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Designer Ishan Khosla on humour in homey workspaces

Ishan Khosla, winner of Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize 2022, on how his desk across workspaces has been comfortable, casual, easygoing

Ishan Khosla
Ishan Khosla (Vikas Dutt)

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On Thursday night, visual artist Ishan Khosla, currently department chair and associate professor of Communication Design at the UPES Dehradun, was announced the winner of the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize 2022, the award's seventh edition. Khosla won the award for his work on the book cover of writer Anukriti Upadhyay’s Kintsugi: A Novel, which was published by HarperCollins in 2020. The recognition comes with a cash prize of Rs. 1 lakh and a trophy.

The book cover for Kintsugi features some of the the fonts that Khosla created through The Typcraft Initiative, a project that he started for a two-way collaboration with various craftspeople, especially those from tribal communities, across South Asia.

The illustrative element on the cover is inspired by the novel’s name itself — ‘kintsugi’ is essentially a Japanese word that denotes the traditional art form of piecing together broken pieces of pottery with gold. With such repair, its once-cracks and fissures come to be highlighted with the gold's glow — fixed but carrying their old scars with pride and a sense of beauty.

The winning book cover, designed by Khosla, is for Kintsugi: A Novel by Anukriti Upadhyay
The winning book cover, designed by Khosla, is for Kintsugi: A Novel by Anukriti Upadhyay

Khosla’s work was selected from a shortlist of six covers, announced in January this year by art curator and critic Alka Pande, who served as chair of the jury. Other jury members included politician-writer Shashi Tharoor, writer Shobhaa De, Priti Paul MD of the Apeejay Surrendra Group which runs the Oxford Bookstore and the Kolkata Literary Festival, writer Kunal Basu and guest juror Emmanuel Lebrun- Damiens, the Counselor for Education, Science and Culture at Embassy of France in India. This shortlisted covers included the cover for Turmeric Nation by Shylashri Shankar, designed by Maithili Doshi; The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s Guns by Robert Elgood, designed by Shashi Bhushan Prasad, and Estuary by Perumal Murugan and translated by Nandini Krishnan, designed by Gavin Morris. These three designers were honoured at the event with Special Jury Awards that appreciated their visual narrative work.

In this interview after receiving his award, Khosla talks about how the place from where he designed the winning book cover seemed to have had some “Japan connection and synergy”, and how there’s one recurring visual language in every workspace he inhabits. Edited excerpts.

What was your first book cover design assignment?

That’s a tough one because I’ve been doing this for many years. I can tell you that maybe in the last 15-20 years since coming back to India (from the US), one of the earliest was probably Manto, for (publisher) Chiki Sarkar, when she was at Random House India.

Take us through the process of designing a book cover — do you read the whole book, or is it more about a conversation with the author and editors?

It’s a combination. I like to read as much, but it’s not always possible to read the entire book. But definitely a conversation with the publisher, the editor, and ideally the author, is very helpful. It depends, too — sometimes you can speak to the author, sometimes you can’t, for whatever reasons. So it’s essentially a combination.

Can you talk about Kintsugi in specific? What about Anukriti Upadhyay’s writing style appealed to you and informed the cover?

What I really liked about it, is that it seemed very human; there’s a kind of melancholic nature to the stories, but they’re also uplifting. It’s about the fragility of human life; and (the concept of kitnsugi is) about how something is broken and imperfect can also be real and beautiful. That appealed to me the most, and all the cover directions I looked at were about balancing the act and bringing in this idea of a combination of cracks and healing.

Describe your current workspace to us.

So when I was working on Kintsugi, I had a design studio; but now I’m a professor at a design college in Dehradun. So my workspace is very different from (the space from where) I did this cover.

Could you talks to us about the space from where you worked on Kintsugi? How did it evolve over the years?

My workspace usually has a lot of objects and inspirations, almost like someone’s house. It’s always been comfortable, casual, easygoing, even in previous design studios and offices. The (visual feel and) language has always been the same — very vernacular, Indian, homey, full of craft and graphic objects.

A view of Khosla's desk, with hand labelled draws, posters, and miscellaneous art and craft objects. 
A view of Khosla's desk, with hand labelled draws, posters, and miscellaneous art and craft objects.  (Courtesy Ishan Khosla)

Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from that space.

I don’t know about eureka moments, but we’ve worked on The Typecraft Initiative, a project where we’ve worked with tribal communities to make digital fonts when there. A lot of the workshops for The Typecraft Initiative had happened there too. We had students coming in from different counties, we did an exhibition for Tokyo-based (design and lifestyle brand) Muji from there; we came up with an identity for the region of Kutch for an exhibition in Japan from that workspace, too. Now that I think of it, there was a lot of Japan connection and synergy that happened in that workspace.

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

Maybe a chateau, with a fireplace, in the hills.

What’s the one thing that has always been at your workspace and why?

A sense of humour, always. We always try to have fun in our workspace and not take things too seriously.

The first artist whose work you followed closely, or sometimes imitated? What about them appealed to you?

I would not say imitated, but there have been many artists and designers whose work I like and follow. One is a Japanese designer called Tadanori Yokoo, and another Japanese poster designer Ikko Tanaka. I’ve been a fan of Japanese design but also Dutch design. There are others like Stefan Sagmeister, who was my teacher (at the School of Visual Arts) in New York. What appeals to me about their work is how fresh and timeless it is. Each design work feels like a different style. I like the freshness they bring to their projects. I try to aspire to this in my working, to try and not repeat what I’ve done before, to try new things and experiment.

What was the first medium or tool you used in the early years of practice? How has that evolved now?

Photography has always been close to me as a tool I use in design. And I continue to do that. I also like working with my hands — tearing and putting things back together. I’m not great with drawing and painting — my strength is really typography, photography, and collage; working with existing materials and rearranging them. How it’s evolved though is a hard question to answer. It’s certainly more refined in some ways — maybe I’m maybe faster and more efficient than before at doing the same work. But about how it’s evolved otherwise — that’s a question that someone else who looks at my work can answer, perhaps.

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces

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