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Art Special 2024: The rise of the artist-designer

Collectible design finally finds its feet in India as more designers and galleries focus on creative design that doubles as art

Multi-ball Stambh’ by architect-designer Ashiesh Shah, who has curated a design section at the India Art Fair with Carpenters Workshop Gallery
Multi-ball Stambh’ by architect-designer Ashiesh Shah, who has curated a design section at the India Art Fair with Carpenters Workshop Gallery

Eight years ago, designer-architect Ashiesh Shah showcased a version of his Liminal Bench at the booth of a leading gallery at the India Art Fair (IAF). Inspired by the form of the lingam, the bench, sculpted in marble, brought together design, functionality and craft. Created in limited edition, this was an early example of homegrown collectible design—but nearly no one recognised it as that. “Even though it was sold later at the fair, it was seen more as a piece of furniture to support the art on display and not as a sculptural design to be viewed as art by itself,” says Shah, 43. “I told myself that one day I will have a booth at the fair dedicated just to collectible design.” Shah has finally realised his wish of seeing a dedicated collective design section at the forthcoming IAF.

The genre of collectible design—which lies at the intersection of pure creative art and functional design objects—has had quite a trajectory in India in the last 10 years: from not being understood at all to having made inroads into the art collector’s consciousness. Recognising its potential, both as a creative form and as an investment, the 15th edition of the India Art Fair has, for the first time, added a collectible design segment to its programme.

“In 1917, sculptor Marcel Duchamp put a porcelain urinal, Fountain, in the middle of a white cube space, stating that everyday objects are art too. Everyone was shocked but we have come a long way since. I feel that collectible design will become the art and investment of the future,” says Shah. He has not only curated a section there in collaboration with the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, a premier gallery dedicated to design globally, but will also be represented by them henceforth.

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Is it art? Is it design?

So, what is collectible design? For one, it is created in limited editions or single pieces as opposed to the more mass-produced product and industrial design objects. The idea is to push the boundaries of form, concept and materiality, while retaining functionality—which is the basic and classic principle of design. “Collectible design is backed by a narrative and hopes to evoke an emotional response or provoke people just like art does,” says Vikram Goyal, who together with Shah, Rooshad Shroff, and Gunjan Gupta, is considered one of the pioneers of the genre in India.

Additionally, the aura around the designer and their design language becomes a reason why people want to acquire their work. A 2017 piece by Hugo Macdonald on the auction house Sotheby’s website states that based on their skill and status as pioneers, certain contemporary designers such as Marc Newson, Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid have always belonged to the collectible category. “Extreme craftsmanship, like the work of Pablo Reinoso and Studio Job, and extraordinary, innovative uses of material, like Joris Laarman and Oskar Zieta, fit comfortably into the mix. Sometimes poetic, intangible beauty is enough, like Kam Tin’s coffee table and Jonas Bohlin’s zinc shelves,” writes Macdonald.

Goyal’s work too becomes highly coveted due to his inimitable stamp of craftsmanship and lyrical design language. At his studio, the Delhi-based product designer creates sculptural forms and topographies from molten, beaten and hammered metal, cast brass, repoussé and inlay work. “In some of the collections featuring repoussé work, no two pieces are alike. Their demand, and therefore value, has gone up considerably in the last few years,” he says.

‘Palazzo Console’ by the Vikram Goyal Studio
‘Palazzo Console’ by the Vikram Goyal Studio

At the IAF, Goyal will be presenting an arc of his practice through limited edition collectible furniture, mirrors and screens. Besides these, he will also be showing an immersive piece, Silken Passage, a 28x8ft mural in the studio’s signature repoussé language inspired by the exchange of goods and ideas along the Silk Road.

Also read: Creating a new conversation from a frayed past

Global outlook

The international ecosystem for the genre has had at least a 20-year headstart on India, with auction houses, fairs and galleries focusing on collectible design in major cities like Milan, London, Paris and Miami. In fact, one of the most significant of galleries, Nilufar, was started by Nina Yashar in Milan as early as 1979 as a hub of contemporary and historic design, attracting collectors from all across the world. Seeing the growing interest in this discipline, the gallery opened a new exhibition space in 2015 in Milan, spanning 1,500 sq. ft, to present contemporary limited edition design pieces alongside iconic works. Goyal has shown some of his works at this space in recent years.

