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Interior design should bring character into homes to represent its people

Homes are at their most interesting when the personality of its residents shine through, when their history has a place in their present

There is an element of performance in most interior design projects in India now
There is an element of performance in most interior design projects in India now (iStockphoto)

In late May, I was invited to Sitara Himalaya, the 10-room spa by design house Good Earth, 13km from Manali at an altitude of more than 8,000ft, nestled within candy floss clouds, the Himalayas looming like a wizened sentinel. As soon as you enter that threshold, you are consumed by founder Anita Lal’s, or AL as she’s known, romance with colour, textures and prints. The walls are drenched in blue-green teal, printed fabric sofas sit next to armchairs upholstered with straight lines; if there are blue-white Chinese-inspired vases then there are also flowers sitting inside brass lotas (vessels).

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Everything is vibrant and there is hardly a colour missing and yet everything is, somehow, in the right place. A short walk down a stone path from the spa, AL’s cottage sits in quiet sisterhood with the spa. The insides of her home cottage and the living spaces of the spa all have the same qualities: colourful, hospitable, and luxurious but in a cosy, charming way.

I often think of AL’s clarity and ability to create warm inviting designs, both in her private spaces and business, when I sift through images of a vast majority of interior design projects from around the country. It is part of my work as an editor, and it can often be a disheartening exercise. There is a lack of contextual relevance in most of them. All cultural references are sequestered away for the puja room at best, while the rest of a home can seem like it jumped off a Pinterest board on “international décor”.

If you were to draw a mental picture of what that means then it’d be a house where the living room walls are clad either in some stone or engineered wood, where the furniture looks like pieces AI would generate if you typed “modern contemporary furniture” on ChatGPT. I am being facetious but only slightly because a lot of interior design projects in India right now are beginning to look generic, and soulless. What many remind me of are the exhibition spaces of major brands at Salone del Mobile in Milan. I think of it as the “Salone-fication” of Indian interior design. 

A room at Sitara Himalaya, the 10-room spa by design house Good Earth.
A room at Sitara Himalaya, the 10-room spa by design house Good Earth. (Sitara Himalaya)

For more than a decade now, Indian clients have been visiting the Salone yearly to shop, and its effect on the Indian interior design landscape is so apparent. Italian furniture is of course fantastic—a B&B Italia sofa bought a decade ago is still springy and well aged—but it is best when it sits within a combination of our cultural context. The urge to turn a home into a version of an advertisement image and often with furniture that looks European but is actually from Foshan is really a disastrous impulse.

When did we decide that new homes must be built without any trace of a family’s history before they entered that space? How did it come to be that homes should be created keeping in mind the photos that the design studio can generate to the media? Some interior designers now use stylists to ‘style’ a home with sourced art and accessories which are returned once the images are taken. How did drama come to take precedence over character? How did wabisabi, Japandi, and hygge become buzzwords that the spaces they’re referring to completely contradict?

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There is an element of performance in most Indian interior design now. Project descriptions are filled with trending terms and weird philosophical justifications for unnecessary add-ons. My most recent shocker was a suburban Mumbai flat kitted out with a fake fireplace-like mantel.

To me this era of Pinterest interior design indicates a certain lack of interest, combined with insecurity about our tastes. We hide away our past in the closets and present an exhibitionist exterior to the world. But it can make for a boring narrative that will age very poorly. Homes are at their most interesting when the personality of its residents shine through, when their history has a place in their present. But to accommodate the past life of a family and their choices into a new sleek configuration takes some thinking and adjustment, which many designers are wont to do. The banal nuggets of family life don’t always make for great editorial images, so projects are presented as cleanly as possible with little sense of the people living within them.

Many years ago, I got to know the Belgian interior designer Axel Vervoordt, who always leaves space for a home to settle into itself, for its residents to sort of complete the story of their lives in their own way. It is how his own home looks. He provides the essentials of the spaces and leaves enough of an ellipsis at the end of the design process so time can finish what he began. In order to do that, he really gets to understand the people he is dealing with. Through meals and conversations and real inquiry, he figures them out and how they want to live.

Most architects and interior designers will admit that designing in India is an emotionally charged process, where “a client” is many generations of a single family, where everyone wants something different, but no one really knows what “that” is. For a designer, investigating that while managing the undercurrents of family dynamics requires them to play an amateur therapist, and that’s emotional labour they’re not being paid for. But the process of understanding and accepting clients for who they are and helping them better articulate their tastes and desires is an essential part of the process, and that is the only way a home can reflect them.

To make private spaces contextually relevant is another exercise in understanding the potential and limitations of the environment a home is in. Our cities are challenging, building construction qualities aren’t standardised, the climate is completely unpredictable, and these factors are facts, no matter how fabulous or exclusive the high rise. Creating a design that then considers these things and allows the home to age without becoming a constant source of worry is even more important than aesthetics. Which is why, when I see a sea-facing apartment in Mumbai with panelled walls that look like they belong in a flat in a Parisian arrondissement, my mind immediately moves to the question of how the place will age.

A long time ago, when I edited a design magazine, we shot the home of a celebrity actor living on the seafront, and I realised there was rust on the door handles, because climactic conditions have a way of equalising us all. AL’s spaces in Manali, built from local materials, with simple solutions and her signature aesthetic, then feels so right. For her. For the place. A home should, after all, have a very simple aspiration: represent its people.

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

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