Doshi Levien’s work is strongly informed by their distinct but complementary backgrounds. Indian-born furniture designer Nipa Doshi met English industrial designer Jonathan Levien while they were students at the Royal College of Art. They set up Doshi Levien in 2000 and have since been designing domestic products for commercial clients worldwide.
Design Museum + British Council
Q. What were each of your first encounters with design?
Nipa: My first encounter was not with design but with exquisite craftsmanship and attention to detail in everything. My grandfather was a great collector and commissioned furniture, portraits and paintings. He was always immaculately dressed and wore beautifully hand-crafted shoes. So looking back, my idea of design was about an attitude; to care about the simplest of tasks and rituals. Whether it was adorning the Hindu deities, folding clothes, making the bed or preparing food. A sense that everything in the environment was important.
Jonathan: I always wanted to be an inventor – I grew up in my parents’ toy factory in Scotland, surrounded by huge stamping machines and an abundance of materials. I left school at 16 and went to cabinet-making college. I picked up some amazing skills. Although everyone was making things really well, we weren’t thinking enough about the relevance of what we were making. At that point, I decided to study design.
Q. How did you meet, and what did you think of each other?
Nipa: I met Jonathan at the Royal College of Art in London. I was struck by his understanding of manufacturing processes and his ability to create the most sensual forms; his obsession with the relationship between the object and the human body; the straightforwardness and absence of imposed narrative in his work; and by his curiosity about different cultures. And of course I had deep respect for his ability to make things happen. We became best friends and the most exacting critics of each other's work.
Jonathan: Nipa was frighteningly straight forward in her criticism of my work at college. At one point she declared that she wouldn't be my friend if she couldn't respect my work! It was rare to find this kind of honest committed appraisal in the college environment. We became best friends.
Q. What made you decide to work together?
Nipa: Since the RCA, we always dreamt of working together but decided to get some experience first. After three years of working for other designers, we decided to to quit our jobs, get married and be masters of our own destiny. A series of commissions from Tom Dixon, then design director of Habitat, gave us the opportunity to set up Doshi Levien. Jonathan and I have very complementary skills and that’s enabled us to produce work that we wouldn't create on our own.
Q. What did your design education teach you?
Nipa: I have been fortunate to study design at NID in Ahemdabad (India) followed by a post graduate degree at the Royal College of Art in London. Studying in two completely different environments gave me the confidence and ability to believe I could design anything as long as I applied myself to it. It taught me not to be limited by my education!
Jonathan: I spent most of my final year at the RCA doing life-drawing. As well as sharpening my observation skills, it taught me how to combine heart and mind, intuition and rationale. This is a balancing act that fascinates me. I explore this through the continual dialogue between drawing, making and computer work.
Q. What preoccupied you as students?
Nipa: At the Royal College I was trying to find a relevance for my skills outside the context of India. I knew so little about Europe and I struggled to design something meaningful and useful for a new culture. It was at the RCA that I first began to explore ‘Indian’ identity in design, to express it without resorting to ethnic clichés. Being in Europe gave me ‘new eyes’ to look at design, tradition, craft and the use of materials in my own country. While Indian design schools still follow the “Form Follows Function” approach to Industrial design, the Indian artisans’ work and the visual landscape of street culture are based on celebration and ornamentation, an irreverent and spontaneous use of materials and colour. At college I rejected my background at first. It was my personal tutor who encouraged me to draw on the stark contrasts that co-exist in my culture; the friction-and-harmony between the ancient and the new.
Jonathan: I wanted to take my making skills in a new direction. I no longer wanted to produce the end result. Instead, I loved the idea that something I sculpted by hand would later be made in thousands by machine, while retaining the spirit of the original. Industrial production alllows great freedom in terms of materials and construction and a high degree of precision is achievable. I saw this approach of combining the hand and machine as being more lucrative and rewarding than making one-off pieces.
Q. What preoccupies you now?
Nipa: The need to combine my love for the exquisitely handmade and unique with the hard, precise and industrial.
Jonathan: Identifying project opportunities where there is scope for genuine innovation. I think 'cultural capital' is a huge resource for innovation in design, especially in developing countries where different values and aspirations need translating into contemporary products. I think it is no longer so important where things are made, but who they are made for.
Q. Describe the Tefal project, which is really the one that put you on the map as product designers
Jonathan: On a research trip to India, we noticed that Tefal were selling French cookware in a country that has a strong food culture of its own. We came home and proposed to them a range of cookware specifically for local food cultures. Six weeks of research involved food writers, chefs, studying traditional cookware and a lot of eating out! We managed to find all the information we needed in London where the special food markets for all the different communities enabled us to do a comprehensive study. Our aim was to create a range of authentic pots that people in the countries of origin would choose to use. The challenge was to retain the practical and visual characteristics of the original cookware, while using new materials suitable for contemporary appliances. A traditional terracotta tajine would blow up on a gas hob and the Indian karhai has metal handles that burn your hands. We wanted to redefine non-stick coating as a prestigious material, moving away from its association with the short-lived and disposable. We wanted the mass-produced to feel custom-made. I hand-sculpted all the handles before translating them into 3D computer data for production. Each pot expresses a strong cultural identity through material, colour and the variant Tefal marques on the bases – which we also designed.
