To walk into Vikram Goyal’s new studio in Noida is to walk through his repertoire of the past 20 years. One of India’s leading product and interior designers, he is settling back into his studio after showcasing his work at design dealer Nina Yashar’s famous Nilufar Gallery in Milan during the Milan Design Week in April. Goyal’s furniture, lighting and design objects are both functional and sculptural, with a sophisticated yet dramatic design aesthetic. He reimagines traditional motifs and objects, uses indigenous craft skills and creates objects that would be at home anywhere in the world.
“We (Indian) designers have everything… the traditional knowledge, the skills… but we need to be more open to adapt to global taste,” says Goyal, who is known for his generous use of brass. About eight of his works were showcased at the Nilufar Gallery, including Archimedes’ Twist, a console that doubles as a sculpture, and Braque’s Geometry, a beaten brass wall sconce featuring abstract, sculptural forms. Goyal, who studied development economics at Princeton University, worked in the US and Hong Kong before returning to India in 2000 to co-found Kama Ayurveda, the luxury Ayurveda skincare brand. In 2003, he began designing statement home décor and lighting. He speaks to Lounge about his love for brass and the state of design in India. Edited excerpts:
Have you customised any of the pieces for Nilufar Gallery, considering its clientele is a global one?
Only one piece; rest are as is. She (Nina Yashar, the founder of the gallery) asked me to make Thar, a 12ft console, more functional. Not everyone has spaces like Indian homes; she wanted something easier to use. It’s like a bar cabinet, all handmade with brass sheets.
Why do you only work with brass?
I started working with brass 20 years ago. When I returned from the US, I, like many others, realised that India has these centres of excellence which the world doesn’t know about. I was part of the team that started Kama Ayurveda with the idea of taking it internationally and learnt that there weren’t many people in India who were aware about the importance of Ayurveda in skincare. Then I started exploring Indian crafts. I have always loved the idea of visual arts and, in India, everyone is a designer. Everyone selling clothes in Lajpat Nagar is a designer; they will tell you the many ways to design a piece of cloth. I have an engineering background and I’m an economist, but all this made me believe I could be a designer.
Coming back to your question, India has a lot of artisans who have intergenerational hereditary skills. They’ve been working in metal, in surface decoration for temples, ritual vessels. India has a long history of vessels and decoration made in brass. Even after 20 years, I feel there’s so much more to do with it. I work with family clusters. These artisans are so gifted that if you request them to make a flower that’s part of Taj Mahal’s architecture, they will do it blindfolded. They have been doing this work for generations. Where else in the world will you find such craftsmanship?
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Are the artisans’ children interested in taking their legacy forward?
It takes a lot of patience, which only Indians have, because it’s in our DNA. Whether it’s making carpets or working with embroidery beads, it requires a lot of concentration and time, which the artisans’ kids are not interested in. So now, we are going to universities and selecting students who are interested and training them. They work with a master craftsman and learn.
Learning to work with brass is not as simple as one imagines. Say, for instance, you are making two leaves. As a designer you would know what shape you want, but when you are trying to create an identical second leaf, it’s artistic skill that will tell you how much heat and pressure you should give to get the exact result. That’s what I find so fascinating about brass… how a sheet of metal can be moulded to create art. A coffee table can also be a box, a thali can also be a Pichwai artwork that you can hang on the wall. It’s a happy marriage of art, design and craft.
More international galleries are investing in showcasing collectible design. Is this happening in India as well?
The international market is huge on collectible design. It’s been going on for 10 years. The latest thing galleries are promoting is collectible design, by which I mean the limited editions that fashion designers are getting into. In India, this is slowly taking shape. For example, the Jindals (industrialist Sajjan Jindal’s family) have opened a gallery in Mumbai called æquō. They are bringing international designers to work with Indian craft and create collectible design.
Even from consumers, we are seeing an incredible interest in design inspired by Indian craftsmanship. With the advent of ecommerce and Instagram, more homegrown brands are getting attention, even globally. These are all handmade, no item is the same. This works beautifully for today’s young customer who wants to decorate their homes in a unique way.
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Despite this uniqueness, why hasn’t Indian design received the international attention it deserves?
We designers have everything… the traditional knowledge, the skills… but we need to be more open to adapt to global taste. Even I made that mistake by only working with gold initially, and then corrected myself to move to include a more restrained bronze palette. The Western audience wants things that are more pared down, less ornamental. If we need to create a global design brand, we need to think about the global customer, and not just what we like. For example, Japan also has a very strong traditional design culture but they adapted to a global market while maintaining their core identity.
What inspires your design sensibility?
It’s constant learning and constant seeing. I pick up ideas when I travel, it could be (something I see) in a museum, in bookstores, at flea markets, in old magazines or in an antique shop. I’m more interested in the past, because that has so much to offer that is new. Imagine looking through 100 years of design and the way designers have interpreted materials over the decades. There is so much to be discovered there and so much to be inspired by.