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Godrej DesignLab: New-age patronage

Godrej DesignLab, a collaborative, mentor-led outfit, has worked with 30 independent designers over the last three years. This year some of those collections will be launched in the market. We meet the team that's ushering this design-rich culture

(From left) Khushnuma Jamasji, Hemmant Jha and Henry Skupniewicz at the Godrej DesignLab, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
(From left) Khushnuma Jamasji, Hemmant Jha and Henry Skupniewicz at the Godrej DesignLab, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

It’s hard to keep up with Hemmant Jha. The chief design officer at Godrej DesignLab (GDL), a three-year-old furniture and home-decor designing outfit in Mumbai, is showing us around the GDL shop floor located in the sprawling Pirojshanagar headquarters of the manufacturing company Godrej & Boyce.

Jha, 45, walks us through the prototyping shop, introducing Robert Menezes, who “used to work in aerospace before he retired, and we asked him to come over and help us". He walks past a row of 3D printers (“there’s the electronics workshop over there. We’re working on a new kind of prototype refrigerator"). He leans on an intricate loom while pointing towards a wall. It’s laid out with swatches of textiles. “We are looking at weaving. This particular one is woven with steel wire, which means that you could shape it or mount it on a wall," he says.

A group of craftsmen sit hunched over a work-in-progress chair that is being woven in navar—the thick, flat canvas rope used for the ubiquitous Indian charpai (cot). Sitting on the half-made piece offers a feel of familiarity; it’s something you’ve known in another form, in another time and place—your grandparents’ home, perhaps—yet it is a modern, elegant, straight-back chair that would not be out of place in a living room today.

Next, Jha shows us a workstation made by apprentices Jaymin Panchasara and Vivek Prakash. An artistic, abstract, black-and-white table-top pattern, it resembles a mosaic at first sight. A closer look reveals fused plastic pellets, creating an organic, free-flowing form. “We actually made a prototype of the machine—a kind of heat press—to make a prototype of the table-top. It’s a radical way of using plastic waste," says Jha.

Such artefacts are strewn across the GDL office. If Jha wasn’t so difficult to keep up with, we would have liked to take a slow, winding walk through this space, which feels like the back gallery of a design museum where there is much to be discovered. We would savour the implements and accoutrements of design. When independent designers get to work with DesignLab, they have access to all its equipment, tools, techniques, materials, and, most importantly, all the ideas.

Navroze Godrej. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

GDL is the brainchild of Navroze Godrej, 35, the fourth-generation scion of the Godrej family. Navroze set up the Innovation and Design Centre in 2011, “to act as a beacon for what the future could look like", he says over the phone. “Sometimes we get bogged down by the identity of manufacturing, yet design is so intrinsic to that. We realized that we needed very different skill sets than what we already had in the company. We needed skill sets in design, in research, in understanding culture."

GDL was set up in 2014 in association with Elle Decor India, with the dual purpose of encouraging emerging, raw design talent and ensuring exposure to what’s happening globally. “Anyone involved in a creative industry has to look outside, particularly to young people, to see how they are looking at the world," says Navroze.

Sometimes we get bogged down by the identity of manufacturing, yet design is so intrinsic to that. We realized that we needed very different skill sets than what we already had in the company. We needed skill sets in design, in research, in understanding culture.- Navroze Godrej

This is not to say GDL is the first radical model employed to encourage innovation in a manufacturing company. A quick recap of the Godrej Group’s own history throws up many examples, illustrating the journey: In 1897, the group’s co-founder, Ardeshir Godrej, gave up law, turned to lock-making and came up with the Anchor lock. The company came up with its first safe in 1902 and in 1923, the Godrej steel cupboard was born. In 1955, it gave us the iconic Prima typewriter and in 2008—taking a quantum leap in design and manufacture—Godrej made the launch vehicle and orbiter for Chandrayaan-1, India’s first lunar probe. Today it has more than 15 diverse businesses that make, or are attempting to make, a range of things—from locks to spacecraft.

