As fascinated by typography as she is by textile design, Akila Seshasayee manages to keep both her passions alive through two different professional ventures. While Designosis relies on her graphic design background, Toile Indienne transfers to fabric her love for stories!
How did your time at NID impact your career?
I pursued Visual Communication (Graphic Design) at the National Institute of Design (NID). The single most important thing that National Institute of Design did for me was to awaken a certain way of thinking. I found the freedom and encouragement to look at, understand and explore this ‘way of seeing’ such that it has become intrinsic to my work process. And of course, being at National Institute of Design one just breathed in the Bauhaus influence!
The other thing that has had a huge and positive impact on my work is reading, including what I did not read. I barely read anything about graphic design (in fact I never bought a single graphic design book other than The Graphic Language of Neville Brody) because I felt that it would be hard to find my own voice while looking at what other graphic designers did. In fact I often wonder how graphic designers manage at all to be original today, with the kind of visual force feeding that happens as a result of our networked world.
My reading habits have always been wide and eclectic – there’s just so much out there that’s fascinating to know. I feel this is the single most important thing that has made me the designer I am, because I find I can make connections that are both wide and deep when I am thinking about a design problem.
You spent a decade working for various publications and television – what were your major takeaways from that period?
The most enriching and rewarding experience was when I was Art Editor of the science and environment magazine, Down to Earth, under the editorship of the rigorous, dynamic Anil Agarwal. He was as demanding of a designer as he was of journalists on his team. This was quite unusual back in the early 1990s, when most editors had only the vaguest notion of how design can bring content alive, and pretty much thought that we moved text and pictures around on a page. Somehow making it look ‘good’.
How did Designosis come about?
Designosis (or Seshdesign as it was earlier called) was born out of the desire to just go back to graphic design after my stint in television which was not a very challenging or interesting experience for me. I must admit that Designosis was hardly the result of deep strategic thought. In fact, one of the ‘shortcomings’ of our generation of designers was that strategic thinking was something most of us knew nothing about.
Which have been your most meaningful projects?
While I can’t claim that my graphic design work has had measurable impact on people’s lives or a company’s bottom line, my best work as a graphic designer has been when I have been able to express myself both as a communicator and as an artist, where the result has usually had a certain fluidity and feeling that I hope reached out to the viewer. I would certainly list the covers I have designed for Seminar magazine for 20 years now. Seminar is a monthly journal where each issue is built around a specific theme. In the almost 70 years of its existence, the journal has only used typography as a means to express the theme of every issue – and the editors have always been willing to push the envelope about how this is expressed. I would also include the books I have designed for Navayana Publications, a publishing house that focuses on the issue of caste from an anti caste perspective.
Tell us about your love for typography.
I fell in love with letterforms very early on, through the Letraset catalogue, that most cherished book that was our main access to type apart from the letterpress at National Institute of Design. Since it was a catalogue of letter transfers, not much of it was set in large type. To this day I remember how we used to Xerox and enlarge pages from this catalogue, repeating the process until the letters were often large and fuzzy, but you could still look at the forms and understand the beauty of their construction. This love has grown only stronger over the decades – I can eat beautiful letterforms with my eyes. It is one of life’s great pleasures for me, and I have my own little archive of favorites to enjoy periodically.
When did you become passionate about textiles and printing on fabric?
Textile design had been a long dormant interest. In fact, when I joined National Institute of Design it was with the intention of studying textile design. At that time, there was the completely idiotic idea floating about that it was only the not very bright people who joined textile design, and, silly teenager that I was, I changed my mind and chose graphic design instead. I’ve never regretted being a graphic designer because I’ve loved the work, but I feel sad I missed out on the textile design program at National Institute of Design. I think it was an excellently put together, solid program taught by the most amazing teachers (Aditi and Gitto) and has produced some of the most respected alumni.
Anyway, it took a yoga accident and three months of enforced bed rest (which meant time to think) to help me see that I do in fact want to work with textiles. And it’s fantastic, because I am learning more and more every day.
What is the story behind Toile Indienne?
In 1664 the French East India Company brought the first of the colorfully printed cotton cloths, known as indiennes, from India into France. These printed cotton fabrics were so popular that the word indiennes entered the French language, referring not only to the cloth but to garments made from it.
Indian fabrics were sold in Europe, used to trade for spices in South East Asia, shipped to Africa and financed the working of cotton plantations in America. Printed Indian fabrics became the basis of a globally interdependent world.
Toile Indienne joins this yarn of human history. Our designs hold stories that are rooted in our culture, interpreted to create a contemporary narrative that speaks a global language. We are inspired by the romance of India’s history, crafts and legends and go deeper than mere surface decoration. We love good stories and they lie at the heart of our designs.
Based in New Delhi, we are a design studio offering services and products ranging from developing one-of-a-kind textile prints, wallpapers and tiles, to designing shades for lighting and working with furniture designers to offer curated pieces.
