His simplicity and warmth makes you forget that you are sitting across of one of world’s most coveted designers. His soft spoken personality though, fails to mask his astute thinking and forthright opinions about design. We are talking about none other than internationally acclaimed designer Satyendra Pakhale.
His work is not ‘in your face’ Indian and that’s because he firmly believes his Indian origin is not for appearance sake but is a pure fact which doesn’t need validation. You will find a balanced synthesis of technology, materials and techniques in his work which creates a poetic dialogue and engages the end user. Mr. Pakhale prefers being referred to as a cultural nomad as he strives to break conventions and try something new each time he sits at his drawing board.
A one-on-one with the man himself throws light on the deep rooted passion he holds for his work and everything around him in general. And a perfect example of his sheer perseverance is his Bell Metal horse chair which took him 8 long years to make it.
Here, he talks about his journey from India to Amsterdam, design dynamics across the planet, awards and recognition and much more.
Tell us something about your journey – from graduating from IIT-B to setting up a design firm in Amsterdam…
It’s mainly about dreaming, but to create work independently in any field for that matter, especially design is incredibly challenging. After graduating at IITB, I won an award that took me to Paris way back in 1992.
Within IIT there is an Industrial Design Centre which was set up way back in late 60’s by one of the faculties, Prof. Nadkarni of IITB. I was asked to participate in a competition, and I was one of the five winners. I met the man who designed the TGV, Roger Tallon, and I saw the then young Philippe Starck who was active from his studio at Bastille, Paris.
While I was in Paris, I got to know that I won a scholarship which got me into a very well known design school then called Art Centre College of Design. I worked with the firm Frog Design, which designed the first Apple computer and then after the Art Center College of Design I chose to work with another team called New Business Creation which was just started then by Director of Philips Design, Architect Stefano Marzano, who still is my great supporter today and we created some of the most pioneering designs.
In India we have lots of cultural qualities but one hardly sees it evolving or translating into contemporary design works in a refreshing way, maybe because of lack of imagination or courage.
For example, we are sitting in a lobby of a hotel which could be built anywhere, that’s sad because it doesn’t have an identity. Understanding that early on I decided to focus on culture of making things. Now in industrial society lot of things get artificially manipulated, so I wanted to look back and understand how things were done originally, and to do that I chose to go to an extreme remote part of our country in MP called the Bastar region.
These early experimentations and exploration led to lots of innovations. One project leading to another and then collaborations with high-end Italian manufacturing companies started and eventually I set up a design practice in Amsterdam.
How have your Indian roots influenced your design ideologies?
I have a very clean take on that, I am born, raised and educated in India. It’s a pure fact. Having said that, there has been an excessive obsession to manifest national identity. I think nationalism in that sense is somewhat chauvinistic and obnoxious. Talking about our cultural context, cultures are important, within our country even within one state you have micro cosmoses but you have to judicially implement them in your work and the bell metal project and the BM Horse is a representation of that, technically as well as culturally and anthropologically. It is not about just scratching the surface, it is really crucial to go deep and understand things thoroughly.
So my take on design ideology and therefore identity is that it has to come naturally as naturally as breathing. Having said that you should not try hard to deny it either. Identity in the plain sense has to evolve from the work rather than an agenda in mind.
One design constant that stands out is your ongoing quest for exploration, whether through different materials, techniques and technologies or the various mediums of design. What drives you to risk venturing in new territories?
It is mostly curiosity. Most important thing is to be able to engage. And I am curious about everything – materials, techniques, technologies, and different ways of living.
I know that’s not the norm where people cross the discipline but it’s all design eventually.
If you have a core understanding of an issue then the scale is not a problem. If you can create iconic objects, let’s say a vase, then it has to go in a surrounding, so you have to also understand the surrounding, so that gets into architecture. It has to fit in a system, therefore it has system thinking, so an object is never an isolated thing, it is a part of a system. So if you understand from that bigger perspective, you are not creating just an object, you are thinking about the entire context and when you are thinking about the context then the next step is obvious.
