A bloodied warrior brandishes a sword at passers-by as two heroines watch in anguish. This is the larger-than-life poster of the latest Bhojpuri attraction (Gladiator 2) at the Super Plaza cinema, in a bylane off Mumbai’s Grant Road. The poster, the cinema and its strictly male clientele are hardly the type of neighbours two sisters might want for their start-up graphic design consultancy.
But walking into the recently opened Colette & Yvonne design & brand consultancy in Minerva Mansion, a few metres down the lane from the cinema, all traces of Grant Road’s seamier aspects (it is near the city’s red-light district) disappear.
Home, sweet home
The ground-floor office resembles the living room of an eclectic traveller, someone comfortable gazing backward and forward, straddling East and West. Heritage and modernity are carefully juxtaposed in a workplace that is distinctively domestic in appearance and behaviour.
(Clockwise frombottom right): Sisters Yvonne Sheikhawat (left) and Colette Austin sit next to each other at work; a mirrored wardrobe replaces the usual office filing cabinet; a dining table substitutes for a conventional conference table; the outdoor patio. Kedar Bhat / Mint
A dining table substitutes a conventional conference table. It is bordered by a varied assortment of hand-painted chairs. A mirrored wardrobe replaces the usual office filing cabinet. There is a full-fledged kitchen, a shower, a loft and an outdoor patio with a resident stray cat. Only a handful of modular workstations and flat screen monitors, at the far end of the room, betray the studio’s serious business intentions.
The domestic atmosphere was entirely deliberate, explains Colette Austin, the duo’s older half: “What stirs up our juices is environmental comfort, a space that is an extension of who we are.” Having a landlady like Priti Chhabria, who was “so open to our wanting it to be like a home”, also helped, adds her sister Yvonne Sheikhawat.
Yet their choice of offbeat location might surprise even the creative fraternity. Sheikhawat and Austin are veteran brand stewards, each having worked for more than two decades at some of India’s largest advertising agencies, including Lowe Lintas and Publicis Ambience. When they decided to open shop together, the more likely locations for their studio were Colaba, with its old-world charm, or energetic, post-industrial Parel. Grant Road, despite its central location and excellent transport links, has never been an alighting point for India’s brand gurus.
The sisters, though, feel that the location, building and aesthetic are entirely in line with their consultancy’s brand positioning. “We stand for reinterpretation, a different perspective altogether where you look at something and see it in a different light,” says Austin.
They put this theory to the test by contrasting existing architectural elements of the 1,100 sq. ft space—an impressive set of four 17.4ft-high, 80-year-old cast-iron pillars—with modern furniture, iMacs and a Wi-Fi network. “We are very tactile, we like the old with something quirky. We do have technology, but it’s not cold,” says Sheikhawat.
The duo themselves sit cheek by jowl, on antique office chairs padded with cushions for comfort, so they can examine each other’s work without having to keep shifting their laptops. International modern design classics—Finnish Marimekko upholstery (“ordered off the website in 1m lots,” says Austin) and Swiss Vitra chairs—rest alongside colonial era discoveries from Mumbai’s antique markets in Jogeshwari and Chor Bazaar, such as period chairs, art deco lamps, a sewing machine that’s become an art object and a 5-litre milk bottle used as a flower vase. The result is a warm, sophisticated workplace that is contextual to its past, but travels beyond it.
Bringing it to life, though, was a painstaking effort. Although the office served as the printing press for commercial posters for the neighbourhood cinemas for many years, it had not been in use for nearly a decade. “It was in absolute shambles, with dead rats and eaten-up doors,“ says Chhabria, who took over the property in 2008, when she bought a stake in Oriental Litho Works, the organization that owns the premises. Elevating the pillars to their former heights entailed stripping off “8-10 layers of paint on each pillar”, says Eipe Cherian, a self-trained interior architect who assisted the restoration process in collaboration with Chhabria and the sisters. By unravelling extraneous layers, the original, solid skeleton emerged—Burma teak beams and steel girders that continue to bind the space.
An assortment of seating options in the loft area; a sewing machine bought from Mumbai’s antique market. Kedar Bhat / Mint
The market for design services is increasingly competitive in India, with several hundred independent design consultancies across the country. For a start-up such as Colette & Yvonne, with a fistful of employees (currently they have three), their generous space might seem a frivolous luxury, when many others choose to confine themselves to the spare bedroom.
But it is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that the workplace of a small and medium enterprise (SME) can be its most effective calling card, allowing it to differentiate itself and win clients. “It’s a magnet, our clients want to meet us here, not at their offices,” says Austin.
Also, the office’s extra legroom signals the duo’s long-term business focus and growth plans. “Clients see that we are serious about what we are doing and get a glimpse of our work, our personalities,” says Sheikhawat.
It is also a charming example of how heritage buildings can be modernized without large-scale redevelopment. Just like London’s East End and New York’s SoHo shed their gritty roots and evolved into creative districts, a tiny spot in SoBo (the popular tag for south Bombay) has reinvented itself. Whether this move will turn into a trend, attract fellow designers and result in a more diverse offering at the Super Plaza cinema still remains to be seen.
Landlord: Priti Chhabria of Oriental Litho Works
Tenants: Colette & Yvonne design & brand consultancy
Architect: Eipe Cherian, Chhabria and the sisters
Carpet area: 1,100 sq. ft
Cost of interior fitout: Rs8-10 lakh for furniture, furnishings, IT equipment and appliances
Renovation start date: May 2009
Completion: Work still on
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