By Divya Thakur
As denizens of the design community flocked to the 57th Salone del Mobile, which ended on April 22, one would presume Italy has always been the design capital of the world. However, it wasn’t always so. It was envisioned to become one, through strategic engagement with the public. One of the key engines of achieving this vision was the foundation of La Triennale di Milano, that was established in 1933 as a design and art museum that encouraged dialogue between society and the creative industry.
Its focus on industrial design from the 1950s, along with the setting up of an annual furniture trade fair in 1961, have contributed immensely to making ‘Made in Italy’ the hallmark of excellence in design. The trade fair, which has now acquired iconic status as the Milan Design Week or Salone del Mobile, showcases furniture, lighting, home accessories and more. This year, the fair had a record attendance of more than 4 lakh visitors spread across the two venues — Rho-Pero, where brands and designers exhibit within the sprawling 2.5 million sq ft architectural marvel made by architect Massimiliano Fuksas, and Fuorisalone, a set of more creative events spread across the city.
With registered exhibitors from 33 countries, the highlights of this year included tech-savvy, Spanish studio Nagami’s exhibit Brave New World, Asian brand Stellar Works’ new range of furniture by Neri & Hu, where their work was juxtaposed with pieces from mid-century modern masters to provoke questions of what interior objects mean to us and what it means to live anywhere and everywhere. It also included “Forever Young” by Maarten Baas and the avant-garde work of students of the Design Academy Eindhoven and of brands like Moooi from the Dutch design fraternity. From India, we had Studio Koy and Design Clinic India at the Asia Pavillion. While Studio Wood and Studio Ardette displayed at Salone Satellite, one of the most interesting zones within the Rho Fiera, which showcases young talent under 35, Luxury brand Scarlet Splendour showed at a booth within the Rho Fiera. This was their third consecutive participation.
However, considering what is being produced in India, the representation was rather limited. A country pavilion was sorely missed and we need more participants travelling from the country. In the past, Rajiv Saini did a solo with a range of lacquered furniture in 2008. Architect Bijoy Jain and Design Temple showed their respective collaborations at Wallpaper Handmade in 2010 and 2011. I had the pleasure of launching a globally patented line of furniture in 2012. Gunjan Gupta showed her Bori Sofa series in 2013 at Apartment Gallery.
These individual participations, however, are not adequate to create an impact. The lack of government support, perhaps, evidences the lack in the country’s belief in design power. Globally, industrialisation was that pivotal point when design consciously began playing an important role in social evolution and building industry and economy. However, India’s case has been different. The challenge of innovation for the newly independent India of the 20th century was to build infrastructure, which could then build industry and, in due course, industrial design.
While the legacy of design in India today owes its inception to the likes of Ardeshir Godrej and Sir Dorabji Tata, this delayed exposure has affected the evolution of industrial design in India. While the West enjoyed a natural course to industrialisation and a simplification of aesthetics — our own approach to design from ancient times has fumbled to evolve into a singular design language.
Compared to Italy or the Netherlands, India’s shortfall in creating an educated and interested audience is preventing a solid ground for design to become a sustainable enterprise. The Indian design industry continues to stagnate with sparing examples. The popularity of online brands such as Pepper Fry and Urban Ladder make a case for the need for standardisation in furniture. The newly launched brand Script, by the Godrej group, offers a fresh and well-designed range of furniture.
However, due to the absence of choice and qualitative home-grown brands catering to different price points, the affluent continue to flock to Milan’s Salone or Paris’ Maison et Objet, to either import reliable branded furniture, or ship containers of reasonable knock-offs or well-priced pieces from other parts of Asia. Now, however, there is a faint ripple of interest of design in India, and that seems to be attracted to the idea of “bespoke” design. Given that technology will drive the future, the question is will design in India be cognizant of its past and present and play a leadership role in navigating a conscious future to create exponential growth for all.