectacular results of what imagination combined with exploration of materials and techniques could do. One of the most interesting design exhibitions in India so far, it focused on pushing the boundaries of the medium in every way, something that continues to give a distinct identity to Rooshad’s work.

Payal Khandelwal meets Rooshad at Dalamal Chambers in New Marine Lines, Mumbai – the same complex that also houses offices of his architect father (Rumy Shroff) and brother (Kayzad Shroff). We ask Rooshad if the Shroff family endlessly talks about architecture, and also discuss interesting details of his fantastic career graph - including stints with Issey Miyake, Zaha Hadid, OMA/REX, and his exhibition at Pundole’s, among other things.

Rooshad Shroff

Since your family has an architecture background, was there any pressure to be an architect while growing up?

It was quite the opposite actually. My father wanted at least one of us to not do architecture! He kind of dissuaded me, but I guess there was a subconscious initiation into it because we would always visit museums, galleries, or even buildings with architecture merit wherever we travelled. And when we were growing up, I would often go to my father’s office and scribble over blueprints, draw, and sometimes even accompany him to sites. So there was always an interest towards design, art and architecture. Eventually, my brother and I both finally decided to take architecture on.

How much do you all talk about work? Do you get feedback from each other?

We all work in the same building – my father has an office downstairs and my brother works upstairs. We all have a long lunch together every day, which we take very seriously regardless of the deadlines. This is the time we end up discussing ideas and brainstorming. And of course, since my father has been in the field for quite a while, I do run down sometimes to figure out how to deal with a certain kind of situation or a detail, or even how to deal with a painful client!

Does he give you critical feedback?

Too critical sometimes (laughs). Now we have just decided to hide our work from him. We all have very different aesthetics though, and that’s actually quite nice as we are running three parallel firms. There is no sense of competition because everyone has their own niche and interests. But like I said, when we are stuck on something, we do discuss it with each other. And we can be assured that we are getting honest and constructive feedback.

Your got your undergraduate degree in Architecture at Cornell University and did your Masters in Architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. During your time at both these places, was there a particular learning that you still carry with you?

I wouldn’t pinpoint on any particular incident or learning, but it’s more to do with the way we approach work. I think there was a strong conceptual rigor during my education in terms of how an idea is being translated, be it in terms of the design or material investigation. And that’s the direction we take at our studio as well. Especially if you take furniture as an example, we investigate the craft involved and then figure out how to push its boundaries to the extreme. That is quite an academic approach and it will always be ingrained in my work.

Furniture exhibited at Pundole's

"I get out of the city whenever I get some free time, and that’s always the best source of inspiration. Being on a holiday also lends itself to going to museums, design galleries and even art fairs."

We are curious to know about the internship you did at Issey Miyake. How was that experience?

It’s kind of a funny story. I had always loved the brand and was interested in fashion. There was also an ulterior motive that I eventually wanted to work for Zaha Hadid and Issey Miyake was her favorite brand.

So I landed at Miyake’s office in New York which later turned out to be their Press office. Though I was surprised and a bit annoyed when I figured that out after joining, but in hindsight, it was a great experience. It taught me how to handle PR and Communications which was not within the spectrum of any other internships at that time. It was also a break from architecture for me. I got to learn about the brand through the communication, seeing the collections, and interacting with the team visiting from the Tokyo office.

And you eventually worked for Zaha Hadid. How did that turn out to be?

My first job after my undergrad at Cornell was at OMA in New York. That was a strange time because they separated from the main office a few months after I joined and became REX. However, in some sense, that office was one of the strongest influences in terms of how to approach projects and work.

After that, I worked with Zaha for two years in London. And yes, the first question I was asked at the interview was ‘How come Miyake?’. It was a good experience. The scale of projects was fantastic and there was a lot of versatility in terms of creation. Zaha was very hands-on. However, over time, I also realised they had a very formal approach. There was a prescribed aesthetic that was to be followed, unlike OMA where everything was process and concept driven.

Both the firms couldn’t be more opposite in terms of approach, and that was great because I got to see two strongly different approaches to architecture.

How were the initial years like when you started your firm in India in 2011?

I hadn't planned on starting my firm in 2011. I had graduated from Harvard and was supposed to join Foster & Partners in London. I thought I’d work there for a few years before starting my own practice. So I just came to India to drop off some stuff and meet my family. Around that time, I was approached by Le Mill to do a collection for them, as they had seen one of the furniture pieces I had designed during a semester break. That’s how it all started.

