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Over-styled interiors can be boring, try goblin mode

People are beginning to go rogue with design—to present their spaces as they use them, rather than as they believe it should be seen

A space should speak of the culture and place it is born in.(Courtesy Asian Paints)

By Manju Sara Rajan

LAST PUBLISHED 10.03.2024  |  10:06 AM IST

An architect friend and I had an argument last week. It was about the role of media in the general state of design in the country. It started when he saw a farmhouse project executed by a French interior designer for a family in Delhi, where the designer had recreated a French Provincial chateau with exacting Euro-detailing, from the silverware to a gargoyle-mouthed pool. As the founding editor of an international interior design magazine 12 years ago, I had put homes such as these in the magazine when I was at its helm. The architect argued that featuring such spaces in the media did nothing for the country’s architectural community and if anything, spread the wrong message about good design.

It was an interesting debate to end a month in which the highlight was listening to Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. He was on an India tour organised by Swissnex, the global Swiss network that fosters connections in education, research and innovation. I caught a seat in Bengaluru for his conversation with architect Bijoy Ramachandran of the city-based design studio Hundredhands. Zumthor’s charm in speech is his simplicity, much like in his writing.

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Talking about his design process, he described going to a site to experience the space and feel a “spark", and about the importance of honesty to place in design. The conversation referenced a lot of Zumthor’s writings, which stand out for their ability to communicate with lay readers like me. The only one I have read is his best-known Thinking Architecture (1998), in which Zumthor makes the point that architecture is experienced through memory, through feeling. He says, “Memories contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are reservoirs of the architectural atmospheres and images that I explore in my work as an architect."

Through the book he writes with clarity about the importance of emotion in buildings. To Zumthor, context and emotion are extremely important. As it is for my friend the architect. To build something utterly inopportune to the place and culture that it is sitting within, built purely from a series of aesthetic choices, seems to him, regressive. And therefore, his point that when the media presents such projects as contemporary Indian design, it only serves to influence readers in the wrong way, rather than enabling them to make contextually appropriate choices.

On a personal level, I love spaces that speak of the culture and place they are born in, buildings that can coexist with the immediate geography and climate. I prefer the tactility and storytelling of crafted artisanal products to anything that is pretty for pretty’s sake or from a large-scale factory. I love the old, I love the patina that comes from the wear of time on an object. Which means, as a journalist, I must admit that sometimes I have to essentially disassociate from the editorial coverage under my helm in order to do my job, which is not to present my point-of-view but rather the POV of the media title. And if there is one way in which design publications have been part of the problem it is the overall editorialisation of design, which has created an obsession with perfection, at least in imagery. We will never really know how liveable the spaces presented in magazines really are. And at a time when so many clients want to create spaces based on Pinterest boards and designers are willing to provide it, what does editorial coverage really mean for design? Thankfully, there is a bit of pushback against this form of flawlessness everywhere.

Bored by over-styled and anaesthetised interiors, people are beginning to go rogue with design, adopting goblin mode for their spaces as well. In the immediate future, young consumers, more confident about their tastes, and having fewer inhibitions, will be willing to present their spaces as they use them, rather than as they believe it should be seen. I am now more interested in self-designed eclectic spaces, ones that represent the personality of the owners or at least homes where the designers have been able to excavate and present it as astutely as possible. The home is a space of anthropological study, and the way we live should be representative of our culture, our moorings and habits.

I also have a small dose of empathy for homemakers who seem to want to cut themselves off contextually. If, as Zumthor says, architectural experience is a result of memory, then what do those of us who have no lived memory of beautiful architectural experiences recall to create such spaces for ourselves. The experience of city-living in India can be quite desultory and so, I can imagine that some people want to cut themselves off from their immediate environs and be transported to a calmness that they have previously experienced on holiday somewhere. Hence the urge to create a house with aesthetics borrowed from Bali or France or wherever and stage their scene of calm.

In his book, Architecture Of Happiness (2006), the philosopher Alain de Botton writes, “In a hotel room strangled by three motorways, or in a waste land of run-down tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away, like water from a punctured container. We may start to forget that we ever had ambitions or reasons to feel spirited or hopeful."

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If the home is a place of intuition and a space where its inhabitants should feel comfortable, then the way I justify the existence of such out-of-India Indian homes is by believing that these spaces bring both solace and pride to its residents.

Manju Sara Rajan is an editor, arts manager and author who divides her time between Kottayam and Bengaluru.

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