Form is an integral part of your designs; the Panther Multichair being a perfect example. How challenging is it to bring out the perfect marriage between function and aesthetics through form?
These are not separate issues for me. For me, design should work at all levels, it is not utility or form or manufacturing of it.
The example you mentioned Panther Multichair, in that case the sitting posture itself gives rise to the form. Form and utility are not divorced from each other, they are interlaid. Design in a true sense is all of it. And if all of it doesn’t hold properly then it is never a good design.
Is there a designer who has had a strong influence on you and your work?
Many … it’s never been one person; maybe my mind is too critical to make one person as the ideal. I do have lots of references in people which I admire. My mindset never allows me to think that this is what I have to do; finally one has to find his own way. I admire someone like Architect Ettore Sottsass who died in 2007 at the age of 90. I knew him very well; he had great fascination for India, in fact, he came to India well before the Beatles did in 60’s.
His work had great Indian impact in terms of the sensorial qualities – the colours, textures, materials that he used, but he did it in his own way, he never tried to emulate. He has done very many things, from objects to architecture, to products to electronics, arguably designed the first computer as well, when the computers used to be as big as a room.
There is another artist Isamu Noguchi, who was a Japanese American sculptor, I admire him for his universal perspective. I also admire his master, a Romanian sculptor who lived in Paris, Constantin Brâncusi, the consistency of his evolution is very powerful. That doesn’t mean the thinking stops there, these are more references which I admire, but not that one has completely to agree with them, I always have that critical point of view.
The Indian design fraternity is really proud of your achievements overseas. How is the response each time you visit your home country?
I was never truly gone, in the right sense. It’s been 20 years I have been abroad but I worked with artisans here, people know me here. Since you brought this question up, at the award function at IITB, I was told by the dean that I was the youngest ever to win this award. I didn’t expect that and it was humbling to achieve that. In fact, before coming here I got two very important emails.
Recently, I was one of the keynote speakers at CeBIT, a technology fair in Hanover. It was the first time it happened that a designer gets invited to the centre stage of the world’s biggest technology fair and I got an email from the man who designed the first Apple computer, Hartmut Esslinger to congratulate me. The Second email I got from Prof. Nadkarni, who was the founder of IDC. These are more cherished then just the awards, having said that, awards are critical to put things in perspective.
You have been associated with some of the most prestigious global brands, is the design approach generally more liberating or restricting?
I think the challenge of working with an international manufacturer is that they generally have a great heritage. Last year we did two projects where companies had their centennial celebration, one of them was Franke, a high-end Swiss Kitchen company. So there is a responsibility while designing for them but when you collaborate with big manufacturers with great heritage in design, it’s not a constraint in a classical sense, I think it is a challenge in a very beautiful way that designers can do innovative work.
And often if there are constraints, they are also challenging because that sets up the borders, so you know the parameters in which you need to work and come up with a best possible solution.
So for the Alinata Shelving System that we did for a high-end extrusion manufacturer from Bologna in Italy we decided together to create something that dissembles and assembles and can be shipped across the planet. Even though it is a large shelving system it has to pack as flat as possible but at the same time we had to make sure it doesn’t look flimsy and does not fall apart.
As for Panther Multichair, it was for the Golden Jubilee of Moroso and we had complete freedom to explore. These two examples illustrate exactly what happens when you set out with certain borders or when you have a complete free hand.
A look through your portfolio reveals it is anything thing but stagnant – the use of different materials and techniques provides it an edgy character. An example being your Roll Carbon Ceramic Chair, tell us something about it.
It has nothing to do with technology actually, there are a lot of preconceived notions about materials people have, they have notions about everything actually about culture, behavioral issues and the trouble is when you make presumptions you are not open to fresh perspectives, when you fail to see the possibilities you are the one to lose.
