A conversation with the creatives behind ‘Small is Beautiful’ at LDB 2021

Following the conclusion of the London Design Biennale 2021, the team behind the India Pavilion reflects on their collaborative efforts and personal takeaways from the event.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Aug 18, 2021

The conclusion of the London Design Biennale 2021 on June 27 brought the curtain down on a period rich with discovery and transformation. Creatives from across the globe gathered at Somerset House in London to put forth ingenious solutions in response to the challenges faced by human civilisation today. Illuminating new perspectives and paths to confront world issues, the biennale presented multiplicity of ideas and viewpoints depicting how designers can lead the way forward in building a better and more sustainable world for the future.

Having left an indelible impact on the minds of the visitors at the event, the India Pavilion titled ‘Small is Beautiful’, curated by architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh represented the nation’s collective voice, offering several ideas and innovative ventures from the land of a billion dreams. STIR speaks with the pavilion’s creative team comprising designers, architects, and musicians, who made the India Pavilion a larger than life experience.

The digital wall of the India Pavilion displayed at the Somerset House | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
The digital wall of the India Pavilion displayed at the Somerset House Image: Ed Reeve

Bangalore-based Soumitro Ghosh who is also the co-founding partner of Mathew and Ghosh Architects, along with multidisciplinary designer Sandeep Sangaru, were curator Nisha Mathew Ghosh’s collaborators on the art installation, Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill?, at the biennale. Talking to STIR, Sangaru shed light on his experiences of working on the India Pavilion.

  • Soumitro Ghosh and Sandeep Sangaru | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 |STIRworld
    Soumitro Ghosh and Sandeep Sangaru Image: Courtesy of Sandeep Sangaru
  • Conceptual design of the art installation ‘Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill?’ | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
    Conceptual design of the art installation ‘Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill?’ Image: Courtesy of Sandeep Sangaru

STIR: What did you enjoy most about the journey you have been on for the past year and a half?

Sandeep Sangaru (SS): When Nisha put forth the idea for the installation, it was a large static wing form - a juxtaposition of a bird's wing derived from a modern windmill blade. As we brainstormed further, it turned into an idea to make the installation interactive. The process to make a dynamic, larger than the human scale, free-standing structure, was envisioned keeping in mind the constraints of the space we had, along with the safety requirements. The final form of the installation was visualised and designed completely in bamboo, to capture the movement of wings when a person pulls them down.

Till now, the most exciting part of the process was designing and visualising the installation primarily in bamboo, apart from the required hardware to make it collapsible. The next exciting part will be when we fully handcraft it as visualised and bring it to life.

  • Soumitro and Sandeep working on the bamboo frame for the installation | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 |  STIRworld
    Soumitro and Sandeep working on the bamboo frame for the installation Image: Courtesy of Sandeep Sangaru
  • Sandeep Sangaru and India Pavilion curator Nisha Mathew Ghosh in discussion | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
    Sandeep Sangaru and India Pavilion curator Nisha Mathew Ghosh in discussion Image: Courtesy of Nisha Mathew Ghosh

STIR: Can we look forward to seeing ‘Is it a Bird? Is it a Windmill?’ exhibited somewhere in the near future?

SS: The process of crafting the installation encountered delays due to many unforeseen obstacles during the pandemic-induced lockdowns. Now, as things fall in place, we aim to finish the construction of the installation soon and hope to exhibit it somewhere in the near future.

The bamboo frame of the art installation | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
The bamboo frame of the art installation Image: Courtesy of Soumitro Ghosh

As the creative and communication partners for the India Pavilion, Mumbai-based Sparrow Co. led by Maneesh Phatak, Mohan Sanda, and Monojit Ray, conceptualised the visual identity and graphic design for the exhibition, in line with both its theme and content, as well as the larger picture of representing India’s unique landscape on the global stage. We discover more…

STIR: How does one craft an identity for a national pavilion at an international festival?

Sparrow Co. (SC): When this conversation began with Nisha, we were excited to get started. First, of course, we had to understand the vision and the main showpiece for the pavilion, the installation created by Nisha and her team, the overall brief from the curator, Es Devlin, and do a bit of homework in terms of how ideas and art have blended into the magnificent showcases of the past across various festivals. From many hours of discussion and debate, we narrowed down on what we believed was an all-encompassing idea of ‘Small is Beautiful: A Billion Stories’. We were all clear that the India Pavilion was a representation of our vast and diverse land and its unique issues and also felt that this was an inclusive showcase involving everyone - small artists, inventors, school children, scientists, architects, engineers, and more.

The ideas on how to create a unique look and identity flowed from here. The minimalism in the font and white spaces harken back to the simpler times of dot matrix printers which helped save paper, ink, and the environment. The bold colours for each of the sections and the in-your-face typography were integral to the aesthetic. While we showcased the environmental disaster that is waiting to happen to our air, water and earth, we didn’t want to create a sombre look but instead chose to highlight the vibrancy of ideas that have sprung forth all over the country thanks to the finest minds creating practical solutions with little support or funding. To us, this was what the notion of ‘a billion dreams’ is all about. Each idea is a catalyst for the next one till it touches everyone’s lives, for the better.

