Most people don’t think matchboxes speak, or bookcases have voices. But for a handful of graphic and product designers—“communication designers" as Divya Thakur, founder of Design Temple, puts it—products speak loud and clear. And, to them, designing everyday functional products has become an exploration in the language of “Indian-ness".

“(India has) been isolated for so many years," says Thakur. “We had our own identity; we were fine with where we were. It’s only when you open yourself up to the world then you think about what defines India."

Stylish slumber: Doshi Levien’s range of charpoys for Italian design house Moroso. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

Designer Krsna Mehta, a Mumbai native, along with Sangita Jindal, first celebrated his city in the much-praised furniture line the “Bombay Project" at home decor chain Good Earth in 2006.

The two designers used old black-and-white photographs of the “Queen’s Necklace" (Marine Drive), men selling tiffins, and women in saris on the beach, and overlaid them on lamps, pillows and coat racks. The result was a funky homage to the city.

“This country should be our first (source of) inspiration," Mehta says. “In fact, Western designers interpret the East better, and I was getting fed up of that. It’s about time we get our act together and create more products that celebrate India. I love this country and I will never be tired of being inspired by it."

Over the past year, a fleet of designers have followed suit. Now coffee mugs celebrate the auto-rickshaw. A well-known Italian furniture design house touts top-end charpoys (cots). Clocks tell the time in Urdu. Coasters shout out famous Bollywood quotes. And pillows boast the deeds of freedom fighters.

Call it home-grown kitsch or sentimental art, but a new sensibility which celebrates local icons has now taken root in product designing.

Mumbai speaks

Good Earth, with a presence in Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore, has been supporting these designs, be it Thakur’s first line of products or Mehta’s Bombay Project, for a couple of years now. Now, even in-house designers at such stores have begun to capitalize on kitsch. Tara Lal, one of the designers at Good Earth, has set up a line dedicated to Bollywood classic stories and quotes, with images of actor Madhuri Dixit on pillowcases and quotes from Sholay on coasters.

And the movement has just grown bigger. It is not just an attempt to celebrate but also honour the designers’ home turf.

A few days after last month’s terror attack on Mumbai, The Doers launched a T-shirt, “Speak Mumbai Speak", to let people declare their feelings of rage, hurt, horror and courage. A previous tragedy, the serial blasts on Mumbai’s local trains in July 2006, convinced Neil Dantas that he needed to use his National Institute of Design education to do more than just create furniture. With a bunch of like-minded friends, he formed The Doers, a collective of creative people from varied professions. “We like to talk about issues that surround us today via our creativity and naughtiness," says Dantas. The Taj Mahal, AIDS and alcoholism are other themes in their work. The group also created a clock with Urdu numbering, read anti-clockwise just as the script is read right to left.

Meanwhile, in early November, Krsna Mehta launched a more affordable line of products, aimed at a younger audience, at The Bombay Store in Mumbai. Among other products, agarbattis (incense sticks), bags, candles, coasters and cushions celebrate Mumbai while taking a gentle dig at the city.

Mehta targeted a younger audience with his second line because “the idea is to make the youth of this city and our country interested in it. Many students have no love left for this city (Mumbai). I wanted to revive that in a fun way through product design."

The first words

Thakur says the trend to use Indian imagery started with fashion designers, since they were the first to encounter a global audience that wanted to know what India was all about. “Is it royal India? Which is a cliché. Is it fakirs and sages? That’s another cliché. So what defines us?" asks Thakur.

Perhaps the answer lies in what fashion designer Manish Arora does with his clothes—mixing contemporary styling with everyday Indian imagery. Arora started using kitsch-style images on his clothing about five years ago and has since become closely associated with the celebration of iconic Indian metaphors, from his Ambassador car to the religious figures on his clothes. He says in India “you just have to look around our cities and villages and you will come across something you can term kitsch". From the plastic toys sold on the road, images of gods, beautifully decorated rickshaws,1980s posters of actresses to kites—India has so much to offer.

Last year, in the side alley of one of New Delhi’s hottest new malls, Select Citywalk, Saket, a small clothing and home accessory store, Play Clan, opened with little fanfare. The directors of Citywalk were sceptical that the store belonged in the same mall as Tommy Hilfiger and Aldo. Himanshu Dogra, director, The Ilum Design Project and Play Clan, says the mall’s managers finally decided to take a chance on something new, and the store immediately struck a chord with the urban youth.

The project sprang from the restlessness of its 25-member team, which grew tired of only working for other people. They wanted “their own playground" to create their own artwork: T-shirts mocking the cows holding up traffic; paintings celebrating the “Auto Risk Shahs" and the Ambassador taxis; pillows and lampshades displaying colourful maps of Connaught Place.

At Play Clan, the work is a mixture of hip-hop, manga comics, pop art and India. Dogra says the group’s work will help Indians appreciate the “cool" factor of their country. People who see the Jama Masjid every day forget to look at its beauty. But using it to decorate a pillowcase reminds people that it is something worthy of recognition.

“Illustrations and art have the power to change the way you’ve been seeing things," Dogra says. Graphic designers, by and large, are comfortable with a reliance on history and on popular conceptions—or “street talk", as Dogra calls it—while trying to create products the youth will respond to. The idea, he says, is usually to create playful concepts based on the humour in Indian clichés.

Branding India

Rabia Gupta, founder of RGD Design, started a product line called “Taxi Taxi" based on the Mumbai taxi. She says that a taxi reflects the personal style of the owner, and designers are inspired, as it is a “cue to the assimilative nature of our culture and our people". Gupta says she is constantly studying the world around her. Currently, her group is studying the graphics on local packaging from small kirana (grocery) shops and markets. “We pick up these images and then find it easier than others to transpose them effectively around us."

Yousuf Saeed, a documentary film-maker and a collector of popular art, says that the interest in kitsch has definitely grown over the past few years. He thinks that designers using imagery from the street will preserve this form of art and push the intellectual elite into paying attention to it finally. He sees it as something that stems from the economic hierarchy in the country. “The division between the poor and the rich is extremely huge, so whatever the poor use, it’s considered an exotica for the rich."

Saeed recently helped create a foundation, Tasveer Ghar, which is a digital archive that will work towards preserving popular art in India.

London-based graphic design company Doshi Levien had spent its career creating brand experiences for companies such as Intel, Nokia and Italian furniture design company Moroso. Last year, the Italian design house offered it a chance to create its own branded line of furniture. The husband-and-wife team behind Doshi Levien—Jonathan Levien and Nipa Doshi—came up with a high-end charpoy range. The fabrics, handmade in India, contrast beautifully with the polished black Italian metal of the legs. After the success of the charpoys, Doshi turned to Mughal miniatures for inspiration and a line of pillows and a seating collection called My Beautiful Backside was developed.

In an email response to the question why it has taken so long for designers in the country to find an Indian voice, Doshi writes: “This is a complicated, but essential question. To simply put this, I would say, that as we have moved out of the shadow of our colonial history, and have grown as a nation, now we have a great need to redefine our identity. In this pursuit, we are all finding our ‘Indian-ness’."