A conversation with Ashiesh Shah on finding beauty in imperfection

The Indian architect and designer takes STIR on a journey of his ideology and methodology.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Apr 06, 2021

Known for his impeccable taste and wide scope of projects, Ashiesh Shah’s work has become synonymous with sophistication and aesthetic sensibilities. Constantly evolving and expanding on the range of his practice, one can see his vision of space through his choices and experiments with materials. A well-known tastemaker in the world of architecture, he uses the Japanese philosophy of 'Wabi-sabi' to guide his work. He has collaborated with numerous design practices to create, experiment and craft innovative new products. Shah’s practice has moved beyond his architectural studio, Architecture + Design. An extension of his architectural practice, the Atelier creates design objects such as lighting, furniture, and rugs inspired by his architectural and interior projects. During the pandemic he spearheaded The India Design Fund as a way of empowering and advocating for the livelihood of the craftsmen. In a tete-a-tete with STIR, he elaborates on his journey so far and where he is headed next.

Ashiesh Shah’s residential project, Goenka Residence | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Ashiesh Shah’s residential project, Goenka Residence Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

Devanshi Shah (DS): How does your ethos reflect in your professional practice?

Ashiesh Shah (AS): I strongly believe in the Japanese philosophy of ‘Wabi-sabi’, describing beauty in imperfection where asymmetry and asperity play a major role in the spaces I create. I think that Wabi-sabi is a philosophy of life, and once one accepts it, everything trickles down to it. My spaces, therefore, are an amalgamation of elements both finished and unfinished, working in tandem with one another.

Retail design for fashion brand Raw Mango | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Retail design for fashion brand Raw Mango Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: How did your design journey begin? What lit the flames?

AS: I began my career in New York City in the mid-2000s after graduating from Parsons School of Design with a degree in Interiors and Architecture. Later, on my return to Mumbai, my focus was predominantly on the interior design of homes. While the work was immensely satisfying and garnered a lot of positive feedback from my clients, editors and friends, it was limited in its access, in the number of people who got to experience and engage with it. I think, therefore, it was projects like high-end store Le Mill and the fine-dining restaurant Nido in Mumbai that helped bring my work onto a more public platform. This was crucial to me as it was the first time that a wider audience was able to experience and appreciate my work.

Shah’s hospitality design for Sequel | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Shah’s hospitality design for Sequel Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: What drives your inspiration when you look at private homes  and commercial spaces?

AS: My projects are largely inspired by the Indian context and geometry. I make a conscious effort to incorporate crafts and localised processes through my recent venture – Atelier Ashiesh Shah. The projects and pieces are a celebration of the craft and its maker and add more dimension to a space.

DS: Even within private homes you work at different scales - from penthouses to apartments, or private homes. What guides your design process in each case?

AS: I am extremely conscious of the immediate context of the site. While the scale is an integral feature, my process is very site-specific and driven by external factors such as natural lighting. I am all for narratives within the built form and keeping them consistent.

Residential project Barai Residence | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Residential project, Barai Residence Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: In addition to context and client brief, what inspires each project? Having worked so extensively in Mumbai, have you noticed certain aesthetic trend variation within the city?

AS: People are gearing towards a contemporary minimal aesthetic. The concept of indigenousness and hyper-localisation has gained momentum. There has been a shift in preferences. People are viewing design and design objects through a local lens - celebrating processes and a desire for products made in India.

Restaurant Sequel in Mumbai, designed by Ashiesh Shah | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Restaurant Sequel in Mumbai, designed by Ashiesh Shah Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: The Atelier is a new extension of your work. What inspired its creation and how does it differ from your previous collaborations?

AS: Transitioning from interior to product design was a natural progression, propelled by years of designing custom furniture pieces for my clientele. Through a multitude of collaborations, I always knew I wanted to foray into product design, a vision, finding form today through Atelier Ashiesh Shah, a composition of inventiveness, tapped by artists, coming together to narrate tales of evolving aesthetics.