Carpenters Workshop Gallery, founded in 2006 by Julien Lombrail and Loic Le Gaillard in London, too has emerged as a major player. It has spaces in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and opened a vast gallery space in London in 2023. “The gallery’s core ethos is to offer artists and designers a platform to explore and look beyond the limits of their creative expression, while also committing to the preservation of traditional craft,” state the founders in an email interview. Numerous design fairs such as Design Miami showcase artistic expressions in design, and such creations are also doing exceedingly well at auctions. A February 2023 article in Elle Decor mentions Australian designer Marc Newson’s sculptural prototype of his Lockheed Lounge, an aluminium and fibreglass chaise designed in the late 1980s, which was auctioned by Phillips for just over $2 million ( 16.63 crore today) in 2010, setting a record for the highest price paid for a work by a living designer. “In 2015, another of the editions sold for $3.7 million,” it states.

Wendell Castle, ‘Above Within Beyond’ (2014). Photo: courtesy Carpenters Workshop Gallery
Wendell Castle, ‘Above Within Beyond’ (2014). Photo: courtesy Carpenters Workshop Gallery

India is slowly beginning to reflect this trend. Jaya Asokan, director, India Art Fair, feels that there ought not to be any boundaries when it comes to creativity and artists of all kinds have always been in dialogue to broaden their practices and generate new ideas.

For her, the presentations by the design studios in the section perfectly exemplify this—be it (Mumbai-based architect-designer) Rooshad Shroff showing work made in collaboration with artist T. Venkanna, Karishma Swali’s Chanakya School working with master textile artisans, Vikram Goyal’s brass works, or Gunjan Gupta reinterpreting everyday Indian objects like mudhas and gaddas.

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Today, India is not just mirroring the global ecosystem when it comes to pushing creativity, but also in the opening up of spaces dedicated to this genre. In 2022, Mumbai-based æquō, conceived by Tarini Jindal Handa and Florence Louisy, became the first gallery dedicated to collectible design.

In early 2022, Crasto Bungalow in Mumbai’s heritage village of Khotachiwadi transformed into a design gallery, 47-A, founded by Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal of Chatterjee & Lal and Srila Chatterjee of Baro Market, an online marketplace that showcases crafts heritage. Last year, India Design ID, an annual design showcase held in Delhi, introduced a collectibles pavilion curated by its head of strategy, Misha Bains, and featured works by design labels such as BeatRoot, DeMuro Das, klove Studio, Phantom Hands and Stem.

According to Shroff, due to lack of design galleries earlier, collectible design would get exhibited in the art gallery format and get misunderstood as art. Today, 47-A and æquō have brought a different curatorial approach—one that is backed by a design historical context.

At Chatterjee & Lal’s existing art gallery space in Colaba, Mortimer and Tara have always been drawn to artists-designers, whose work in the post-independence era was blurring the boundaries between art and design. In 2018, they curated an exhibition, Impact, which looked at the work of National Institute of Design and the Weavers’ Service Centre, both of which were initiated to further the nation-building process and support craft-based practices.

“That moment in the 1960s—when cross-disciplinary thinking was so active—didn’t get enough visibility during the 1990s and early 2000s. Meanwhile, both Tara and I came to design from the fine arts lens, as our backgrounds were in the latter. Till the last couple of years, these binaries of art on one side and design on the other continued. When we were looking at the Weavers Service Centre for Impact, we came across major artists such as Haku Shah and Prabhakar Barve, who were employed as designers there,” elaborates Mortimer. Fast forward to late 2021, when the duo, together with Srila, realised that in order to have a conversation about design that does justice to its histories, it would be helpful to not mount exhibitions within the fine arts exhibitions spaces.

Design often gets looked at through an art history lens and not through a design historical lens. “I guess that is the reason for the genesis of 47-A,” he says. We have finally arrived at a maturity of discourse, wherein art and design can now be shown in the same space, with each being read for their own important histories. “Design no longer needs to look like an artwork to sell. We have come a long way in the last two years, and I would like to believe that 47-A has helped in shaping the discourse. We are now in a new phase, wherein collectible design is being treated as an independent entity by platforms like India Design ID and the India Art Fair—both being important moves,” he adds.

