I feed off the atmosphere in the studio: Asha Sairam

Award-winning designer Asha Sairam on some of her work habits and the studio being like a living library of materials

Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran
First Published7 May 2024
Asha Sairam, 36, of Studio Lotus.
Asha Sairam, 36, of Studio Lotus.(Courtesy Studio Lotus)

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Asha Sairam, 36, walked into her career in design rather than planned it. A Principal at the award-winning design practice Studio Lotus in New Delhi, Sairam has worked on a clutch of acclaimed projects including designing the interiors of Masti Cocktails & Cuisine, a restaurant in Jumeirah, Dubai, and lifestyle store Jaypore in Bengaluru. But in 2007, when Sairam was a student of communication design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Delhi, working in design didn’t figure in her plans.

“I was working a lot in graphic design at the time and I was just feeling limited by the two-dimensional nature of what I was doing,” she recalls. It was a time when store retail experiences were undergoing a shift and so, egged by curiosity, Sairam chose to do her research paper on experiential design and retail space. It would be her research that would lead her to Studio Lotus. “I had come across two projects that they’d done. One was Levi’s Rivet, an experiential concept boutique that they’d done in Bengaluru, which was super cutting edge for its time. The other was the stores they’d designed for Xylys, the niche watch brand by Titan. They had completely reimagined the retail experience for the brand, and I tracked them down because I wanted to do my internship with them,” says Sairam. Founded in 2002 by Ambrish Arora, Ankur Choksi and Sidhartha Talwar, Studio Lotus in the past two decades has collected a number of accolades including the DOMUS Italia Award for Restoration and Adaptive Reuse, the Prix Versailles Special Prize for Restaurant Interiors and Gold Medal in Conservation by The Indian Institute of Architects.

After an internship that saw her willingly extend her term from six weeks to three months, Sairam formally joined Studio Lotus in 2010. Today, Sairam leads the practice’s Hospitality Interior Design vertical and has emerged as a respected voice in the global design space. She was listed among Forbes’ Top 30 under 45 most impactful designers in 2023, and was a 40 under 40 honouree at Perspective Global Design Awards 2019.

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Talking to Mint from the studio in Lado Sarai, Delhi, Sairam answers questions about her workspace, and how the energy of the space feeds her creativity.

Describe your current workspace.

The thing is we, the five Principals of Studio Lotus, don’t actually have a dedicated workspace because a lot of our time is spent working directly with the teams. So, for me, the whole office is like my workspace. At some point or the other, I have worked out of every single corner of the office, I have even taken Zoom calls from the restroom (laughs).

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

I really enjoy going into the workspace and I spend more time here than at home. It’s a really nice space to be in because it’s always flooded with light. And the way it’s designed, you are constantly connected with the outdoors. For me, it’s literally the space where I can try things out like move furniture, reconfigure designs, and the best part is I don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. I feed of the atmosphere in the studio.

The interiors of Masti Cocktails & Cuisine, Dubai, by Asha Sairam.

What’s the one thing that’s always been at your workspace?

The collection of books in our library. It seems like a very out of fashion thing now but I’m one of those old fogies who still goes and opens books for ideas. When I started working here, we didn’t have Pinterest or Instagram, and the internet was not the rich source that it is today. We used to rely a lot on books and we had a small collection, which has grown since then, because we have all added to the collection. It’s heartening to see the number of Indian resources that have been added which focus on Indian design, crafts and textiles.

Also read: Red River by Somnath Batabyal: The past is alive, and not a foreign country

Talking about interior designing, what elements would you say help bring life to a space?

Without going into the specifics of what kind of space it is (a restaurant, office or a store), one element which is central to any space (for me) is efficient planning. I am talking in terms of designing a space based, not on how Instagrammable it should be, but rather on how you think human bodies will move through it. It’s a user-centred approach where you are thinking, in physical terms, about how, say, a family of four with a child and a nanny would navigate and interact with the space. Another thing that people often underestimate is the impact of lighting. Even the simplest (room) design can look elevated with quality lighting. I think lighting doesn’t get quite the credit that it deserves.

What does the wall of your workspace look like?

As the entire office is my workspace, it’s not just one wall that I can talk about. It’s all the walls! If you were to walk through the office, rummage through our shelves, desks and walls, you’ll begin to collate an entire collage of samples, materials, pictures and prototypes of all our projects that are happening simultaneously. The whole studio, in that sense, looks like a living, growing library of materials, samples and images.

How do you overcome a creative problem or block?

I tend to leave the problem alone. I have learned over the years that constantly stressing about a problem does not help me. Instead, I have learned to trust the process, that as and when something has to solve itself—whether in my mind, or on paper—it will happen. But when I am on a tight deadline, I pull in as many people as I can for some brainstorming.

Also read: ‘Chandayan’: A translation of an epic proportion

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