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Nipa Doshi is a designer
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Nipa Doshi is a designer
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"What can I design that can somehow add to this society?"
1 July 2010

Nipa Doshi is a designer

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by David Vintiner

Kate Bezar on Nipa Doshi

In 1987, aged 17, Nipa Doshi decided to study furniture design despite it being almost unheard of as a serious career path in India, especially for a woman. While at first she didn’t enjoy it, for some reason she persisted. Given how successful Nipa is now, one can only imagine that deep down she must have known it was her calling.

Studies in the UK followed those in Bombay, and it was at the Royal College of Art in London that she met Scotsman, Jonathan Levien, who was to become her partner in life and work. Their company, Doshi Levien, has become renowned for designs that fuse Nipa’s background and passion for the handicrafts of India with Jonathan’s roots in industrial design. A marriage made in design heaven.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR So why were you just in Hong Kong?

NIPA DOSHI: Both my siblings live there. I like Hong Kong; it has all the spirit of Asia, but it works like an international city. Hong Kong’s been able to keep that authenticity and I think that’s a blueprint for a lot of Asian cities. A lot of cities lose that when they develop at that scale. It’s great for me to go to an Asian city that’s not in India as well. It still feels like home, which is strange in a way.

Do your parents still live where you grew up in India?

Although I was born in Bombay, I grew up in Delhi, and they’re still there except that India’s developing so fast now that a lot of places that you grew up with are not there anymore. It’s changing very, very fast and I think there is definitely now a movement where educated people are thinking which way are we going and is this the right way?

They’re asking those questions before it becomes too late?

Exactly. Indian people have a lot of pride in their culture and we value the things we have and tradition is very strong. I think that a lot of us grew up with that very strong tradition and history and background. Now that people are traveling more, they’re beginning to realise that what we have is very special. I think if there’s a critical mass of people thinking that way it will be good.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

So how old were you when you left India and came to the UK?

I didn’t really leave India as such. I came to the Royal College [of Art] in 1995 to do my Masters degree. That was really my first long time away from India, but I went back after I finished my Masters in 1997. I subsequently came back to England because I’d met Jonathan and wanted to give our relationship a go. I would say 2000 was the year I really committed myself to living in England, well London rather. I wouldn’t say England because I don’t consider myself living in England.

Had you studied art in India prior to going to the Royal College?

I’d studied design in India in this fantastic design institute which was set up on the recommendation of Charles and Ray Eames. The government of India felt that the quality of manufactured goods in India was really deteriorating after the independence from British rule and they wanted to improve it, hence the invitation to Charles and Ray Eames. I think that somehow their philosophy and their manifesto for the school has been something that’s been very deep inside me and has really influenced how I think about design. Their whole philosophy about design in India was that it should be about service with dignity and love – very intangible but evocative ideas.

What it embodied was that design was not just about things, but an attitude to life. That’s something that’s extremely important to both Jonathan and I in the work that we do. To us, design is not necessarily about making things; it can be about making a ritual, about an act, about something more ephemeral and celebratory, so in a way it encompasses everything we do. It’s about caring for everything you do, at least for me that’s something that’s very, very important.

How did you know that you wanted to study design initially?

You know, I don’t know that I knew I wanted to study design … I was fantastic at physics, chemistry, stats and computers, and that’s what I really studied for my A levels, but I couldn’t imagine myself being a physicist or, I don’t know … The idea of going to a college and just studying every day was … I used to draw a lot and I used to paint. I wouldn’t say I was good at drawing, but I loved drawing and arranging things. I was more interested in my outfit being right than my exams. I used to have my clothes made and loved working with the tailors, so I’ve had that from a very early age. I was also very, very influenced by my grandfather. I didn’t realise that when I was growing up, but there was a sense of care and ritual in my grandparents’ house; in the way that he dressed, in the way that the bed was made, in the way that everything was done there was a real sense of … That’s where my love for the material environment came from, and I think because of that I wanted to study design. I know I wanted to be in the creative fields and I applied to architecture school, but when I saw the design college in Ahmedabad I fell in love with the place. The campus was just so beautiful that I decided not to study architecture and study design instead! So I sort of stumbled into it, knowing I wanted to do something creative. This was in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and

design was still something where people thought you were doing fashion or interior decoration, so it was still very unusual to even study design in a serious way.

Did you love it as soon as you started?

