When Rajesh Dahiya got his first major design project, he did not own a workspace. This was a problem. His client, iconic US jeans makers Levi Strauss & Co., while adventurous in its decision to hire a young, maverick designer, would draw the line at a “designer working from home”.
“They would call and say, ‘When can we come and see the studio?’” Rajesh says. “And I would be panicking.”
He quickly roped in friends for the project, and his girlfriend Mohor, a National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, graduate, like the others in the group, came on to curate the content. Another NID friend vacated part of his studio for the group.
“Whatever money we had, we spent on buying mugs and curtains,” says Mohor, now Rajesh’s wife. “And we had a bottle of wine. That’s how we welcomed the Levi’s guys.”
The project itself was unusual and new for India—an interactive “museum” store—part retail space, part installation art, including a 34ft wall with a motion-sensor video screen that chronicled the more than 100 years of Levi’s’ past. It was the first time design and electronics met in a retail space, and it set the pattern for Rajesh and Mohor’s own niche in design.
“No one was looking at retail spaces in that way at that time,” Rajesh says, “so we got lucky. Immediately after that we got a similar project with Titan.”
Seven years down the line, Rajesh and Mohor have shaped that hasty start into one of the finest multidisciplinary studios in India, called CoDesign, handling branding, design and communication for clients as diverse as Coca-Cola, Bacardi, Tata Consultancy Services and Kumaon Grameen Udyog.
CoDesign, a group of nine designers, is not just content to work on commissioned projects. It is deeply enmeshed in the rapidly developing scene of young, urban artists, and has been organizing a design, art, music and food festival called UnBox in Delhi since 2011. This year, they produced a book on Indian design called Dekho, where conversations with designers meld with beautiful illustrations and graphics in an almost graphic-novel format. Dekho, which features pioneering Indian work, like the late Raghunath K. Joshi’s Deshanagari project on typesetting in Indian languages based on phonetic quality, has been nominated for the London Design Museum’s prestigious Designs of the Year 2013 award in the graphics category, one of the top global prizes in the field.
“When people from outside India talk of Indian design, it’s all about Bollywood and kitsch and autorickshaw art,” Rajesh says. “It’s hugely pissing off.”
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Mohor: At the beginning of a project, both of us are involved in setting down the broad context and constraints for the work.... Then it’s up to the individual team members to take it forward with their own unique approach."
“The choice of people in this book are those who are designing truly in response to specific and interesting Indian issues,” Mohor says.
Fuelled by a love for their work and the high of creativity, Rajesh and Mohor don’t see any need to define the lines between their personal and professional relationships. For them, working together comes naturally.
“People tell us why don’t you take time off, why aren’t you going out for New Year’s,” Rajesh says, “but this is what we like doing.”
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Rajesh likes to focus more on the visual aspect, as well as interactive ideas; Mohor creates and curates content"
An ideal morning for Mohor is waking up with a good idea and thrashing it out with Rajesh over breakfast. A perfect evening is one that has followed a creatively productive day.
“The work is just so interesting for us that it’s like we are on a 24-hour break,” Rajesh says. “I laugh at people who think that going to Goa is suddenly going to make their life better.
“This is Goa,” he says, sitting next to Mohor in the bright winter sun at their studio. “We are on the beach right now.”
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Their shared aesthetic sensibilities mean serious disagreements are uncommon."
Time is not an issue for them. They have a six-month-old baby, and two dogs (“chief inspiration officers” at the studio), but everything is fluid and open.
“I came back to work when our baby was three weeks old,” Mohor says. “We keep our schedules flexible, and we like what we do, so everything falls into place.”
The beginning of their romance, expectedly, also revolved around design. Mohor was a student at NID, and had opted for a graphic design course taught by Rajesh in 2001. She missed most of the course because of jaundice, and then Rajesh left for Italy for further studies. Mohor had to correspond with him over email to finish the course. That’s when their relationship began.
"DO NOT OPEN: Mohor: Junk food. I love it, and Rajesh is a health freak."
How about an early romance story?
“Dahiya, you say it,” Mohor says, “Sometimes I’m not very appropriate.”
“Romance story? Nah…”
But here it is: Not long after Rajesh came back from Italy and settled in Delhi, Mohor graduated from NID and was moving back to Delhi as well. Rajesh was supposed to pick her up at the station. Instead, he thought he would surprise her by going to Ajmer, where her train made a stop at 2 in the morning. Except that when he got on the train and went to surprise her, he woke up the wrong girl. Confusion ensued, and Rajesh was lucky to get off lightly. Then he went to the right berth.
“But I was sleeping,” Mohor says, “and I didn’t have my glasses on, so for about 5 long seconds I couldn’t tell who it was doing this strange thing in the middle of the night.”
“The surprise turned into an extended slow-mo sequence,” Rajesh says. “Then the ticket checker came and said, ‘Oh, you have tickets for different coaches, you go back to your coach.’”
“It was a strange night,” Mohor says.