Pluralist Narratives

August 19, 2009

Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien, of London-based practice Doshi Levien, celebrate materiality, colour and whimsical narrative in their designs.

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Fleur Watson spoke with Nipa Doshi before her visit to Melbourne’s State of Design Festival as a keynote speaker.

Fleur Watson: Your collective work at Doshi Levien is imbued with a cross-cultural narrative that is whimsical and emotional yet wholly contemporary. Is this something you strive to achieve in your work?
Nipa Doshi: I don’t think that we consciously apply a cross-cultural approach to our work, yet it is something that comes through naturally, because we come from different backgrounds. It’s not an attitude we apply as such, but it’s an attitude that we inherently bring to our projects. Jonathan comes from a [rigorous] industrial design background and, while I also studied industrial design, I’m also very interested in craft, materiality and the cultural narrative. It’s not something that the projects have to have, but it happens very naturally, because it’s part of us and it’s part of our design process.

FW Arguably, many of your contemporaries who graduated from the Royal College of Art seem to come out of that teaching process with a strong sense of their own identity and imbuing their work with a particular narrative. Do you think that’s something that you took from your postgraduate education at the RCA?
ND Yes, I think that the RCA places emphasis very much on developing one’s own identity throughout one’s work. The RCA aspires to train people who then will go on and develop their own practices, so it’s not so much that they are trying to teach you the necessary skills to go out and get a job – it’s more about developing original expression. When I came to London and the RCA from India I also came into a culture where it seems that nearly everything seemed designed and functioning with all the basic necessities of life. I felt a strong sense of ‘what can I bring?’ to a culture that seemingly had everything. So I started to explore where I came from and what I could bring personally to another context.

FW Previously you have spoken of the fact that the notion of becoming a ‘designer’ or the act of design was completely new among your family and friends within contemporary Indian society – can you describe what you feel are the opportunities in pursuing design in a rapidly changing economy such as India’s?
ND I think there are plenty of opportunities in India for design because there is so much to be done, but the challenge is that the business end of the spectrum is not really sophisticated enough to recognise design as a resource for innovation, although this [attitude] is changing. It’s still the case that in Europe while the opportunities are less [prolific] the companies or clients who are commissioning the work tend to be more educated about the benefits of design. In terms of utilising craft as a method of production, then the main difference is that, in India, craft is something that engages a community of people. It’s not an individual activity and craftsmanship is not linked directly to authorship in design – craft is a method of production.
In the UK, however, the [notion of hand] craft is linked to an individualistic activity that somebody does within a workshop and it’s a special thing – expensive and bespoke… I think it’s interesting to look at the way the Italians and the French have been able to combine artisan craft with industrial craft and they’ve been able to create products of very high quality that are part of their [national] identity – Moroso is a good example of industrial craftsmanship in Italy and so is Hermès in France.

FW Your work has a strong feel of the ‘mark of the hand’, but how important are digital technologies in your working process in allowing innovative and complex ideas to be realised?
ND A lot of the work we do originates from a digital process and even in projects that have an integral handcrafted component we employ digital precision. For example, when we designed the Charpoy for Moroso, we created very precise technical drawings that were used by the craftspeople to create the patterns and hand embroidery. So the end result is that there is a precision that comes from both the digital and the craftsmanship that you can see in the work… We also draw and sketch constantly by hand – we take a hand sketch, scan it and then work it up on the computer and apply a digital logic – it’s a back and forward process.

FW It seems that your process also aspires to reduce the fetishisation of cold, expensive designer objects by giving a story and context and humour – yet the end result is still highly aesthetic. Do you consider ‘beauty’ an important element to the work?
ND We understand beauty as a series of layers – meaning, materiality, technology and narrative. Jonathan and I believe in a plural world so our work is not about ‘us’ or ‘this is the work we do’. It’s about a coming together of ideas and influences and a reflection of how we live in the real world… We’re very interested in bringing opposites together – how do you create a new hybrid or a more plural, embracing world. And I think that it is at this point, that beauty comes into the equation in imagining a more beautiful, complex world.

FW Exhibition and installation design has often provided an opportunity for architects and designers to work with a more conceptual and expressive approach? How important is this creative outlet to your process such as the window installation you created in 2005 for the Wellcome Trust?
ND The installation work that we do paves the way for us to communicate ideas in a spatial way, rather than within an object. Jonathan and I have a very strong spatial sense that’s reflected in our studio and how we feel and like objects to look within a space – a lot of our work is created with space in mind. I think installation projects allow us to create a more complete narrative around our work.
In the case of the Wellcome Trust project, it was really a communication commission where we were communicating what the client does [rather than our own work]. That was a challenge that we really enjoyed because we had to work through what information about the organisation should be communicated to the public and apply that to the way people like to hear stories through an engaging narrative.

FW As partners in life, practice and most recently in parenthood, how do these experiences shape and influence the process and work that you and Jonathan produce?
ND On a personal level, the birth of a child makes you more human – it makes you think about the wider world… it’s made me more humble and it’s been a very personal experience.
I think that Jonathan and I both feel that the work that we have done has achieved a lot of appreciation and critical acclaim and we have come to a point where we want the work that we do to have the ability to touch people’s everyday lives even when you’re doing very mass market projects – we want to reach out to more people. And, although our work does naturally take influence from India, I’m also increasingly interested in cultures around the world whether it’s craftsmanship in Japan or Africa or elsewhere… I’m also not just interested in ethnic cultures; I’m interested in culture generally! So, I feel now is the time to look at other cultures and expand the work.


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