You know I didn’t. India was very conservative and still is and when I went into this very bohemian sort of college I think in a way it was strange for all of us because you felt like you were not in India. None of the norms of morality applied so we all had to find our way … being away from home. I also never used to be the sort of person who would look at things and draw them, I always used to draw from imagination, but when I came to college we had a lot of life-drawing and object drawing.

I sort of lost my love for drawing because, for me, drawing was about imagination and, because I draw like Indian miniature painters my perspectives were terrible and just wrong. So my first three years were very, very hard and I didn’t understand design; I couldn’t go deep into it. I almost decided to stop doing it and I was almost thrown out of college. I was a girl studying furniture design and it wasn’t very conducive for a woman to study such a masculine discipline. If I’d done textiles it would have been fine because all the girls studied textiles, but I studied industrial design and furniture and it was all about boys and machines and things like that. Then I worked with somebody in Bombay, a designer. He was very gentle with me and introduced me to design in a way that suddenly a world opened up to me and I never looked back. And, after three years, I actually became this really technical person and I loved doing technical drawings and production and things like that. I really took it on.

It does sound like you always had that bent, being good at chemistry and physics, anyway.

Yes, but you know, in a way I was trying to fit in. Although that kind of precision is something I still have an appreciation for, it was really only when I came to the Royal College that I started exploring visual culture and things that actually really excited me. The Royal College really made me.

I had the opportunity to tap into Indian visual culture and that very ritualistic, everyday life of beautiful rituals and colours.

Somehow all of that came, and perhaps it came to me because I’d left my country at that point. I suddenly realised it was so beautiful. When I first came to England, I felt lost because I thought, what can I design for a culture where everything seems to already be provided for, everything is designed, what can I give? What can I design that can somehow add to this society?

Also, I didn’t understand English culture and I think that design is so much about understanding culture. Then gradually I felt that I did have something to offer, and that maybe my background and my culture was something that was also valuable and something that I could present to the wider world.

Do you remember the first time you actually tried to bring your culture into your designs?

One of my projects for the Royal College was to create a seat. Mine was a chair to sit cross-legged on, but it was for people who can’t sit cross-legged you know. I created fabric for that piece and that’s where I really started. It was the beginning, I think. I used to go to the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum], to the textile study rooms which are full of fantastic Indian textiles, which I’d never really paid attention to before.

You tend not to when it’s all around you and particularly if it’s something you’ve grown up with.

Yes, and I look back and it’s in me. I had all this information that I didn’t even know I had. Then of course, when I started working for other studios, none of that came into my work because I was working for other people. Then Jonathan and I thought, right, we’ve got to quit our jobs and do our own thing. So we got married and decided to work, not together, but to explore our own ideas.

Was there a catalyst for quitting your jobs?

I hated it!

That’s always a good one.

I thought I was wasting my time and it was time to move on, whereas Jonathan was working with Ross Lovegrove, a very established designer. He’d worked there for three years and just felt it was time to move on.

So the idea at first wasn’t to actually work together on designs, it was to work independently but supporting each other in doing that?

It was very fluid the way we started. We literally quit our jobs and got married. We had a few projects lined up. I’d gone back to India after I’d quit my job and I’d met Tom Dixon there, the Creative Director of Habitat, and worked on a range of wooden platters. Then Jonathan met him and was commissioned to do a range of cutlery, so we had enough money to survive for three months, and at that point three months felt like a long time! Then, when we were in India together, Jonathan and I did a research trip. Jonathan was very interested to see, with the economy opening up, which were the multi-national brands that were trying to establish themselves selling their products in India. He noticed that a company called Tefal, who make household cookware and appliances, were trying to sell European cookware in a country that had a very strong culture of cuisine. When we came back to London we wrote to Tefal about our observations of Indian culture and food culture, and how the role of women was changing, and how people are becoming more health conscious so they’re cooking with less oil … We talked about how their technology was appropriate for India, but that their products weren’t. We proposed to them that we could design a range of products for them, with their technology, which were better suited to Indian cuisine. They came back to us and said how, with increasing international travel, people around the world are interested in cuisines from India, China, Morocco, Japan, Thailand. So, in a way Tefal reversed our proposal and said, “Why don’t you do a range of authentic cookware inspired by cuisines from these countries.” At that point Jonathan and I said, “Okay let’s work together.” We’d worked together before, but this sort of formalised our working relationship.

And it worked obviously.

It did. I think that because our whole friendship and relationship started off being together at college and working together, not literally, but we used to sit next to each other and shared an apartment, even though at that point we weren’t a couple. Our friendship was very much based on work and …

Mutual respect?

