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

(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.

Reinterpreting space

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.

An assortment of seating options in the loft area; a sewing machine bought from Mumbai’s antique market. Kedar Bhat / Mint

Calling card

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.


Fact File

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

Location: Mumbai

Renovation start date: May 2009

Completion: Work still on

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com