Q. What about Wellcome? What was your brief? How did you answer it?
It was every designer’s dream – the phone call out of the blue offering you a fascinating project with a good budget. The Wellcome Trust is the world's largest medical research funding charity and they recently moved into new London headquarters. We were invited to create a series of three window installations to communicate the history and current objectives of the Trust to the general public.
Drawing on the rich history and cutting-edge research funded by the Trust, our installations blend theatre with high design. Each display is a stage set; a ‘pop-up book' format in tilted perspective with larger-than-life props and specially-commissioned objects.
The sets were faithful translations of Nipa's conceptual miniature paintings. The objects were custom-made in India and the UK – some of them fully-resolved with industrial production in mind. We made a crystal studded 'doctor’s bag', a paper silk 'healing dress', amorphous 'hang-ups', an 'elixir of life' and a 'stethoscope' that can hear your soul and entices you to seek health through self reflection and questioning. We transformed café tabletops into spinning Zoetropes with Muybridge animations inside. There were 'medicine jars' with imaginary potions like 'worry vanishing cream,' 'smile stimulant,' 'anger solvent' and 'neighbour repellent'. There was a "menu board" displaying the current projects funded by the Wellcome Trust along with donation figures.
The whole series is based on the idea of transferring knowledge through storytelling. We wanted passers-by to be engaged while learning something about the Trust. We wanted our installations to be accessible and humanist, raising health issues that concern us all.
Q. And what about your recent project, the installation for the British Council exhibition My World. What’s it all about?
Nipa: It was commissioned for Experimenta 2005, the Lisbon design biennale, and in response to this year’s general theme: new crafts in design. For Doshi Levien, 'our world' is an imaginary space that exists between Jonathan and myself, between India and Europe. Our installation is based on the shops workshops you find in old Indian markets. It explores the boundaries between work and play; of work as a source of pleasure and the transformation of daily chores into meaningful rituals. The installation is rooted in making; combining technology and fine craftsmanship with design and storytelling. The 'shop' contains protoypes of new ideas for manufacture.
Q. What else are you working on now?
Jonathan: Inspired by the Indian matlo, we developed a terracotta water vessel that incorporates a ceramic filter to provide safe, healthy and cool drinking water without electricity. The water is cooled to between 12 and 15 degrees below ambient temperatures through natural evaporative process. It’s an environmentally sound alternative to water fountains and bottled water. We initially made it as a prototype for My World and it’s being developed for production. We are also about to start our first major project for an Indian manufacturer of motorcycle accessories in Bombay.
Q. Who or what has most inspired your design?
Nipa: My work draws on the friction and incongruity inherent in every aspect of Indian life – an environment that can’t be defined and a country that can’t be pigeonholed. The layers of history, modernity, craft and high-technology, myths and magic, up against the harsh realities of survival co-exist and create a coherent whole. This fuels my work and my determination to escape definition. It is this indescribable quality and these layers of meaning that I strive for in my design work.
Jonathan: Creating or getting an exciting project brief, or visiting a factory and seeing what it’s possible to make really inspire me.
Q. What’s the biggest difference for a designer between Britain and India?
Nipa: The biggest difference is in the awareness of design in the two countries, and the related industries and infrastructure that support design in Britain but are nascent in India.But what is exciting as a designer is the emergence of new and confident Indian sensibility, unshackled by its hitherto third world status. India's biggest resource is its cultural capital and this will drive Indian design and innovation. India has some of the advantages of Italy: both industrial production and skilled craftsmanship, and some well established indigenous brands. Most importantly, manufacturing at both the industrial and craft level is still economically viable. But unlike Britain, design has yet to become an integral part of a company's business strategy.
Q. What’s the most perfect Indian design and why? What do we learn from it? What’s the most perfect British design?
Nipa: Of the many Indian objects I deeply admire the Saree is the most perfect. Why? Because it’s truly democratic and popular; practical and sexy. From women working the fields to Bollywood belles dancing around trees, the saree embodies the complexity and diversity of Indian society. The personal pleasure of draping this unstitched cloth garment over and around the body, adjusting it with little tucks and pulls to suit your own particular form, is sensuous. It conceals as much as it reveals. Although the sari is simply a rectangular length of fabric, it’s also conceived as a draped, three-dimensional garment. Each of its divisions has a defined purpose, distinct but completely integral to the whole.
Jonathan: Our tap design for 'My World' is the most perfect British design. It is an everyday product that combines invention with sensuality. Utilitarian sensuality, that’s what we want.
Q. What are the greatest challenges facing a designer today?
Nipa: I think the biggest challenge for designers is the shift in services and manufacturing from Europe, Korea and Japan to the emerging economies of India, China and Brazil. Where industry goes, design has to follow. For me personally the biggest challenge is to create a new role for design in India, so it doesn't blindly follow the western model of unlimited consumption and continuous replacement. And of course design is becoming more like fashion, but how can we sustain this never ending pursuit for the new?