Yes. It felt natural to work with Jonathan. A lot of people say to us, “How can you work together and live together?”

The way we look at it is that this way we spend the best time in our day together, rather than coming home tired and spending the evening together as most people do.

We spend our most alive and active part of the day together.

Have you ever had a project where you’ve been completely divided on how you should approach it?

All of them! To start with, and then we realise that actually what we want is the same thing. We’re both very headstrong. The funny thing is that when you work with your partner or husband, you’re not polite to each other right? So when we go into projects we both say, “This is what it should be” or, “That’s rubbish.” It’s not this fantastic process where you say, “Oh, that’s a lovely idea, let’s develop that.” It’s a battle and, because you know you’re not going to lose that person, you just say it how it is.

I guess there were only a few projects, one or two, where we didn’t sit and put our heads together, because I think the best results are when Jonathan and I work together. There’s no doubt in my mind that our work wouldn’t be what it is if we worked individually on things.

You do seem to have a great balance of skills.

We do. I always say that Jonathan has skills that I really want. It’s almost like I want what he can do. I wish I could do it, but I can’t.

And I’m sure the opposite is also true.

Yes, yes.

So the Tefal range was a great success?

Yes, it was a very good project and we were a very young studio to get a project of that calibre. It was very important for us.

Some might say you’ve been lucky but you’ve created opportunities like that for yourselves, right?

Yes, I don’t think we were lucky. We found out who, in this huge corporation, was the right person to write to, and we wrote a very intelligent letter. We didn’t even send them any drawings at that point, just social and functional observations which led to design opportunities. I don’t know if I believe … I don’t know if I want to say ‘believe’ even, but

I think we live in societies where we can create our lives. I think luck is something you create for yourself.

It was also about a lot of thinking, a lot of finding the right way to approach something. A lot of hard work goes into even securing a meeting with somebody … When Tefal started working with us they were working with Marc Newson and Jean Nouvel, who were very established designers and of course we were two youngsters. We got in there, not because we were a name, but through sheer intelligence, if I may say so!

You can say so. Since then have you taken a similar approach, by being proactive and going to companies with ideas?

It’s worked both ways. We got our first press with Blueprint magazine which had a lot of images of our studio as well. One of the curators at the Wellcome Trust, which is one of the world’s largest medical charities, saw the article. They do a lot of cutting-edge research and were commissioning a new building. They also have a very big art collection. They saw the pictures of our studio and invited us to do installations for them for a period of 16 months. We would never have thought of doing an installation before that, we did products.

Sometimes you rely on other people’s imaginations because you can’t imagine everything you can do, at least I don’t think so. Yet, at the same time, we also approached people. With [furniture company] Moroso, We had thought that if there was any company in Italy that we’d like to work with it would be them because they seemed so open to different ideas. We approached Patrizia Moroso and it so happened that she’d just read about us. It was a symbiotic thing – we were looking for each other. Then, at a completely different level, one of the friends I did yoga with went to school with a fantastic anthropologist and ethnographer who’s one of the very influential people at Intel. So we met Genevieve (Bell), she’s actually Australian, and she came to our studio and our work was exactly what she does for Intel. Work comes in from different places.

How was what you do similar to what she does at Intel?

The way she works, and the kinds of ideas she’s bought to Intel, are that you don’t create technology and then create a use for it, you understand how people live and then you create the technology. She will go to India, for example, and spend a lot of time in people’s houses just being in their kitchen seeing what they do there, right. That’s the same way Jonathan and I work. This idea of making cultural observations and then creating products that are the results of that. With Nokia, it’s not like we did a phone for them, we gave them directions for what a phone could be. They are launching designs that were an outcome of our work for them. They have people who do cultural research and then they have designers, but what we did is make a very strong link between cultural insights in relation to design, because it only means something to these companies if it leads to a design opportunity.

Has becoming a mother shifted your perspective and the way you design?

Yes. for me, being creative is such an internal process and when you become a mother you don’t have time for that internal process. Suddenly you have this other person you have to look after. It took me time to adjust to that.

For me, to not be able to create would mean death.

