Lighting The Way Ahead

Atul Johri’s ideas, whether for craft design or architecture, are all rooted in tradition but contemporary in form

How did your relationship with design develop?

I was studying for my B.A. at Lucknow Christian College and while I was there I decided to pursue my career in design at the same time. I was very clear I did not want to go to any design institute to learn the art of design but would rather learn from the masters of the crafts. I moved to Delhi and got a chance to work on an architecture project – it was a very big individual residential project and that’s where I learnt the art of designing spaces brick by brick and exploring the possibilities of materials and its applications. While working on this I realized that lighting, which is the key element of designing any space, is the most neglected aspect in our architectural practices. I started working on lights during my free time and later it became the signature of my work.

Tell us about Atul Johri Designs and Studio Tulsi Farm.

I braved the ire of my family to set up Atul Johri Designs, of which I am the principal designer. I knew design was where I belonged. I moved to Channapatna, which is 60 km from Bangalore, because I wanted to be surrounded by nature, and live away from urban chaos to work and create meaningful products for modern living. At the same time I wanted to provide opportunities for talented artisans to earn a better living without migrating to big cities for odd jobs. Since I wanted to live close to the community of artisans I designed and built Tulsi Farm at Channapatna. The farm is designed in a way that fans are not required in summer and we don’t use artificial energy or lights during the day. Every drop of rain water is collected and even kitchen and bathroom shower water is diverted to plants around the house to reduce water wastage.

What kind of projects do you undertake?

It’s always good to work on a concept that helps all the elements of design come together and create a beautiful space or a series of products to complement any space. I have an absolutely hands-on approach and believe in using the natural elements around me while designing products and spaces. I have worked on a variety of projects, ranging from residential architecture projects to craft oriented projects. I have been involved with a research institute to enhance the quality of banana fiber paper developed for the first time in South East Asia. I have designed spaces ranging from high street fashion stores to penthouses and farm houses.

What types of products do you create?

My approach to designing any product or space has always been to have absolute utility and simplicity without complicating its functionality. Lifestyle products which we all need for modern living and lighting have always fascinated me; they are among the most beautiful things to design and complement the most powerful element – darkness. I design lights, tableware, vases, candles and even fashion items. I make sure that my designs are less dependent on artificial resources – there is insignificant use of synthetic materials.

Do you have a design philosophy?

My design philosophy was very simple and even today it hasn’t changed: Never think of a design which already has a reference. Design something that you believe in and which has no point of reference. This helps to have a fresh approach; otherwise it restricts you to work within the framework of previous references. Though nothing is original, one always draws inspiration from nature and most of the brilliant designs happen by accident.

Besides this, if we really want to bring a change in design then we have to integrate our rich crafts into modern living. The way forward to revive or save our rich craft practices is to maintain a balance between traditional skills and a contemporary feel. We need to design products with a human touch; the lacquering techniques in Channapatna are so special that nowhere in the world can any machine create the tonal gradations and the beauty of these handmade products. Each one is different from the previous one. The most important lesson in design is not where to start but where to stop!

What kind of research is involved in your art form?

My philosophy is to understand the nature of the material in terms of its weakness or limitations first and then to know its strengths. If we start the process of design without knowing the basic facts, it restricts us in exploring the possibilities. I also believe one must not have a reference for the design because that also limits you within a framework. Always have a fresh approach and find your way to achieve your conceived design form. In the case of handmade products, always make sure that your design has the ability to go beyond what machines can give you.

Why do you think it is important to revive traditional crafts?

Today we live in a global village where everything is so homogeneous. Our approach should be country centric but the feel or outcome should be truly global – that’s the only way forward. India being culturally so rich and diverse works to our advantage; different craft pockets have a variety of skills and traditional practices. If we put our energy into strengthening the villages where these crafts have flourished for centuries or decades, we can reduce the pressure of migration to big cities. By doing this we are not only creating an environment for economic development but also ensuring that the tourism industry can thrive simultaneously. We need to understand that each master craftsman is like an institution. If we don’t wake up to encourage them now then everything will be ‘Made in China’ – without any soul or history.

What are the challenges of working with craftsmen/artisans?

An honest approach is to give them the same respect that we expect for ourselves; involve them in the entire design process so they get to understand the final outcome and are not treated only as the production team. Their knowledge and our understanding of market requirements can create a contemporary line without losing the traditional essence. The biggest challenges are creating the discipline to deliver at a stipulated time, and ensure quality control. I have always told them to take pride in what they do. I want them to understand that the existence of designers depends on them and their skills – this has really helped to bring back their confidence.

What is the scope of folk art in a technically advancing world?

It is more significant than ever before because we are all going through an industrial revolution driven by cutting edge technology. But what we need to understand is that these craft or folk practices are the eternal elements in our social fabric. For instance, why do we need to practice yoga today? The answer is to give us comfort and strength in our hectic lifestyle. Can it ever be replaced by technology? Never! The same applies to our crafts and traditional practices; they just give different dimensions to any space or our lifestyle.

Where do you see contemporary craft in India heading?

Promoting contemporary craft is the only way to create opportunities for rural folk to earn a better living without leaving their doorstep. The responsibility is in our hands as creative people, designers or institutions. We must understand that this generation doesn’t have patience. We all want change and the shelf life of everything is very short, so we need to keep upgrading our designs from time to time to cater to the fast growing aspirations of millions.

What are your plans for the future?

We need to respect our natural resources; otherwise the next generation will not even have a chance to experience all that India has in abundance. I want to create a 100% self sustainable environment for us and our community of artisans to develop an extensive line of products for the fast growing design and architectural industry.

Twelve years ago I realized that the future is in our crafts and that’s why I decided to come and settle in one rolex replica of the most beautiful craft pockets of India. I have never ever felt that it was a hasty decision. One needs to have a long term perspective of how you want to live your life. My decision has given a new meaning to my life and to this craft which wasn’t given the respect it always deserved. I started a beautiful journey 12 years ago, and there are still miles to go…

Article from Design India