The Sparrow Co-designed leaflet for the India Pavilion | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
The Sparrow Co-designed leaflet for the India Pavilion Image: Courtesy of Sparrow Co.

STIR: Which of the featured ideas resonated with you the most and how have they been incorporated into the visual communication for the pavilion?

SC: It wasn’t just one idea. For us the scale of what we were talking about hit home hard. India is a huge country of over a billion people. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of Nisha’s vision. The changes that we want to see aren’t going to happen overnight either. The cliché of India being a land of a billion people with a billion problems is actually true. And yet the beauty of this was how we flipped it on its head. We are a billion people. For a billion people. And even if we take a small step towards our long-term goal of an India that pays heed to sustainability, imagine what results we could achieve. Think of the opportunity and scale of the results too.

Over and above this, let’s face it, we are a design and communication house. Anything of this scale with the kind of exposure we were expecting, would get us really excited. It was always going to be difficult to encapsulate all that within four walls. And to be honest, thanks to the pandemic double whammy, we really couldn’t pull out all the stops in terms of communicating our messages. We had a film planned, several installations centred around the pavilion, books, seminars and exhibitions too. All that was supposed to visually communicate our message.

The India Pavilion banner at Somerset House | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
The India Pavilion banner at Somerset House Image: Courtesy of Sparrow Co.

STIR: How did this endeavour differ from some of your other projects?

SC: While this was a time-bound project with fairly tight deadlines to pull off various activities to support the main show, including a custom-designed website, a microsite, collateral, communications, school outreach program, curating stories of inventions, setting the tone and language for the writing, defining the categories under which we could highlight the inventions and stories, and so on - it was a hugely collaborative effort. Everyone had the freedom to contribute ideas and also be the voice of reason if it was not working. The entire team of writers, artists, filmmakers, editors, architects, independent creative consultants, the digital team, the curator, and Sparrow Co. worked in conjunction to pull it off. Interruptions thanks to the pandemic meant that various bigger ideas had to evolve or had to be dropped, and the last 30 days till the opening day was a mad rush to get things in place, fine-tune and check. We pulled out all stops, even finding printers in London to do our printing and help with the final outcome.

Web Design for the India Pavilion | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 |STIRworld
Web Design for the India Pavilion Image: Courtesy of Sparrow Co.

Preetam Koilpillai, a Bangalore-based pianist and co-founder of film and editorial consultancy firm Copac Media, was responsible for the sweeping musical arrangement that accompanied the digital installation at the biennale. In conversation with STIR, he recounts the process and concepts involved in his composition as well as his views on the relationship between music and design.

STIR: What was the initial spark or idea that drove your composition for the installation?

Preetam Koilpillai (PK): Well, the first thing was the theme itself, Nisha spoke about air and water. Movement suggested itself immediately and the piano lends itself very well to move across a wide pitch and dynamic range. Right at the beginning of the piece I thought of rain, one of the great sustaining forces on earth. So it starts tentatively, on a single note, repeating, like drops of water beginning to fall and then slowly starts gaining momentum and movement. The rest of the piece followed as a musical progression from this motif.

The second idea underpinning the piece is the exploration of its position in its musical context. I have a western classical background, but I have a small bit of experience with Indian classical music. Nisha wanted the piece to straddle both forms, so the piece is based on an Indian raga but not strictly enough that it becomes an Indian classical piece. And of course, the piano is a western instrument.

Preetam Koilpillai | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
Preetam Koilpillai Image: Courtesy of Preetam Koilpillai

STIR: How did you channel that inspiration into the soundtrack for the installation?

PK: Using the idea of rain, the piece begins with the slow falling of the water drops and the bass notes indicating the presence of distant thunder. It then slowly moves into a melodic motif and builds momentum. There is some further punctuation of the bass and then it slowly winds back down to single, separated notes. This is essentially the form of the piece and was intended to also mirror the movement in the original, conceived (installation. It's also meant to be cyclical, starting and ending with the single separated notes, enabling the piece to keep moving, uninterrupted through cycles of viewing and experiencing the installation. Since the installation itself could not travel to London, I hope the music served as an appropriate and effective backdrop to the space the India Pavilion occupied.

02 mins watch A billion ideas - The concept behind the India Pavilion | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
A billion ideas - The concept behind the India Pavilion Video: Courtesy of Sustainability Idea Labs

STIR: In your view, are there any some similarities between design and musical composition?

PK: Absolutely. They have everything in common. Both have structure, movement (visible and invisible) and aesthetic consideration. Both can serve a function or be a piece of art or be both. I believe the processes of creation would also be very similar.

Digital model of the art installation | India Pavilion | London Design Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
Digital model of the art installation Image: Courtesy of Soumitro Ghosh

It is impressive to see that during a period of relative difficulty, particularly in the face of all the setbacks brought by COVID-19, the pavilion team rose to deliver a rousing spectacle that inspired, resonated, and encouraged inquiry. The understated yet ambitious installation highlighted the power of grassroot initiatives alongside larger scale projects, offering a resounding reminder of India’s rich culture and wealth of indigenous design innovations to the world at large.

For more conversations from the India Pavilion, click here

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