How do you design a collection?
Our strength is that we are not confined to any one ‘look’ but are equally at ease whether the style is traditional, modern or contemporary and our design reflects this eclecticism. We arrive at the themes and designs of our collections by traversing many routes: from readings of Indian and world history, immersion in art, music and mythology and a deep appreciation of our textile and craft traditions. We love to tell a good yarn through our designs.
Our process begins with discussion and research to develop a holistic understanding, after which our designs are created from scratch in our studio. Every design goes through many iterations and tests before it is released. We keep ourselves informed, but not constrained by, worldwide seasonal trends in home textiles. Themes for individual collections are drawn from a wide palette covering art, history, myths, legends and contemporary events of note.
Once we have debated and decided upon a theme, a great deal of time is spent on research. For instance we decided on stories from the Mahabharata as being perfect for an Indian toile – this was the basis for our wildly popular ‘Love and War’ collection, the first of which is a re-imagination of the scene of Draupadi’s swayamvar. The twist in the tale is that the scene is depicted in the Mughal miniature style, in homage to Akbar who had the Ramayana and Mahabharata (called the Razmnama) both translated into Persian and profusely illustrated by Indian and Persian court painters.
Another example would be our ‘Art of Architecture’ collection which we created in homage to B. V. Doshi. This involved an in depth study of his buildings, his writings and his own biography. Thus the geometrical abstract designs in the collection not only reflect his architecture, but also subtly reference the abstract art of his guru, Le Corbusier.
What, in your opinion, does it take to create a ‘timeless esthetic’?
Time, care, attention to detail, and the new materialism of ‘better, not more’. At the core of what we do at Toile Indienne is to create storied products that are meant to be kept and not easily discarded. We would like that the additions we make to the vast quantities of ‘things’ that pervade every corner of our world to be more than passing fancies. Products with a timeless esthetic are those that are lovingly made, painstakingly detailed and executed so beautifully that the owner will want to mend them if necessary to keep them forever.
What does it take to work with artisans?
Respect for their extraordinary skill, and a realization of the extremely difficult circumstances under which they work. We worked with master weavers for our Kanchipuram silk collection which we named ‘Temple Borders’. It’s a wonder that they still manage to do what they do with resources for the handloom sector dwindling every year, and the price of silk going up every year. There are no aid programs in place to help them use azo free dyes, which has a two pronged detrimental effect – the groundwater in and around Kanchpuram is poisoned and markets where azo free dyes are banned are closed to them. And of course, the Indian consumer wants the result of generations of skill working under trying circumstances to come cheap.
How do you approach quality control?
By setting up systems to be rigorously followed even during the design process and validation of the design. We have procedures in place for every stage of our design and production process.
What makes Toile Indienne unique?
Our strong research and design capability makes us uniquely positioned to take on commissioned design projects. We assist our clients in developing a story or theme and develop one of a kind textile prints for their project. Our designs are created in-house and can be customized to meet the needs of a project: whether this means changes in scale or color to fit in with the color scheme of a particular interior or different fabric bases. All customizations are tested, often more than once, to ensure that the end result is consistent.
This is definitely one of the reasons why, in just a year and a half since we launched as a textile brand in Maison et Objet in Paris, we have won the Lexus India Award for textile design, and been covered in every major interiors magazine in India: Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Living Etc, India Today Home and the latest Asian Paints Trends book.
How do you market and distribute your products?
Toile Indienne offers its trade partners in India, Europe, the UK and Japan access to its library of proprietary designs, with new designs introduced regularly, only some of which are available on retail through our website. This gives designers and architects access to a wide choice of themes, styles and designs.
Toile Indienne is only a year and a half old, and our vision is for it to grow into a powerful design house that is the go-to for architects and interior designers.
How challenging is it to keep the Indian tradition of telling stories alive, when clothing is so highly influenced by the West?
Practically everything, most of all the way we know design, is influenced by the West. Our design education, despite the intent of the founders, was hardly rooted in India. It’s astonishing to me now that as graphic design students we learnt about the use of color not through our astonishingly beautiful painting traditions but through the work of Viktor Vasarely. When we think of abstract art we think of Kandinsky, not the incredibly spare and profound tantric paintings from Rajasthan. One of the best things that starting Toile Indienne has done for me is to plunge me deep into Indian history and tradition, storytelling and abstract thought.
How do you manage to juggle two businesses?
Both businesses are design related, so it’s not as hard as it seems. But mostly it’s possible because I’m lucky to have great partners. Divya Kukreti, my partner in Designosis, does most of the heavy lifting in terms of graphic design. Pankaj Kehr, my partner in Toile Indienne, is the person who takes the zoomed out view and is able to guide the business and take us in new, often unique, directions.
This article was originally published in POOL 105.
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