Navroze’s contribution to this history of innovation lies in initiating a fundamental cultural change in a 120-year-old manufacturing company, in tune with the global trend of using design as a tool of creative productivity. He traces his own interest in this to having grown up around art. “Both my grandmum and my mum were very artistically and culturally inclined," he says, adding that for him the sweet spot is when art meets utility. “The most powerful and inspiring moment is when there’s a marriage of art and design or styling and functionality. The coming together of these two ways of thinking, that’s always where my head is at," says Navroze. Hence the birth of GDL as a platform where art, science, engineering and marketing can intersect and work collaboratively.

And in 2014, Navroze hired Jha, a teacher from his university, to lead the way.

The people and process of GDL

Jha was teaching a graduate programme in product design at Illinois Institute of Technology’s IIT Institute of Design in Chicago in 2012. Godrej was enrolled in this programme. Though not in Jha’s class, he attended one of his lectures, and the conversation that followed saw Jha moving to India as chief design officer for GDL.

An alumnus of the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, Jha went on to do a master’s in architecture from Yale University, US, then worked with architects and design firms such as Richard Meier & Partners and Harman International Advanced Research Group, and ran his own technology start-up in Chicago for a few years.

What was that conversation about? “Navroze talked to me about the work at the Innovation Centre and I thought it was incredible. We had all these ideas but considered, how do we bring them to life? Because we are a manufacturing company and ultimately want to put something out into the world," says Jha.

Worldwide, design and architecture competitions are used to find talent. GDL applies that model in a constructive and mentored fashion. It invites applications that are open to all, with a few essential filters: merit, a basic knowledge of design, and projects that are original and have the potential for manufacturing. “In 2015, our first year, we got about 100 entries; this year there were 4,000. Finally, we worked with 10 designers," says Khushnuma Jamasji, 39, associate general manager, communications, Godrej Interio, who also takes care of communications at GDL. In its three years, GDL has mentored about 30 new designers.

People from all disciplines apply. Aziz Kachwalla, an engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has been practising as a designer for 25 years. Part of the GDL 2016 batch, Kachwalla designed a Corbusian two-seater sofa—a slim steel frame woven with cane—which in turn can be taken apart to form two separate armchairs. The final prototype sits in the GDL office—it “will see the light of day in the coming months", says Jha.

Another participant, Karthic Rathinam, 17, who studies product design at the DSK International Campus in Pune, “couldn’t stop smiling when he realized he was selected", says Jamasji. Light Octahedron, his light fixture, is an eight-sided form joined together by magnets, each of which can be rearranged to turn the light on or off—a simple, playful design with a complex circuitry.

The process is mentor-driven. Once selected, each designer works in tandem with a mentor, depending on the subject. “It’s not just getting these entries on paper and digital platform. The selection process takes about a month and a half. We go back and forth with the designers in reworking their ideas, also to see if they really can see it through. Then prototyping starts and that is three-four months of madness," says Jamasji.

Henry Skupniewicz, 26, a mentor and head of Fabrication Futures at GDL, has a background in science and architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2013, he moved from the US to India, interested in combining design, technology and social entrepreneurship. Before joining GDL, he helped set up FabLab, a design lab at the CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) University in Ahmedabad. For GDL, he mentored architect-duo Amit Gupta and Britta Knobel Gupta of Studio Symbiosis, from this year’s batch, in creating the Smart Lounger. A seductive, curved form, it uses a wood-bending technique called parametric kerfing to create patterns. Skupniewicz helped the designers fine-tune the process, which can be applied to coffee tables, desks, chairs and workstations—a mass produced range with a bespoke quality.

Artworks made out of discarded materials at the Godrej DesignLab. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Artworks made out of discarded materials at the Godrej DesignLab. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The philosophy of GDL

“One of the things that Hemmant and I talk about is, what is design and how do we define it?" Skupniewicz says before answering: “It’s not an antithesis to engineering. It’s just a different way of solving problems. Rather than solving one problem at a time, how can I look at all the challenges at once, and what unique direction does that give me?" The debate around this question is perhaps the catalyst that has led numerous organizations and consultancies around the world to use design-thinking to create things, experiences, events and solutions that lie at the intersection of human needs, climate and ecological considerations, cultural contexts, economics and more.