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How it all started

When Greg Foster, former editor, Architectural Digest India, and now the artistic director of luxury carpet company Jaipur Rugs, first came to the country from Paris nine years ago, the design scene was at a nascent stage at all levels. Brands, which had earlier dabbled in white label exports, had started to launch their own labels. Only a tiny community knew what collectible design was.

To understand what fuelled the rise of this genre in India in the past decade, it might do well to take a look at the parallel growth of the art market as well. “In the last 10 years, the art market in India has exploded, with a huge number of new artists, new galleries and price points that went through the roof. Interestingly, one of the most important buyers of collectible design are also the drivers of the art market—interior designers,” says Foster. They would take their clients to design fairs across Italy to buy furniture. As they were doing that, the interior decorators and their clients started to discover design galleries such as Nilufar.

“I have witnessed this myself. Nilufar specialises in Brazilian modernism. And it was fascinating how suddenly these Brazilian modernist chairs were beginning to turn up at homes in Mumbai and Delhi,” he reminisces. That’s how the journey of collectible design started in India—with objects coming in from global spaces. Slowly, clients began to look at homegrown designers as well, who were specialising in what most called “functional art”.

“At the magazine that I was the editor of, we would cover furniture and interiors. All of a sudden, there was a buzz around pieces that blurred the lines between art and design. Look at the incredible work by Bijoy Jain that is currently being exhibited at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Functional, sculptural or simply beautifully made, this type of collector isn’t just buying a chair,” says Foster.

Today, the conversation has evolved and been taken forward by brands such as Jaipur Rugs. There, Foster and his team actively work on limited collectible editions created by artist-designers using age-old carpet-making techniques. “Fusing new ideas from global design studios with traditional weaving techniques from across India will lead to innovation and limited edition masterpieces. Our contemporary carpets will become as collectible as any antiques,” he adds.

According to Arvind Vijay Mohan, founder of the art research and advisory firm, Indian Art Investor, though India is still a relatively young market, it is likely to develop a growing line of collectors over the following decade, as the industry matures.

For the cult of the designer-artist to truly be entrenched—as has been seen in evolved markets where the practice of giants like Andy Warhol, KAWS, Daniel Arsham, Kenny Scharf, and Shepard Fairey amongst several others continues to thrive—it is imperative for India’s homegrown talent, both established and emerging, to be nurtured, supported and marketed intelligently. “The ecosystem is evolving but a long distance is yet to be covered,” he adds.

Also read: Capturing the aroma of India in a candle

Journey of the designer-artist

Each designer has had his own journey with this genre. For the past two decades, Goyal has been extending the boundary of base pairings and conceptual narratives while creating bespoke commissions for hospitality, private residences and architects.

Meanwhile, Shah has honed his eye by collecting objects ranging from the ubiquitous pebbles to paintings right from his childhood. Everything in his collection—miniature paintings and white woven pichvais—has had an impact on his practice. Added to that is his fascination with Brutalist tribal architecture and the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. His style of designing collectible objects is to say “the maximum through minimalism”.

Shah calls his showcase at the IAF his boldest, bravest and toughest yet. For the first time, he has opened up his entire warehouse of collections and created objects of design with some of them. “Within those, you will find objects that date back in time. This showcase carries different pieces of me from the last 20 years or so. The other collection that I am working on at the Atelier Ashiesh Shah (in Mumbai) is Casa Luna.” We are using the form over building blocks such as lamps in the collection,” he says.

INpLAY collection, created by Rooshad Shroff in collaboration with T. Venkanna
INpLAY collection, created by Rooshad Shroff in collaboration with T. Venkanna

Meanwhile, at his studio, Shroff, 42, likes to play with furniture to push boundaries of tactility, form, creativity and functionality. In a recent interview, published on the India Art Fair website, he mentioned being obsessed, as a student, with the firms of OMA/REX and Zaha Hadid—he worked at both in his career. “Yet, their styles couldn’t be further apart. I based a large part of my practice on the OMA/REX style of process-oriented and bottom-up approach that rethinks the mundane. Zaha helped me explore form and scale,” he said.

As a designer, he likes collaborations that highlight and leverage the strengths of all those involved to create pieces that have a unique voice and identity. For the India Art Fair, he has collaborated with artist T. Venkanna.