I kept postponing Foster as more projects started coming in, and had to finally call it off completely. Fortunately, I did not have to struggle much when I came back as things happened quite organically. However, one of the projects I was working on died after a month or two and this was when I started focusing on furniture. It was a way to keep myself busy, and do research on materials and techniques. Now when I look back, that was the most creative phase in my life because I had the luxury of time. Right now, it feels a bit like a rat-race, just running around as I don’t get enough time. So it would be nice to go back for a bit into that space because I think we created the most amount of materials at that time, developed a material library, and really focused on the process. The way of generating ideas at that time was much richer. I was by myself for a year and a half, and I quite enjoyed that.

"I think it is important to take risks, maybe not in terms of groundbreaking risks but in terms of experimentation. There shouldn’t be any fear of failure."

How was the design scene at that time?

Design in India is still quite a nascent community but the appreciation of design has surely increased. Since the last five years, people are spending more on their homes and are conscious of how they are creating their homes.

How was the experience of doing the show at Pundole's?

I felt that the pieces I was working on at that time had reached the kind of quality which I wanted to showcase somewhere. I approached a lot of art galleries, most of whom loved the idea of doing design, but nobody wanted to put up the exhibition when the time came. And that’s fair because they all have their own programs and artists, and design becomes a completely different ballgame. Pundole’s was an auction house which had earlier represented the masters of Modernism, so it was quite nice that they came on board. But yes, the process of finding the right platform was quite tricky and I thought it would be really great to have a dedicated design gallery in India. After this, I also curated an exhibition for RAW Collaborative in Ahmedabad.

Coming to brand collaborations, which has been the most challenging/fun collaboration so far?

I think the most fun, and maybe the most challenging too, collaboration was with Atmosphere. They basically let us do whatever we wanted. The brief from Akanksha Himatsingka (of Atmosphere) was to use their fabrics. We did a lot of experiments over time. Initially, I wanted to cast the fabric with resin and just show the thinness of the fabric and set it in form, but it didn’t work structurally. We finally decided to cast the fabric in these tubes to make tube lights. And the idea was that each light would have a different kind of illumination because of the quality of the fabric. Then the range became quite interesting.

Again, this involved mixing materials that you would not necessarily associate with fabrics. And that is something I am very interested in doing - pushing the boundaries of the medium or just rethinking how certain applications can be done.

Collaboration with Atmosphere

We also want to know more about one of your recent projects – Kunal Rawal store at the Rhythm House location. What all went behind the making?

When you work with a client, you need to understand their philosophy, influences, thought process and the best way you can implement their identity into your work.

Kunal and I have very different aesthetics, so there was a lot of back and forth in the beginning. He is inspired by grunge, industrial elements and military. Therefore, we took elements from that and tried to integrate them into the luxury store. We had to rethink how a luxury store approaches retail. Since everything is more and more digital now, the store had to be a space that’s more experiential and not very transactional. Especially since Kunal deals with bridal, the customers have a longer and deeper engagement at his store, and it’s more of a bespoke experience. So how do you create an environment where the person entering your store feels special? How do we make it more experiential? We had to incorporate these ideas while doing the space planning too.

And since this is a male brand, Kunal also wanted to bring some of the tech aspects into the store. So we incorporated tech into the design itself to make it more gizmo-centric. In terms of the military inspiration, we had morse code on the floor which allowed us to have tactile indicators. Every design element had a function to serve, which is an approach I like engaging in.

Kunal Rawal's store in Kala Ghoda

What, according to you, has been the greatest risk you have taken in your career so far?

I think doing the exhibition at Pundole’s was a bit risky because I had to put in almost all of my savings in it. Even though I was a bit nervous, I didn't once doubt wanting to do it and didn’t compromise on anything. If I didn't like a particular piece, I would re-do it ten times, completely disregarding the fact that the final bill would come to me (laughs).

When we did the bulbs for the exhibition, for example, we broke around 40 or 50 bulbs before we were able to create the first one. We just had to push the boundaries. I also did this series of mirrors called ‘Crack Me Up’ which have these different cracks. And every time we had to cut a mirror, it would break. I really wanted these to be a part of the exhibition. I was getting them cut in Delhi, Bombay, Pune, etc., and every time they came back, they were broken. I received the last one the night before the exhibition, so finally had two for the opening and all five in the series for the exhibition.

I think it is important to take risks, maybe not in terms of groundbreaking risks but in terms of experimentation. There shouldn’t be any fear of failure. Failure encourages you to keep trying to make sure something works and also understanding why that is failing. It’s always a lot of back and forth in terms of the design and making process, and I find that interesting. Those are the kind of risks and challenges I enjoy.

What are the kind of things you enjoy apart from work?

I am always working (laughs). I do travel a lot for work and for pleasure. I get out of the city whenever I get some free time, and that’s always the best source of inspiration. Being on a holiday also lends itself to going to museums, design galleries and even art fairs. I love art and get very inspired by it - be it for material, graphic, or print.

Now that you have done so many projects, is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?

Architecture. I want to start building now!