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The ergonomic aesthete

The ergonomic aesthete
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First Published: Sun, Apr 11 2010. 09 29 PM IST

(left) A tyre-shaped clock from Cannes that reminds Harsh Goenka of Ceat. An installation art piece in Goenka’s office.
(left) A tyre-shaped clock from Cannes that reminds Harsh Goenka of Ceat. An installation art piece in Goenka’s office.
Updated: Sun, Apr 11 2010. 09 29 PM IST
Back in 2004, I inspected a number of chairmen and CEO offices in Mumbai with a colleague, a furniture designer. Only one in our sample had invested in immaculate desks with trademark Italian industrial craftsmanship— most seemed content with the friendly neighbourhood carpenter. It was located on the fifth floor of Ceat Mahal, the Mumbai headquarters of the Rs15,000 crore RPG Enterprises, a conglomerate with interests in fields as varied as music, power and tyres.
(left) A tyre-shaped clock from Cannes that reminds Harsh Goenka of Ceat. An installation art piece in Goenka’s office.
Six years later, RPG group chairman Harsh Goenka’s office hasn’t aged. This is consistent for someone who is a dedicated art collector and—what is less well known—a disciple of aesthetics, its natural corollary.
At first glance, the office has just the requisite trimmings of a CEO’s life: a well-lined bookcase behind a bare presidential desk, coordinated beige furnishings and wooden walls, a six-seater meeting table, a small alcove for visitors, generous natural light and a hushed atmosphere. A deeper study, however, reveals the occupant’s keen eye for detail.
Private gallery
The meeting table is crafted from leather, treated to preserve its texture.
Each artefact has been chosen for its personal resonance—a pyramidal glass sculpture by a British artist (“See its texture”, Goenka tells me with a curator’s zeal), a tyre-shaped clock from Cannes that reminded him of Ceat, Salvador Dali’s signature time sculpture, and a painting by his daughter. “I wanted a space with positive energy, a reason to look forward to coming to work and not leaving earlier,” Goenka says.
From his desk, Goenka faces a long Akbar Padamsee painting in two parts, “one aggressive and fiery, the other more serene”. A terrace garden runs along one length of the office, with a mass of foliage kept deliberately “raw” to engulf the viewer, and a waterfall, whose meditative sound he likes as “it is both there and not there”.
Working well
Aparna Piramal Raje
Given an 11-hour workday on average, with most of the day’s meetings conducted in his office, Goenka’s work environment is deliberately designed to promote mental and physical well-being.
A concealed niche holds an ivory Venkateswara idol, not immediately obvious to visitors, as he prefers privacy on religious matters.
Divine intervention was apparent in the aftermath of the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai, he believes. The glass window in his office shattered and one shard pierced his office chair—but Goenka was out of the office. The windows are now shatter-proof.
Glass panels separate the visitor’s alcove from the main room, inserted at the insistence of a Vaastu-following friend to enhance the office’s directional alignment.
Another modification to promote health is more personalized. Grappling with chronic back pain, Goenka wanted an unobtrusive space where he could stand and work. The solution was a hinged wooden panel that doubles up as work surface and flips back to being a design element in the wall when not in use. He also uses an ergonomic Wilkhahn office chair—the leading German brand was recommended by a friend who called it “the Rolls-Royce of office chairs”.
Stamp of attachment
(Top) Goenka grapples with chronic back pain and often needs to stand and work. This hinged wooden panel serves as a table. (Middle) A terrace garden runs along one length of his office. (Above) Harsh Goenka’s desk was designed and manufactured in Italy
Goenka’s emotional attachment to his space and his aesthetic sensibility extends to the building. Built in 1974 by Angela Tealdo, Ceat’s former managing director, the salmon-pink, wedge-shaped structure continues to be a local landmark. Tealdo was his mentor, says Goenka, “an Italian with an Indian heart, whose vision was to make a Hawa Mahal”. He remembers admiring Ceat Mahal from afar, describing RPG’s acquisition of the company and the building as “a proud day, to be able to walk into it and consider it our own”.
Goenka’s personal stewardship of the property is on display from the parking area upwards, where an eclectic compilation of installation art greets visitors. Paintings are scattered throughout the building. The fifth-floor suite of offices, for senior family members only, serves as a surrogate museum. White marble flooring and seating in the foyer form a neutral canvas where large paintings by Indian masters, such as Baiju Parthan and Sakti Burman, have been strategically placed alongside more experimental pieces, such as a contemporary tapestry by Lavanya Mani.
Despite clearly knowing the pulse of the art world, Goenka maintains that art and management are entirely different disciplines. New theory suggests, however, that they can be intertwined.
Dan Pink, author of the widely acclaimed A Whole New Mind, predicts that right-brain aptitudes, which include sensitivity to aesthetics, will increasingly determine “who soars and who stumbles”. Another contemporary thinker, Marty Neumeier, advocates the “aesthetics of management”, writing that “the same principles that activate other forms of art will soon be essential to the art of management”, in his thought-provoking book The Designful Company.
For a corporate chairman who is the custodian of two of the nation’s largest artistic collections—in music and in brushstrokes—nothing could be more apt.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, will meet heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and their working styles.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Apr 11 2010. 09 29 PM IST