Take IDEO, for instance. Set up in 1991 in Palo Alto, US, the firm now has offices worldwide, with a project portfolio that ranges from creating the first mouse for Apple to developing a digital tool called PRIME (Personalized Real-time Intervention for Motivational Enhancement, created for the University of California, San Francisco, in 2016) to help patients of schizophrenia deal with social interactions. International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), the 106-year-old American computer manufacturer, has been using design and technology to bring about social change for decades. One of its diverse projects was a campaign, Do Your Part, undertaken along with Peru’s environment ministry in 2014. It built software and digital platforms that allowed a grass-roots, crowd-sourced, collective effort, involving thousands of Peruvian citizens, to work towards environmental sustainability.

The expanded definition of design at play here is possibly best summed up by the curator of one of the world’s most progressive design museums. Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, states in a Wired article: “Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing." There, perhaps, lies the answer to why a computer manufacturer like IBM has historians, anthropologists, linguists and people from the humanities in its workforce.

The conversation with the team at GDL often slips into this larger, more comprehensive contribution that a company can make by employing design, with a capital D, in its approach.

Jha and Skupniewicz spell out why it is necessary to establish a rigorous, design-rich culture. “As a company based in India, it is our moral responsibility to foster its talent," says Jha. “If we have a consumer base that appreciates good design, it is only going to help Godrej," adds Skupniewicz.

Scalability is an important factor in GDL’s definition of design. “Often, people create a rendering and everyone is intrigued by it. But can it be produced? Designers tend to work with a prototyping process and not a manufacturing process. In my role here, I reinforce that a design is good if you can take it out to as many people as possible. For that, it has to be affordable and its making process has to be rigorous and efficient. For that, it is essential to work collaboratively, involve people who come from a diversity of backgrounds, mentor them and work from the ground up," says Jha, the teacher in him surfacing every now and then.

Skupniewicz explains how GDL’s approach aligns with the worldwide trend in technology. “We’re living in a time when I can say that there’s some furniture upstairs that we downloaded. It was designed in London, we downloaded the file they gave us and we made it for our office. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Godrej is going to be giving away furniture software in the near future but we have to accept that economics, market and taste are changing and we have to participate in the change and look towards the future," he says.

So far, GDL’s area of focus has been interiors. It remains to be seen if it will break out of the furniture-design space and look at design interventions in social and cultural settings—urban spaces, infrastructure, medical, technology, fashion or crafts sectors.

Yet, one cannot ignore the pioneering spirit of the people behind GDL. It helps that one of the oldest home-grown manufacturing companies with the power to scale up ideas is backing this team of creative thinkers. This year, their hard work of three years comes to fruition: According to Jha, a collection of “at least five products, we anticipate" from the three batches of GDL will be retailed in physical as well as online stores. It’s not just another collection that will be launched by an established brand.

It represents an evolving, design-led culture and shows why it makes sense for a traditional company to sometimes behave like an agile start-up.


Lounge picks 6 of the most innovative projects by apprentices at the Godrej DesignLab

Re-Flex by Janpreet Kaur Dogra

1. Re-Flex by Janpreet Kaur Dogra, 2017, is an installation that is used for acoustic damping in spaces like halls, restaurants and museums.

A two-seater sofa by Aziz Kachwalla.

2. A two-seater sofa by Aziz Kachwalla, 2016, is a minimal, modern set steel frame, bent and precisely perforated by machine and skillfully woven in cane by hand.

Light Octahedron by Karthic Rathinam.

3. Light Octahedron by Karthic Rathinam, 2017, is a playful light fixture made of truncated octahedrons that stick together with magnets.

Frozen Motion by Rooshad Shroff.

4. Frozen Motion by Rooshad Shroff, 2016, is a set of two chairs and a side table, designed to capture the idea of movement in a moment.

KVIKK wall shelf by Lavanya Asthana and Harpreet Padam.
KVIKK wall shelf by Lavanya Asthana and Harpreet Padam.

5. KVIKK wall shelf by Lavanya Asthana and Harpreet Padam, 2015, is a fun combination of a mirror, a shelf and a set of hooks.

Smart Lounger by Amit Gupta and Britta Knobel Gupta.
Smart Lounger by Amit Gupta and Britta Knobel Gupta.

6. Smart Lounger by Amit Gupta and Britta Knobel Gupta, 2017, has a slight bounce as you settle on to it. It can be mass-manufactured yet has a bespoke quality.

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