“Softness is nuance, it is what is invisible, what is unsaid, intricate, imperfect and layered.”
Utharaa Zacharias & Palaash Chaudhary × soft–geometry × San José, California, U.S.A.
The Indian designers Utharaa Zacharias and Palaash Chaudhary together are soft–geometry, a now San José–based practice built around exploration of the at once squishy, profound and compelling idea of “softness.” Ut and Pal are wonderfully thoughtful designers, both steeped in their own complex, rich, contradictory culture and yet both proudly Indian.
RE: THE WONDERFUL, CONTRADICTORY COMPLEXITY OF INDIA
Ut: Palaash is from Ghaziabad, near New Delhi and I am from Kochi, Kerala and it’d be hard to pick two places more diametrically opposite in every way. They are on either end of the country with different cultures and geographies; we speak different languages, eat different foods, were brought up in different religions and follow completely different traditions. For any Indian, that Palaash is Jaat and I am Malayali, should signify the great contrast of our backgrounds. Our being windows to one another is an everyday study of India. Yet we rather seamlessly practice and enjoy the meshing of our different Indian-ness in how we live, eat, talk, love, hope, gather and celebrate. To design as Indians feels herculean.
“To be Indian is to despise same-ness. To match is almost a crime: often a plastic chair, a wooden chair and a metal chair happily co-exist around a dining table beaming in their individual special-ness, sometimes to a great poetic mix of time and styles..."
RE: THE BUFFOONERY OF LAZY APPROPRIATION
The shortcut to Indian design seems obviously to “apply” it, with little rhyme or reason, to any modern canvas. The appeal is understandable and the path is easy: reduce a few centuries’ worth of craft knowledge and tradition into an identifiably Indian-looking pattern, apply it superficially to a 1,000 dressers and coffee tables, and sell predictably under the guise of a handcraft-meets-design story. Whether it is wood inlay craft, metal jali or stone carving matters little in this model, and “Indian design” is essentially reduced to intricately repeating patterns with some bright colors for that good bohemian vibe. Perhaps to be Indian Designers is to recognize this buffoonery.
In our own reflections, we attempt, with flaws, to recognize the underlying philosophies, unwritten rules and natural behaviors that inform the visual culture, rather than to simply adopt the visual.
RE: THE ESSENCE OF INDIANNESS
To be Indian is to value knowledge, skill and expertise and to be suspicious of those who claim to know it all or, worse, outsource it. It means to have arrived carefully at who your preferred jeweler, tailor, locksmith, blacksmith, cobbler, potter, carpenter, upholsterer is... and that is just scratching the surface. You also have a guy who sharpens the knives, a guy who fixes the handles of utensils, a lady who strings jasmine garlands, a lady for the best mangoes, another for the best oranges.
These ideas have led us to our collection today, from designing our first pieces as a series of steel frames that can be dressed in different materials and take on new personalities with every iteration; to learning how to weave a traditional 6-way cane lattice, committing to do it ourselves in our studio and improve our technique and speed every time; and to designing the Donut coffee tables to be made from repurposed solid wood cut-offs from furniture factories.
RE: STUDYING AT SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART & DESIGN
We had both grown up in India and never really known outside of India. So when we got here, Savannah was America, and it was kind of wonderful: parks every few blocks, eternal sunshine, a bike lane, beautiful historic architecture, cars that stopped and waited for you to cross the road, strangers who greeted you from across the street. And you could drink in public! At SCAD itself, in our separate disciplines, the faculty were greatly accomplished yet inexplicably kind and generous, the wood and metal shop was huge and fancy — and we got to actually use it. Our courses at SCAD were the first times we sat and discussed our ideas, collaborated truly and took ourselves seriously.
It was impossible for us to not be positive, to not be overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity. We were propelled and protected by our optimism. Everything else was learned later: the American North and South, the significance of New York (beyond what we knew from watching Friends), the East and West Coasts... and thank god, because that wasn’t important — not then.
We miss Savannah every day.
Softness is nuance, it is what is invisible, what is unsaid, intricate, imperfect and layered.
In the abstract, it is desirable in objects, because it feels human and complex, something that can only be felt emotionally, a feeling you can’t cheat or manufacture. More personally, it is us: our personalities in object form.
RE: DESIGNING PHYSICAL OBJECTS IN THE CONTEXT OF SILICON VALLEY
While unintentional, there is something about here that has helped form us, that became the background to trying things, taking chances and starting soft-geometry. Having been here in the Bay Area almost 4 years, there are things we absolutely love: the San Francisco cityscape, the Pacific coast, special friends in the arts, doing big work; and of course there are things we don’t love. The tech-driven envelope of homogeneity over what is actually quite a multicultural population, admittedly, falls among the latter.
