CONTEMPORARY DESIGN : ANCIENT CRAFT. Rooshad Shroff founded Rooshad Shroff Architecture + Design in Mumbai, India, in 2011, after he had studied at Cornell University and Harvard University Graduate School of Design. As well as the realization of interiors and buildings, the practice operates beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture, including furniture, product, fashion, publishing and graphic design.
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Rooshad Shroff, why did you decide to go back to your country ten years ago?
I always wanted to start my own firm, and India is home and still a very young country in terms of design. When I did go back to India, it wasn’t really planned. I spent close to 10 years in the United States and I enjoyed my time working in London with Zaha Hadid between my undergraduate and graduate studies. After Harvard, I thought it would be nice to move back to London and I had an interview lined up with Foster, but before that I wanted to spend a month back in India. In that one month opportunities started opening up, luckily quite well, and I thought that this could be the right time to establish myself back home and gave up on the idea of moving to London. Everything happened quite organically.
Mumbai is one of the great cities in the world. What is your situation in India vis a vis New York and London?
Mumbai doesn’t really define India at all. It is closer to New York and London than to the rest of India, but in terms of contemporary design and architecture, unfortunately there’s not much of merit. There’s not that appreciation for design or the encouragement of larger institutional or government-run design led projects which happens in the West. We don’t have contemporary art museums or even design galleries, so people are not exposed to the arts from a very young age, but every year in the last 10 years of being here I see a massive shift, whether it’s from the architects and designers, or even from a client’s perspective. People are much more aware and much more travelled, so the appreciation for design has increased.
Why do you want to recuperate artisanal India with its historical and classical craftsmanship?
Working with Zaha Hadid, where it’s really all about technology and new fabrication tools, was super seductive to me at first. Then I realised that the design language that was being created globally started looking quite similar, because of the tools that aid that kind of computational design. When things are all getting made by machines, you can’t really geographically pin them down to a particular place of making or the identity of a craftsman. That bothered me.
“The craft enables me to add an additional layer onto the work”
Rooshad Shroff, why did you start working with furniture?
I started with something super low-tech because it didn’t require much of an infrastructure and it was economical to work with. In the beginning I had always shied away from craft, which my naïve understanding found purely ornamental and decorational, but the more I understood the processes that were involved with a craft, it got way more interesting. I started understanding the potential of what that craft could do. In the last 10 years I looked at a variety of craft – whether it’s embroidery, wood carving or wood joinery, or marble or inlay or marble carving – to tap the potentials of that craft, working with its artisans.
Have you evolved new designs for these artisans?
The idea is to really understand the potentials of what these artisans could bring to the table. They’re working with generations of knowhow, typically passed on from generation to generation because there are no actual schools to train them. It’s really interesting to add a layer of sophistication in terms of a design piece, where you can use that knowhow to create something which works within a contemporary design language or aesthetic.
Yes, the French have that appreciation for the handmade, for beautifully crafted objects. Because of me being trained overseas and having a Western education, my design sensibility lends itself to a little bit more westernized aesthetic as compared to an Indian one. The craft enables me to add an additional layer onto the work, which would be difficult or crazily expensive or even impossible if I had remained in London or New York. I am responsible for the windows of the Hermès shops in India.
Are your projects primarily in India?
We have done projects overseas, for instance retail stores in the UAE, and the Louboutin store in Bangkok, and we recently finished a private home in London for a Bollywood actor. Primarily my clients are India based, and I’m happy to work within India because the Indian market itself is huge, an untapped place. There’s so much work to do within the country rather than trying to seek work outside, but we are retailing our furniture internationally in the first half of 2022 and a gallery in Brussels represents us for our embroidered chairs.
“Embroidery on wood has been one of our signature pieces”
Rooshad Shroff, how would you describe your furniture pieces?
I always look at furniture in terms of a particular craft or technique. I investigate that craft, learn the techniques, and get to know the breaking point of the material that they’re working with and the ways in which we can push that craft to the extreme or give it a new life. Embroidery on wood has been one of our signature pieces, not just a structure and then upholstery done on top, in this case you have the idea of upholstery being an integral part and woven through the structure of the piece. We devised a technique of having a gridded form onto the wood, which are 3mm holes at 4mm spacing, quite close to one another. Each of the holes is hand drilled into the wood, the wood being sometimes almost two or three inches thick. Then using hand embroidery woven through the thickness of the wood, with different techniques and stitch types.
