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Portrait Doshi Levien: The Unity of Opposites

With furniture that oscillates between exotic charm and purist contours, Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien aren’t just bringing a whole new look to the world of interior design, they’re giving it individuality as well. Their installation “Das Haus – Interiors on Stage”, which the two young designers are busy planning for the next imm cologne, also looks set to be a very personal statement.

“Some pieces are more Nipa, others are more me.” It’s hard to think of a more apt description of the young designer couple’s work than this sentence from Jonathan Levien. Whilst the office they founded in 2000 is still mainly known to design aficionados, it has been attracting a lot of attention in recent years with furniture, cookware and shoes that are as original as they are “portable”: often unusually colourful “cultural hybrids” with emotional appeal that stir up the design world. Their clients include Moroso, Cappellini, Tefal, Richard Lampert, Glass and Authentics.

The debonair Brit – very definitely the modern gentleman type – leads us through the studio on the first floor of an old warehouse in Shoreditch, a creative hotbed in East London. The paint stains on the floor testify to its past life as a painter’s studio – and it is evidently still very much a place of work today. Five workstations vie for space between the rough brick walls, tables laden with samples, show cases and shelves containing not just carefully displayed design items but everyday finds and souvenirs from the couple’s many travels as well: plastic sundae dishes, fabric samples, artistically draped clothes, shoes, folded objects, brass Lotas from India, packaging from Hong Kong… and prototypes, books and drawings everywhere. Objects for inspiration, objects for discipline. An orderly chaos that expounds the aesthetic language so characteristic of this design studio – a language somewhere between vintage and modernity, globalisation and cultural identity. Tom Dixon, an early patron of the Anglo-Indian designer couple, once said that Doshi Levien unites “the best of both worlds”. Far from being a cliché, his words ring convincingly true.

Nipa Doshi was born in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) in ’71 and grew up in New Delhi. She studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad – an Indian oasis of functionality. While she was working on designs for toasters and coffee makers with Braun-like aesthetics, the people outside on the streets were making their tea over an open flame. This aesthetic gulf still kindles Nipa Doshi’s creative energy today. Which is why, after gaining a second degree at the Royal College of Art in London – where she met Jonathan Levien, by the way – she initially returned to India to collaborate with artisans on finding a contemporary mode of expression for native products. It was during this period that the idea of combining the different cultures with one another was born. Jonathan, on the other hand, has a far more functional understanding of design. Born in ’72, he first trained as a cabinet maker before studying design at Bucks College in High Wycombe (Buckinghamshire), doing an MA in furniture design at the Royal College of Art and spending three years working at Ross Lovegrove’s design studio. The antithesis that left its mark on him was the contrast between craftsmanship and automation. Even today, he builds the prototypes of the couple’s designs himself.

Thus Doshi Levien’s teamwork is nurtured not just by their cultural differences but by their different understanding of design as well. Whilst Nipa is mainly concerned with the design of the outward appearance and her almost ceremonial interpretation of the objects gives them a tangible, narrative quality, Jonathan is more concerned with the development process and the materials. The volumes beneath the sensuous surfaces of the Charpoy daybed or the My Beautiful Backside divan (both for Moroso) exude the understatement and precision of the British industrial designer and craftsman just as much as the couple’s leaner more recent designs – like the plastic chair Impossible Wood (also for Moroso) or the Capo armchair (Cappellini). It is not just a meeting between the Indian and European worlds, between male and female, but between the graphic and the functional, formal quality of design as well.

But the two designers don’t just combine different cultures; they mingle contrasting values, materials and ideas as well. This is very much in evidence in the Paper Planes armchair collection, a collaboration between Moroso and Swarovski. The fabric developed by Doshi Levien integrates the crystals unobtrusively so that they only become visible when they reflect the light. It forms the basis of the entire design, the structure of which was kept deliberately simple: a two-dimensional shape folded into a three-dimensional object. The children’s Rocker (Richard Lampert), on the other hand, combines a playful function with a classically modern design. And the Charpoy daybed with its graphically integrated game board for playing the ancient Indian version of chess (“Chaupar”) reveals another of Doshi Levien’s interests: the symbiosis of industrial production and artisanship, of intercultural dialogue and cultural identity. Although the daybed cultivates the design language of western-style purism, it not only cites Indian colour tradition and ceremonial usage of what is a ubiquitous piece of furniture in that part of the world, it is a profession of faith in the skilled workmanship of Indian seamstresses as well. The seams are virtually invisible – that would be totally impossible if they were produced by machines. And with the embroidered date of production and the name of the seamstress, Doshi Levien also manages to build a bridge between the people who made the daybed and the people who use it.

The “Das Haus – Interiors on Stage” installation is likewise about identity and about giving design a face, about turning one’s home into an expression of one’s personality. Doshi Levien will be building a home in the middle of the imm cologne trade fair, in the midst of Pure Village – based entirely on their own plans and ideas and featuring their own furniture, their favourite pieces from other brands and the occasional prototype from their studio. And the modular steam bath by the name of Ananda that they developed for Glass will of course be playing a central role as well. The designer couple’s vision of contemporary living based on an individual concept promises to be extremely interesting. How much transparency will they permit, how much intimacy will they create – and how much of themselves will they reveal?

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