“Quite a few mediums that we work with—in this case marble inlay—lend themselves to a very graphic treatment. We like working with artists, who bring a different sensibility when it comes to print design. In this particular collaboration, we are working with an artist, who is not just prolific in different materials and mediums, but also in the way in which he addresses his subject matter,” says Shroff.

The field of collectible design also brings within the gallery, those who might never have entered the white cube space—scenographers, product designers, and more. Kolkata-based photographer, designer and scenographer Swarup Dutta is one such person. He is gearing up for a show at 47-A, to be held later this year. His design vocabulary is influenced by folk traditions, meta modernism and the confluence of cultural experiences in life.

‘Surya Kund’ from the exhibition, ‘A Place in the Shadows’ by Material Immaterial Studio at 47-A, Mumbai
‘Surya Kund’ from the exhibition, ‘A Place in the Shadows’ by Material Immaterial Studio at 47-A, Mumbai

An architect, who recently found himself exhibiting at the gallery in November last year as part of the exhibition, A Place In The Shadows, hailed from Material Immaterial Studio. The Mumbai-based studio is built on the basic principles of bare beauty of materials and works with cast concrete. “They showed two series, one was called Recast, featuring abstract architectural forms as blocks, which when put together would create either decorative or functional objects such as benches, tables and more. The other one, Sanctum, recreated nine stepwells of India as table tops. It is a perfect example of a design studio that has gone deep into the materiality of concrete and pushed the limits of what is possible to do with it,” says Mortimer.

Also read: How to make old furniture new again

Making craftspersons equal stakeholders in design

Many would argue that India has been witness to an exchange between art and design for centuries in the form of its rich craft heritage. In fact, India is one of the few countries perhaps which adds that unique dimension of craft to design. Craft revivalists have been trying to maintain the traditional ethos of certain forms, but the works are still being showcased at haats, bazaars and state-owned museums.

In an effort to change this, galleries such as 47-A and æquō offer craft-led design the same curation and treatment that any fine art work would get. Meanwhile, designers such as Vikram Goyal and Swarup Dutta are trying to make craftspersons equal stakeholders in contemporary collectible design. The former works with karkhanas, or workshops, and uses design intervention to change the way artisans engage with brass. “Let’s make a console that doesn’t look like one. Let’s change the way we look at light, a table or a screen. Together, we bring a strong artistic narrative to something functional through craft,” says Goyal.

The same holds true for the work Karishma Swali has been doing at the Chanakya School of Craft in Mumbai, where women graduate artisans and master artisans work alongside to create a new language through an interplay of fine art, craft with an interdisciplinary approach.

At the India Art Fair, they are showing three series in collaboration with the Galerie Lelong Paris and French artist Barthélémy Toguo and with Galleria Continua and French artist Eva Jospin.

“Chanakya’s purpose is to highlight the infinite potential of craft and tell compelling stories of our collective identities. The series, Belong, is an extension of this philosophy and a spontaneous immersion into the eternal connection between man and the natural world,” explains Swali. From this exchange, emerges a fantastical universe.

'Belong IV' from the series created by Karishma Swali and the Chanakya School of Craft
'Belong IV' from the series created by Karishma Swali and the Chanakya School of Craft

The interplay of hand-spun yarn and layering techniques, along with micro-variations of needlepoint techniques, including couching, bullion knots and stem stitch, bring to life a layered narrative that honours craft and its role in culture, community and preserving collective identities. “Complementing this narrative, the series also features handmade sculptures handcrafted using bamboo, terracotta, and basket weaving techniques—a tribute to the enduring spirit of the feminine,” says Swali.

Dutta has been working with the craft sector as part of his developmental practice. “Often, the real maker—the craftsperson—becomes invisibilised when it comes to mass design. However, in certain collaborations, when they are given the space to express themselves, some very interesting ideas emerge. I am quite interested in that possibility, and am looking at ways to nurture it,” he says. “We have recently started on a kantha project in the realm of collectible design with women craft practitioners of Bengal, and I am very interested in seeing the potential of the process that goes in.”

An ecosystem, which is slowly discovering itself, is always an exciting one. Innovation with materiality, unique ways of balancing form, tactility and function, new ways of looking at design—and different ways of infusing it with soul—are just some of the aspects that are likely to make the space of collectible design a vibrant one in the next ten years. 


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