Prouvé and Perriand have always been a great source of inspiration in terms of form and language. In terms of Indian inspiration, it is really how they’ve worked with the craft, not in terms of a formal language but in terms of techniques, in terms of intricacy, in terms of quality, precision. It’s really marrying those two things together.
Do you also have clients or exposure in China?
No, none. I’m still very much in touch with some classmates of mine who are based in China, but other than that, at the moment, I don’t have any clients or see potential avenues there.
In America they’re very inclined to look at Italian, French, Danish or Swedish, or sometimes German designers. How is it in India?
In India 90 per cent of high end homes will have Italian furniture. We also do a lot of architectural interiors and furniture is one side of the business, but our primary projects are interiors and architecture, and most of the projects that we do use a lot of Italian furniture.
What is your concept in interior decoration and what kind of style is yours?
I prefer retail projects because they are always concept driven. It starts with a strong idea, you understand the brand and you create an outlet which is an extension of that brand, a physical manifestation of that idea. In terms of a visual palette we are definitely drawn towards contemporary clean lines, but always infused with some special materials. We love doing bespoke finishes, whether it’s for homes or retail. Irrespective of the scale at which we are working, people come to us because of that tailored bespoke service.
Alabaster Table Lamp & Fluted Vases
Pringle Table. Photo: Neville Sukhia
Embroidery on wood for a chair
“For me what becomes important is to add a new voice, to continue the knowhow but not particularly imitate the aesthetic”
Rooshad Shroff, what did you do for Christian Louboutin?
I started as their local architect in their Mumbai store when I helped the design architects 212box – based out of New York – execute the project here. They had seen the embroidered wood that I had done, and together we created a wooden embroidered wall cladding system on an entire wall inside that store. Following that project, Christian offered me to become the design architect for their Bangkok store, so that’s when we created a different look for them. Christian himself loves crafts, he’s enamored with India, he loves handmade, and he loves working with different textures and materials. It was interesting to see how we can take certain kinds of Thai and French influences, but yet all made in India with different crafts and then shipped to Bangkok.
The architect most famous for store design is Peter Marino.
Absolutely. I love the way he approaches every single brand and creates a completely new language for them, so it doesn’t become the signature style of an architect. He really is able to step out of his zone and make a different environment for every single brand, which is fantastic.
What do you do for Hermès?
We don’t work with the retail store or their products, we work purely on their window displays. Luckily we are in our 9th year now, and it’s such an inspiring brand.
Hermès windows are unique, they create a narrative or a story, an environment that the passerby gets absorbed into and that provokes you to smile. It’s not a hard sell of a product as much as it really invites you into a universe. We create four windows a year, and it’s refreshing to come up with a new concept every three months. It’s fantasy, it’s escapism, whether for us or for a viewer looking at the window. That kind of expression becomes especially interesting when you’re working at the same time on an architectural project, which might take three years, and on an interior project, which takes over a year. It keeps our minds always active in terms of coming up with ideas.
Is it your ambition that Indians who live abroad will have nostalgia for their own craftsmanship and become your clients?
When it comes to furniture, it’s a passion project. I create objects or pieces that I really absolutely love, not thinking of an end user or whether it’s practical, functional, comfortable or whether they’re going to be sold. We have luckily managed to get a really good clientele in India who appreciate that. More and more people love the idea of having things bespoke or limited edition, or even the appreciation for craft, the realization that the piece speaks much more than just a piece. It talks about legacy, it talks about history, it talks about lineage.That’s being noticed now.
Is it your ambition to create Indian contemporary taste in other countries?
I would hope so, that’s the only way one can sustain craft. Embroidery is a great example, because embroidery has been used by a lot of luxury brands, most of the French brands, and every brand creates a very different identity using the same tools of embroidery. Two brands cannot look the same in terms of the style they work with, and that’s something that needs to happen with the rest of the craft in India as well. It needs a much more contemporary voice, rather than the same product being repeated over generations. For me what becomes important is to add a new voice, to continue the knowhow but not particularly imitate the aesthetic.
What is your next ambition?
In the last year and a half we have gone into some building architecture, and I’m excited to see them come alive. Architecture is my number one passion, and I’m looking forward to creating more pieces of architecture throughout the city. That’s also a great legacy, completely different from shop windows that disappear in three months. A building stays on for a while, if not forever. It’s a social responsibility when you are creating a piece of architecture.
What would you like to build?
A contemporary arts museum has always been my dream project.
You want to create the first contemporary art museum in India?
Regardless of whether it’s first or not, but definitely one for sure.
Thank you very much.
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