Every other week a new design store opens in a major metropolis in the country. In every direction, buildings are coming up, hotels are being refurbished, and homes are being renovated. In the mad rush of design and architecture over the past few years, taste, beauty and urban planning have often fallen by the wayside. Here are the seven worst mistakes we’re making as we rebuild India.
SLOTH: COPYCAT DESIGN
Walk into any recently reopened design store on Delhi’s Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road or stroll through the shops in Mumbai’s Raghuvanshi Mills, and you’ll feel as if you’re trapped in a maze of mirrors: Every display looks the same. Didn’t you just see that gold pillow, decorated with sequins, sitting on a beige couch? Wasn’t that mahogany coffee table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a dragonfly design, in the last shop?
Designers say the customers take photos of products they like on their cellphones, and then take them to other stores asking for the same design. But even this does not account for the near-identical furniture displayed in different stores.
Most furniture stores have failed to establish any personality — they all meld into a blur of high-priced, straight-lined, contemporary looks that fail to stand apart, or surprise.
The worst instance of this lazy design behaviour is in evidence when actual innovative design is stolen. Many Indian stores, claiming the look as their own, have shamelessly ripped off Delhi-based designer Alex Davis’ highly lauded line of steel home accessories ‘My Lazy Garden’, and teardrop-shaped glass light fixtures from Klove, another Delhi-based design store. This occurs often with imported furniture, as there is little threat of retribution, thanks to lax government controls. The iconic Barcelona chair and Le Corbusier’s chaise lounge pop up countless times in stores. Store managers will say its their design — even though the looks have been around for decades.
WRATH: NO REGARD FOR URBAN PLANNING
Nothing causes more anger in designers and architects than the two words:
Gurgaon malls. In the absence of central urban planning, developers took over farmland to meet the demands of a newly buying public. And instead of just one or two malls, Gurgaon is now a sea of billboards, flashing lights and odd-shaped, futuristic-looking malls. How many malls does a city really need?
Mall madness: Gurgaon malls, with their billboard clusters, went from strange to downright ugly.Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint.
But Gurgaon is by no means the only sinner. Every Indian city seems to be in a mad competition to build as many malls as possible, without a thought to proper planning or design — they end up as eyesores.
GLUTTONY: THE GREAT COLONIAL/GREEK/TUSCAN/BAROQUE RIP-OFF
Most showrooms today have stuff you wouldn’t know what to do with: Huge mahogany desks suitable for Napoleon, glass coffee tables perched on an elephant’s head, and clocks made into a golden chariot driven by Apollo. The look may have been suitable when they were designing the Palace of Versailles, but nowadays, it comes across as ostentatious, overblown and antiquated. This look should be celebrated in a museum, not in homes.
And the look isn’t restricted to furniture design. Architect Gautam Bhatia has dubbed the aped-look in buildings “Punjabi baroque”. It’s a slapdash mix of Indian design with Greek, Corinthian and Elizabethan features, with no smooth segue. This look isn’t just an assault on the senses — as architect Manit Rastogi says, using design elements not suitable for the climate actually damages the environment. For example, architects could use traditional methods to control a building’s temperature, but they rely on artificial cooling systems, adding huge costs to a project.
GREED: PRICING THROUGH THE ROOF
If you had Rs1.35 lakh lying around, would you feel like splurging the money on a lamp? Going by the prices at design stores, it seems more than a few people would answer “yes”. Prices of most things are skyrocketing, but
nowhere more so than at home furnishing stores — Rs3 lakh for a bed here, Rs1.5 lakh for a chair there, and Rs50,000 on a vase somewhere else. Brian DeMura, co-founder of the design store Basix, says that manufacturing in India is not as inexpensive as it is made out to be. But, he says, stores still charge far too high a price for locally produced goods. He says stores exploit the fact that customers are now willing to pay high prices for furniture. Companies also add hidden cost to the products, by cutting corners when it comes to manufacturing. Cheap materials and outsourced carpenters mean that even if a product has a great design, it’s still not worth the final sticker price.
Antique goods: Old furniture sourced from homes around the country is marked up tremendously and resold as ‘ethnic chic’. Photograph: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Another instance of greed occurs not with new products, but with historical products. Shops in Mumbai’s Chor Bazar and Delhi’s Hauz Khas village employ people to scour the country for “ethnic chic” pieces — old Bollywood posters, Rajasthani doorways, or kitschy tin cans. These pieces, bought for next-to-nothing, are sold as antique pieces for thousands of rupees in stores.
ENVY: TAKING FROM THE WEST
Consider this: Two of the top-selling furniture designers in India are Italian — Cavalli and Fendi. Almost every store stocks Murano lights. Even home-grown design stores, such as Good Earth, feel the need to offer an international furniture section. The reason? Designers say that customers want to buy something they’ve seen somewhere else — and, usually, that somewhere else is in an international design magazine. There is an extremely small number of designers who source locally, design traditionally, and use the immense wellspring of India for inspiration. And while some designers have begun working with local artisans, they are few and far between.
The oddest example is in the sourcing of base material. Homeowners will spend thousands of rupees importing fine Italian marble, or the gold for gold leaf, when the Indian counterpart is usually of a higher quality.
LUST: THE JEWELLED, OTT LOOK
Indian design has always been one of excess but these days, it seems to take its cues from a French brothel, rather than a maharaja’s palace. Mirrors, jewels, sequins and crystals bedeck every possible surface. India has never been known for a minimalist approach to aesthetics, nor need it be. But the glitz, added to a lot of furniture, just seems to be unsubstantial ornamentation that masks inexpensive hardware and sacrifices functionality, rather than a thought-out design element. India, like most of the design world, wants to move away from the Dutch- and Japanese-influenced minimalism that has dominated the scene for so many years. But designers here seem to be going berserk with the new-found freedom to embellish. Bling is back, but not in a good way.
PRIDE: NO RESPECT FOR COMMUNITY SPACE
Try strolling through any market in Delhi. You won’t get very far. Each store
builds and maintains part of the sidewalk in front of the store, but goes no further. To get from one store to the next, you have to climb down stairs, manoeuvre around gutters or jump over potholes. It doesn’t encourage a day out shopping, and greatly reduces footfalls. Stores have to rely on repeat visitors, since they are not conducive to a person wandering in.
Back alley: Khan Market’s a mess as far as access goes. Photograph: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Likewise, the public areas of shopping centres have no community support and pay the price in their appearance. Garden maintenance, rather than being a market-wide project, has one sponsoring store that can spend as much, or as little, as it wants on the flowers, benches and gates. This results in rusted gates jagged with barbed wire, wilted plants and little seating area. Roads and parking lots are also in a bad shape because of lack of community response. One example of this is Khan Market, currently the single most expensive piece of real estate in India. Despite the market being a hot spot for top design stores, it still looks like a dingy alley. The cobblestones are broken; there are no public trash cans, so shoppers have to avoid the rubble and wrappers as they make their way from one high-end shop to the next; and the parking lot is a mess. A coalition of stores needs to push for an overhaul of the public space. There’s something to be said about individuality, but in a market that individuality does not need to extend all the way to the street.