Jonathan: Most of our basic needs are answered and it's getting harder to design everyday stuff that makes a real difference to our quality of life. But there’s still so much potential to make our environment and the things we use more engaging, more pleasurable and more sensual.
Q. What would you most like to design and why?
Nipa: I’d like to design the costumes and sets for an Indian blockbuster film or a Broadway play. I like the ability of design to tell stories; to transcend reality and capture popular imagination. On a more practical, day-to-day level public transport for London would be so exciting – imagine vehicles that are so loved by the people that they wouldn't dream of vandalising them or putting their shoes on the seat!
Jonathan: A spa; it would be my first architectural project and it would fully explore materials and structural elements in relation to the human body.
Q. Why do you think you won Blueprint’s Product Designer of the Year in 2005?
Meaning to stress that somehow our work was an antidote to a prevailing high-tech homogeneity in product design, our advocate quoted the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: 'Our time, being the most intensely technical, is also the emptiest in human history.' As designers, we want to use technology to enhance our cultural differences rather than the other way round, where one idea or solution fits all. To make objects that emphasise our plural identities, appeal to our senses, stimulate our imagination and contribute to our enjoyment of the material environment. It is these layers in our work that people related to at the Blueprint sessions and that is why they voted for us.
Design Museum + British Council
BIOGRAPHY Nipa Doshi
1971 Born into a Gujarati family in Bombay.
1989 At 17, Nipa was offered a place at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, where she specialised in Furniture. Nipa graduated from NID in 1994.
'Design' unless it was 'fashion' or 'interior decoration' was still unheard of as a serious career path to follow in India. Her parents, however were very supportive and encouraged her to follow her instincts. It was at NID in Ahmedabad that Nipa developed a deep appreciation of Indian handicrafts, especially textiles and it was at the market within the walls of the old city where she began to explore the link between craft, design and cultural identity.
1994 On a visit to London, Nipa met Jasper Morrison who inspired her to apply for the Masters Degree course in Furniture design at the Royal College of Art.
1995 Nipa was awarded a scholarship for the duration of her course at RCA.
1997 Nipa graduated from the RCA and returned to India to work with crafts people.
1998 Nipa returned to London and worked for SCP and David Chipperfield.
BIOGRAPHY Jonathan Levien
1972 Born into an English family in Scotland.
1988 At 16 Jonathan left school and went to cabinet making college. He developed a love for making. Jonathan went on to join the BA design course at Bucks College in High Wycombe.
1995 Jonathan joined the Royal college of Art MA course in Furniture design. He met Nipa and they became best friends.
1997 Jonathan Graduated from the RCA and left for New York to design cutlery for Dansk. Jonathan returned to work for Ross Lovegrove’s studio in London.
BIOGRAPHY Doshi Levien Design Office
2000 Nipa and Jonathan quit their jobs, get married and set up Doshi Levien. A commission from Tom Dixon, creative director of Habitat kick starts their studio.
2001 Nipa and Jonathan write to Tefal following a research trip to India in 2000. They propose a project to design cookware specifically for local food cultures. This project sets the blueprint for their approach as a studio.
2003 FX Design Award
Tefal Mosaic wins 'best furnishing or accessory for residential interiors.'
2004 Invited by the Wellcome Trust to create a series of three window installations, communicating the history and current objectives of the Trust to the general public.
2004 Nipa Doshi gave a presentation on 'Cultural Capital as a resource for innovation in design' for the Government of India Design Summit, New Delhi.
2004 British Council exhibition 'Global Local.'Touring exhibition and seminar. Doshi Levien gave a talk on 'cultural identity in industrial design'. Doshi Levien featured alongside a selection of designers whose work applies an international sensibility, developed through research and global travel, to the local context in which they work. This exhibition was hosted by the Victoria and Albert museum after completing a tour of India.
2005 Featured in Interni, United Kingdom of India.
2005 Experimenta design Biennale, Lisbon. Installation commissioned by the British Council. 'My World: The new subjectivity in design.' This installation tours to Vilnius - Contemporary Arts Centre, Oslo - Norsk Form and London - Design Museum.
2005 Arts Council Of England. Generous award to produce work for the British Council exhibition My World.
2005 B & B Italia Award to produce work for the British Council exhibition My World
2005 Blueprint Magazine. Voted Blueprint Sessions product designer of the year 2005.
2005 Particpation in Materialise Forum. Royal College of Art, London. Perception of materials in industrial design talk.
2006 Approached by Herman Miller to collaborate on a 'design exploration.'
2006 Franz Meyer Museum, Mexico City. Talk on design and identity in emerging economies.
2006 ArtQuest Intersection talk - Approaching collaborative practice.
2006 Talks at Doga Norsk Form, Norway on The new subjectivity in Design
2007 Commissioned by Moroso to develop a collection to be made part in India part Italy.
2007 Wallpaper award for Best breakthrough designer
Design Museum + British Council
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