Showcase 10 Apr 2017

Design Meets Art at Architect Rooshad Shroff’s Solo Show 15,556

Well-known architect Rooshad Shroff came to India five years back, after spending about a decade abroad. To mark these five years and his love for the unique craftsmanship in India, he launched his first solo exhibit 15,556 at Pundole Art Gallery in Delhi this year. The exhibition would travel to Mumbai in June. The title ‘15,556’ refers to the man-hours devoted to the making of the entire collection that includes chairs, table, benches, and lighting. The three techniques that have been used in the creation include wood embroidery, marble carving and colour sanding. We had a conversation with Shroff about the exhibition and the three techniques in particular. Edited excerpts below.

When and how did the idea to do this exhibition really start?

The exhibition was not really to launch a new collection. It was about putting together the work I have been doing since the last five years as a practice in India. When I first moved here, I started working with furniture pieces. It almost became a research tool for me to investigate different types of crafts and materials.

During the ten years that I was away, there was a lot of focus on technology and digital fabrication techniques which I was quite taken in by. However, when I came back to India, I realised that there is something quite unique here – the handmade aspect. We have an easy access to crafts and skills, and it’s relatively affordable to make prototypes and do research. I thought that will be a great database to tap into and that really became the starting point of working towards the handmade.

The investigation started with just looking at isolated crafts like carpentry, embroidery, traditional joinery methods where I could work without any metal fasteners, screws, etc. I also started putting seemingly different crafts together, like carpentry and embroidery for example. The idea was to create the architectural notion of skin and structure in furniture. Like the upholstery is not something that would be applied onto a chair but something that would be an integral part of it, woven within it. I also wanted to push the technical knowhow and expertise of the craftsmen to make the work contemporary.

The idea of the exhibition came about 8-9 months before we launched it. Some of the pieces in the exhibition are new and some are old which we have re-looked at. I wanted to put out the knowhow in a way that people can see and touch, taking it to the next level.

What were some of the biggest challenges during the production process for the marble carving technique? 

India has a great legacy and lineage of marble carving, from architecture to small-scale objects. The craftsmen I have worked with have been making these marble murtis (sculptures) daily and for generations. While their knowhow is amazing, they don’t do anything beyond what they have been trained to do in terms of experimentation and visual language. So this was really the challenge – to work with these skilled workers and see how far we can go. Initially I thought it would be simple, but there were so many craftsmen who didn’t want to touch the pieces because of fears like what if the piece breaks or would they be paid if there is an issue with the piece, etc. It was really a challenge to make them overcome the fear of failure. However, once we crossed that barrier, we got quite comfortable in exploring their capabilities further.

I started with some side tables which involved large monolith marbles that were scooped out in different ways. And then we pushed techniques slightly further  by doing these light-bulbs where a chunk of marble is hollowed out in a singular block and has delicate carving patterns on it with a light source inside them.

Please tell us a bit more about the Colour Sanding technique.

Interestingly, it’s because of Asian Paints that this technique was developed in the first place. About 2-3 years ago, Asian Paints did a collaboration with Architectural Digest (Reinvent) where it shortlisted designers to come up with a piece using any of their finishes. At that point I was working with wood, my primary material, and I thought it would be crazy if I tried to cover an entire piece of wood in paint. So I started thinking what if I layer the table with 8-10 shades of different colour, hand sand them and peel them down, and then reveal all the colours. It would also add a different dynamic to the piece. I really enjoyed that technique. After that I did some pieces at the NGMA (National Gallery of Modern Art) in Mumbai, also supported by Asian Paints.

Now I have taken the technique a bit further with pieces for this exhibition. Sanding becomes the most important part of these pieces, because depending on how you sand, you reveal the different colours. It’s really like the act of painting itself. It’s very organic. Every time I sand, I change things around. With this technique, no two pieces can ever be identical because of the way of sanding and its intensity. This allows absolute customization in a way. All the pieces also have a high gloss lacquer on them.

Embroidery on wood is something that you have a global patent for. What are the kind of products and innovations we can expect to see in the future under this particular technique?

I am not too sure on how I am planning on taking this further. Right now, I am just using it in different kinds of furniture pieces. It has been appropriated as a wall installation. You can see this at the Christian Louboutin store in Mumbai, at Jaipur Modern in Jaipur, and at a recent project I did in Abu Dhabi. So there are translations of this technique; it could be applied on the wall or on furniture. Though I think I still prefer it in its purest form, as the idea of upholstery on furniture. I don’t want it as just ornamentation.

With this exhibition you have tried to blur the lines between design and art. How far do you think you have achieved this? What were some of the reactions you got from visitors during the exhibition?

The idea of a design gallery is very prominent everywhere else but in India. It’s actually quite sad that we don’t have any design galleries. This is one of the main reasons why I was so conscious about doing it through an art gallery. The idea is not just to show furniture as a piece of art but also to showcase design. To get people more aware and conscious about design. I was quite excited when Pundole came on board and decided to represent me. It was a bold step even for them as it’s one of India’s oldest galleries, and extremely established artists have been represented by them. I hope other galleries in India follow the suit. Even if we can have two weeks of celebrating design, it would be fantastic.

I think so far the response has been reasonably good. There has been a lot of curiosity. A lot of school students have also come to the exhibition. It is good to put the work out there and see what pieces get what reactions from people, what sells the fastest, etc. So far, the strongest reactions have been for the colour sanding and lacquered pieces. I wouldn’t have thought that was my strongest point, so it was interesting to see that.

The exhibition is going to be back in Bombay in June, with a few additional pieces, in Pundole. I am looking forward to see Bombay’s response to my work.

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