RE: THE DELICATE DANCE OF CREATIVE PARTNERSHIP
Pals: Our dialogue is what forms our everyday, so it is never quiet. It is a two-person dance, sometimes delicate, sometimes rushed, it ebbs and flows — but our conversation is what sustains it. Our ideas take form as discussion first before sketches. It has to be compelling, exciting in the abstract for it to successfully take shape later. Once we have that hook, we sketch shabbily, back and forth, snatching the notepad between us, drawing over and over each other for hours, sometimes days or weeks. There usually comes a point where I get impatient and I’ll round up materials to try out an idea, make a real model, get an actual feel for it and sometimes that provides a next step. Ut, who is more responsible with her excitement, will dive deeper into sketches, and 3D models, evaluate, analyze and evolve the idea. Inevitably we pull each other into both exercises and we talk about what’s working and what isn’t. It seems so neat to lay this out linearly as I explain it, but obviously, it is not nearly as predictable as this.
RE: WORKING THROUGH DISAGREEMENT
We have rules for conflict:
1. Don’t be upset that there is a conflict.
2. Don’t be more dramatic than necessary.
3. Don’t carry it to the next day.
RE: EACH ON THE ESSENCE OF THE OTHER
Pals: Ut is poetic, relentless, funny, soft.
Ut: Pals is inspired, optimistic, resourceful, soft.
Last year, at the precipice of everything starting to look rather bleak, we looked for softness in light. It began as informal photographs of light moving through the thin skin between our fingers, through dust covered panes, through water, paper and the like. We were drawn to how light diffused through these uneven transparencies, and Elio was born of our attempts to mimic in physical form this soft, iridescent glow.
There were diverse references and layers to how Elio was realized, maybe most importantly the texture, inspired by frosted sugar jellies, that lets the translucent resin almost hold the light momentarily as it passes through. In the simple stacked form, the singular bend is an ode to an icon: Eileen Grey’s Bibendum lounge.
One of our best friends, Apoorva Raina, had been insisting for a while that we name one of our pieces Elio — and this is going to sound ridiculous — after Timothée Chalamet’s character in Call Me By Your Name. When we completed the first lamp, it looked the part.
“Style is not important to us: let brands concern themselves with style, let us try to create wildly, let us be contradictory.”
RE: MEMPHIS, SOTTSASS, AND IS CHEERFULLY COLORED GEOMETRIC DESIGN INTRINSICALLY ITALIAN?
Ut: The deliberately geometric and eclectically colored is (/was depending on where you are) the norm in India. We grew up in it. My own childhood home had bright yellow windows, blue doors and to date we have a kitchen where every cabinet is a different color of the rainbow from indigo to red. It gets better: we have built-in cupboards that have triangular doors, also painted in separate bands of bright colors. We didn’t have an opinion on whether all this shape building and coloring around us was cool or uncool, because of how normal it was, and we certainly knew nothing of Memphis.
We first encountered the work of Sottsass and Memphis when we were 19, at college, unfortunately in a rather stern book, that was dismissive of the entire thing as a silly distraction in the otherwise lofty pursuits of modern design.
Years later when we started drawing pure geometries and picking colors that were not beige or gray, we returned to reading of Sottsass, and this time we read of his frequent trips to India, his photographs of candy-colored south Indian houses with geometric facades; of his lamp named Ashoka, his collection of peppermills for Alessi made and exhibited using wood lacquer crafts in India, of multiple ceramic collections inspired of Hinduism, including a phallic pink flower vase named after the God Shiva.
The most important Italian and Memphis influence on our work was to turn us away from accepted Eurocentric ideals and point us towards the search for our Indian influences.
RE: DESIGN HEROES
Shiro Kuramata, Eileen Gray, BV Doshi, Gaetano Pesce, Noguchi, Sottsass, Pierre Jeanneret… to skim the top of our lists.
We don’t know that we have one. Our style is an unconscious result of aesthetic choices made at particular times, in the midst of particular design exercises — but to attempt to be consistent in these choices for style’s sake seems limiting. Style is not important to us: let brands concern themselves with style, let us try to create wildly, let us be contradictory.
We will admit, this can be hard to remember. We are not a brand.
Bruno Munari, Deyan Sudjic, David Sedaris, Stefan Zweig
Kumbalangi Nights in Malayalam, Sir in Hindi
Pressure cooker, Craigslist
INDISPENSABLE DESIGN TOOLS:
IF WE COULD, WE WOULD REDESIGN:
Systems of measurement in the U.S. to follow the metric system. Imagine a return to a life without fractions!