Nobody can tell you about being a mother, but I feel like an aspect of me – I know this sounds negative, but it’s actually very positive – a part of me died when I gave birth. Also, for the first year after my son was born it disconnected me from India. I didn’t feel like there was a relationship between me and him and India because he was born here in England. Being a mother has changed things in the way that I definitely have less time, which means I’m more focused and, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s changed my work. I think you can see it in the Paper Planes chair that we did. It’s sort of, I don’t know how to explain it, but some aspects of my previous self are gone. I’m not romantic about being a mother because I think it’s an incredibly hard thing to be a mother and to work and to balance everything. I have to create time for myself by waking up really early so I can do my yoga practice and have two or three hours in the morning before it all starts. The morning and the evening become very important times of the day. I never used to wake up at 5am. No way. Now I really enjoy the four hours in the morning before I go to work because it also means I can spend time with my son Rahul and I can spend time by myself. I would say that having a child, it’s another thing in the equation and of course I want to be a good mother. I work four days now. I used to work eight days! Also with a child I’m really looking forward to educating him … He’s now almost two, and it’s fun; it’s brought me out of myself.

How often do you get back to India?

Well before Rahul was born I used to go three or four times a year, and since he’s been born, I’ve been twice. I think now we’re going to start work again in India so I’ll be traveling there a lot.

You’ll be actually working in India?

I have always worked with craftspeople in India and we’ve also had a couple of clients in India, but yes, I’m going to start doing my own textile pieces again. I want to now start selling them myself. Selling is not the right word, but sort of creating a collection and looking after all aspects of it.

Rather than …

… doing the design for someone else. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be very exploratory. I’m not a sales person per se, so I have to figure out a way of creating a collection which … It’s about people really knowing about how things are made and have an appreciation of that. I’d prefer it if people came to me, that’s just my personality, whereas Jonathan’s very outgoing.

I know for many people, myself included, the notion of selling your own work yourself is mortifying.

Yes, I’m not interested in that. I want people to have these things, but …

If you build it they will come.

I always believe that if you do something with love, if it’s the right thing to do, and if it’s truly what you want to do, it always works out. It’s a very, very deep thing I have in me. You have to really follow your deep instincts and then it always works out.

Has there been a time when you’ve done that, when something has logically seemed a bit kind of crazy but you’ve gone with it anyway because you’ve really believed in it?

I think us working together is the best example of that [laughs], and the collection we did for Moroso, the first ones, the charpoys. I just went to India and spent a month creating the prototypes based on a gut instinct of wanting to do it and I’ve never been happier than doing that, working that way. I was so completely absorbed in the design, and the doing of it, that the outcome didn’t matter. What was going to happen afterwards just didn’t matter to me.

I put so much energy into it and all the people who made it in the workshop did too. There was so much energy in those pieces that when they were shown in Milan, it (the Moroso stand) was mobbed because it was so fresh and somehow people felt the energy that had gone into the work. I always feel that when I let go and go and do something, it always works. Like with the Wellcome Trust, the presentation we made to them was actually a miniature painting I did. I used to like drawing and painting but I never thought I could use that in my design work. Yet, here we were presenting to this high technology and biomedicine organisation through a painted pop-up book of fictitious objects that didn’t exist; we just went with it because we had a very strong feel for it and … it was a huge success.

Do you feel like you’ve made it? You’ve done some significant projects for very big brands and you’ve also had many of your own designs made – what else is left?

You know what, I don’t think that if you spoke to any creative person in the world, they would ever say, “I’ve made it” because the essence of a creative person is that they’re never happy … with what they’ve done, or the world. There’s this constant need, the creative curse … You have to create. Sometimes as a creative person you move on too quickly from projects. I’ve done it; I’ve given birth, now it’s time to move on, what’s next? We still have to build this beautiful house which uses local materials, and doesn’t need any electricity, and is completely sustainable … Jonathan’s dream is to create this house … There are so many things to do.

Design is one aspect of our life and it’s a very important one, but there are just so many others, like I’m particularly interested in the principles of Ayurveda and that’s something I want to embrace. I’m interested in holistic wellbeing and how that translates into design and our material environment. I still have to design the most fantastic wellbeing spa in the world. That’s something I’ve been thinking about wanting more and more to explore. I want to work more with craftsmen in India and with communities in India to create fabrics and textile products. I’d love to design the costumes for a Hindi film. There’s one aspect to our work which is very much about the physical and the tactile, but there’s also the other aspect to us which is about research and insights and, I don’t want to say ‘intellectual’ because I don’t think that’s the right word, but it’s beyond the thing. I don’t think I can ever say, “This is me” because there are so many aspects to me.

Sometimes I think there’s just too much I want to do and I really want to learn more and more. Now I’m at a stage where I feel like, we’ve been working together for eight to ten years, and I feel like something new is coming. I don’t know what it is – it’s in the air.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by David Vintiner

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