by Pallavi MehraApr 02, 2021
Equipped with a specialisation in computational and digital design, The Wicker Story is a creative offshoot of the Hyderabad-based Prelab Design Studio. Priyanka Narula, a principal partner at Prelab, founded The Wicker Story while exploring new contexts where she could apply her education and learning of computational design. Faced with the ground reality of economics, complexity of execution, and a general aversion towards more organic forms of large-scale computational design, the principal architects of Prelab began to look for alternatives. The idea was to look at the possibility of creating and executing projects that were inspired by an algorithmic output as a more sustained part of their practice and not just as one-off projects. The studio did not immediately hone in on wicker as its primary methodology, they experimented with creating interactive art installations amongst other things. In a conversation with STIR, Narula expresses the dilemma she faced of questioning the role of the architect and designer as opposed to the role of the engineer while working on these ideas. And so, they went back to the drawing board to re-evaluate their approach.
While their approach has been growing for a while, The Wicker Story truly began in 2018, when Narula conceptualised a seemingly simple object titled Imli. It was materialised as part of an exhibition meant to invoke a feeling of nostalgia. Narula chose imli as the form and rattan as the material as a hark back to her memories of childhood culinary fancies and the cane chairs she grew up around. The resulting object, the ‘Imli Bench’, happened to open a plethora of possibilities while addressing some of the concerns that guided Narula’s experimentation.
The most topical of the concerns were the preservation and upliftment of local technique and labour. The weaving process used for making the bench is a long-established method familiar to most parts of India. In an attempt to create a fluid, soft furniture piece, the methodology undertaken led to the production of a seamless design with the added advantage of producing zero material waste. During the course of the project, Narula realised the versatility of rattan as a material and wicker as a weaving tool as she says, “It allowed for the creation of complex symmetries and intricate forms”. Having found the material and methodology which work in synchronicity with the use of computational programming as a design process, The Wicker Story was formally established as its own independent design entity in 2019.
This has evolved into a variety of different ideas, including the ‘Lifafa Chair’ and more interestingly a series titled Topology. Topology is conceptualised as a surface development product, particularly for walls. It is a combination of complex software-based design and a simple weaving technique. Making a comparison to weaving cloth, Narula explains, "The intent is to create a product for interior spaces. What we are saying here is that wicker is a woven system, like cloth which you can weave metres and metres, limited only by the ergonomics of the weaver and the size of the machine but the length in many ways is endless. The same concept and idea can be applied to wicker”.
Scalability in wicker is very easy to accommodate, unlocking the possibility of large-scale applications for interiors as well as outdoor pavilion-like structures. Most of the products get their structural integrity from a skin and bones system. A light frame is contained inside the wicker shell. Because the two are well-integrated the products do not require an elaborate internal structure to give the product stability and strength. This is an understanding that stems from her architectural background; elaborating on the symbiotic relation between Prelab Design Studio and The Wicker Story, Narula emphasises, “I think the base of the architectural practice feeds into The Wicker Story as a product design studio. It helps us envision solutions at a smaller, more tangible scale. This allows us to invest in more directed research on application, scalability and materiality. We are constantly looking at how to take the idea of a product to an interior scale, and then perhaps even to an architectural scale. We incorporate and test certain ideas for The Wicker Story in our architectural and design practice and it becomes a testing ground from where we can then launch as a product”.
One of the newest products is the Coral series, which features a chair and a lamp. Here the design moves away from the idea of a skeletal structure supporting the woven skin. Instead, it utilises a flat woven mat that is then moulded into a three-dimensional object. It is another chapter in the evolution of the studio’s story. Taking into consideration the transportability of the products themselves, the Coral series is designed to assist in flat-pack delivery. The undulation form, however, is not sacrificed, it is an interesting development in the direction of merging craft and parametric design.