The possibility of ceramic as a chair by itself is a challenge. Ceramic is used for dainty brittle objects like ceramic ware. It has seldomly been used as a structural material so I wanted to challenge the whole perception and we succeeded in that.
When you talk about carbon fibre everyone thinks it’s a high technological material, formula one racing car etc. These notions are sometimes paradoxical.In reality if you have to work with fibre glass it is potentially manual work to really understand it. To create this kind of a paradox – ‘is it High-Tech or Low-Tech?” we decided to put the carbon fibre on ceramic which is not done either for technical reason or for better strength.
Both can work well individually if you think things through but when you put them together the question arises whether it is High-Tech or Low-Tech? It was a huge technical challenge; it was not something, which can be done. When we showed it at Design Miami Basel, Switzerland, everybody asked, ‘how is this possible?’ The intent of this project was pure provocation. I always say as much as we need an iPhone today we also need a hammer so we should not forget about it.
Everyone would love to know what Satyendra Pakhale’s current passion is. What’s currently on your exploration radar?
At any given time we are working on multiple projects, some are in initiation phase, some are in completion phase and some are in progress, so there are different things happening in the studio all the time. The main body of work is industrial design in the technological and manufacturing sector. We are also engaged with special architecture projects.
Most of these projects are presented at Salone – Milan Design Week, Milan, Italy or Stockholm fair in Sweden. Besides this every year we pick up a challenge, we set out to take a material – process and explore that to its maximum ability. So there is always curiosity about materials and techniques and that is quite fascinating and playful but also very intense, as you have to master the material and make things in a very articulate manner. Such projects become highly crafted edition pieces, which are presented at Design Miami Basel, USA / Switzerland or at PAD London, UK.
IITB has recently awarded you with the honour of the distinguished alumnus award. How does it feel to come back to your Alma Mater where it all started?
Great. The award was given by the former president Dr. A B J Kalam and he is very inspiring. The whole staff and faculty, even people who retired were present…it was special. And they organised an interaction with students after the ceremony.
And how are our next-gen designers?
The curiosity is there. I think what we lack is critical thinking. It’s not that we don’t, we do, but sometimes the circumstances push you not to do. People are very curious, eager, want to engage and are quite committed and hard working. If they get into more critical thinking and IITs are all about that, then we have great potential to evolve into a much cooler place on the planet.
You have had a glorious journey so far…Was there one such proud moment which made you say “I am so glad I worked so hard”?
It doesn’t work like that. Working hard is not a guarantee to anything, more than that you should have something to say and when you have that you have to work towards achieving it. When what you create communicates certain emotions, like the Panther Multichair you mentioned, then that is enough. That’s making of a culture, that’s powerful, only hard work doesn’t give that. Hard work isn’t an option, it’s a necessity in any profession.
Any new Indian designer’s work that has come to your notice and have really liked…
This takes me back to what we started our discussion with – identity. Looking at the contemporary scene, there seems to be two scenarios: some are trying to impose very hard on a so called Indian identity, on the other hand some are mindlessly copying others, so I think to create work that has intensity one has to go much deeper and so far we haven’t seen many examples. One does see examples, which are done much more genuinely, those are the works of the artisans and there you see certain kind of quality across the country.
In terms of contemporary design, we were once asked to curate an exhibition but we could not because we couldn’t see the intensity. We think there are some missing links and we need to connect the dots. IDC is an institution where they could do more of that.
Since you have an astute understanding of the surroundings, is there a place where you can say ‘it’s good to be here’?
There are no public places across the country and that’s a very sad story of our nation. But at one point there were places, if you go to Agra and there is one abandoned site, though it is under Archeological Survey of India it is not really taken care of but if you go there you feel some odd connection. There is this poetic imagination which was there in those times. You will find a walking platform which is at an elevated level and mango trees run at a lower level along the walkway, so if you wish you can pluck the mangoes… so that was very powerful. But in contemporary sense I can’t give an example of that.