Kansa Many Moon | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Kansa Many Moon Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: You mentioned (as seen on the website) that the products are inspired by your previous projects. Could you talk through one or two designs and explain the link between your architectural practice and your products.

AS: Custom designing products, be it furniture, lighting or bathware for my projects is something I have been doing right from the beginning of my practice as an interior architect. Previously, a lot of the design objects were developed in response to the needs of the client and project. This led me to collaborate and work closely with artisans and integrate crafts into spaces.

Silver Mesh | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | STIRworld
Silver Mesh Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

The silver mesh wall panel employed in one of my residential projects was specially handcrafted to lend the space a unique sense of luxury and richness very much in sync with the design aesthetic in the rest of the spaces. Crafted using pure silver wire hand-woven into a textile-like structure, this ancient technique of silver chatai work adds more character to a space.

DS: You have worked across numerous collaborations from product design to art. Of your past collaborations, which were the most inspiring to you?

AS: My collaboration with Cocoon Rugs allowed me to pay homage to Le Corbusier, an architect whose work I deeply admire. The collection, referred to as Chand LC and Phulkari, derive its form and geometry from the facades of Corbusier’s iconic buildings in Chandigarh. The design translates the three-dimensional nature of the facade into a two-dimensional form with a play on colour, contrast and texture.

Collaboration with Cocoon Rugs| Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | Ashiesh Shah | STIRworld
Collaboration with Cocoon RugsImage: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: Could you also tell us more about some of the artistic collaborations that you have done?

AS: My recently launched collaboration with West Elm helped me translate my hand-drawn sketches to a delicately handcrafted rug. Designing rugs can be quite challenging especially because they are viewed from all directions. The rugs designed for West Elm combine the simplicity of two-dimensional basic shapes with a three-dimensional character. A line and a curve - the basic constituents of a drawing, tufted with colour and layered with texture, the spread, woven with architecture.

Collaboration with Cocoon Rugs | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | Ashiesh Shah | STIRworld
Collaboration with Cocoon Rugs Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: Other than the pandemic, what inspired setting up The India Design Fund? What do you see as a successful outcome of this endeavour?

AS: The India Design Fund was a conversation before a concrete initiative that found its foundation during the lockdown period. Having always wanted to create a formalised body of solidarity amongst designers, this time of a pandemic deemed fit to carry forward an idea into a union of change at a time of need. Besides, working closely with the craft community at the Atelier, we gravely feared the death of artisanship with a complete lack of demand. Thus, TIDF was born in an attempt to aid people within the industry.

The first venture of The India Design Fund | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | Ashiesh Shah | STIRworld
The first venture of The India Design Fund Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: The fund brief mentions ‘the transformation of lives, livelihood in design’. Could you elaborate?

AS: Through its contribution, The India Design Fund endeavours to salvage the endangered crafts community but also nurture human skills and handmade traditions along with sustainable manufacturing practices for the symbiotic growth of the design industry.

DS: What are some of the actions (in addition to Otlo) the fund intends to undertake to address some of the prominent aspects of the fund’s concepts namely “nurturing indigenous design, local craftsmanship and opportunity gap”?

AS: The India Design Fund is an ambitious venture, OTLO was only the first step in a much longer journey. The fund intends on raising awareness and by working towards the betterment of people within the industry. It is a platform that aims to bring members of the design industry together to stand as a strong voice for sustainability and promotion of indigenous craft practices and design in a post COVID-19 world.

A recent hospitality project by Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design | Ashiesh Shah | STIRworld
A recent hospitality project by Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design Image: Courtesy of Ashiesh Shah Architecture + Design

DS: Are there any future projects or collaborations you are stirring up that we should look forward to hearing about?

AS: The year 2021 has been an exciting year. While the recently launched project in collaboration with West Elm has been really exciting, there are so many other interesting interior projects that are in the pipeline. I eagerly look forward to the launch of my collaboration with Ritu Kumar Home too.

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