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The life of Gajanan Upadhyaya, the man who shaped Indian furniture design

The 'father of Indian furniture design', GU brought the knowledge of the world's best, nurtured the field through his teachings and emphasised the spirit of humility and service in design.

by Shilpa DasPublished on : Nov 02, 2021

I first met Professor Gajanan Upadhyaya or GU (an appellation by which he was lovingly addressed by all and sundry) in 2002. He was a consultant to the architectural firm, HCPDPM, Ahmedabad, and I was running a non-profit in their premises. My first impression of him was that he was a gracious, soft-spoken and down to earth person who never considered any work infra dig. He had indefatigable energy and was so lithe he would bound up the stairs of the office while people three decades younger wearily plodded along. The third thing I noticed was his captivating smile that reached his eyes and revealed a perfect set of white teeth. On my asking once how he managed to keep them so, pat came the response, “rinse your mouth every time you have tea or coffee and brush your teeth before going to bed. You cannot renew what nature has given.” At the time, I had no idea about his legendary reputation as furniture design guru because he had no airs about him and never spoke about himself even though we had innumerable informal conversations.

Gajanan Upadhyaya with colleagues LC Ujjawane, BM Anand and JG Sevak at Freshers' Party 1992 | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Gajanan Upadhyaya with colleagues LC Ujjawane, BM Anand and JG Sevak at Freshers' Party 1992 Image: NID Archives

Years later, in 2011, much after I had joined NID as faculty, I asked GU about the architecture of the NID building, and he said, “Can you run with me?” Incredulous, I followed him, trying hard to keep pace as he ran the length and breadth, the top and bottom of the building with me in hot pursuit. He must have been 77 years old then. GU explained how Gautam Sarabhai was so meticulous he got 40 drawings done for the building, how the Sarabhais borrowed the system of grids from the museum designed by Le Corbusier across the road, how Charles Correa helped correct a flaw in the beams during the construction phase, how light penetrates horizontally in a building only up to 10 ft or 20 ft and not more and the Sarabhais considered that in their design and dimensions of the NID building. He told me that at first, two institute buildings had been envisaged for NID and GU had designed the other one which was to come up east of the existing building and house a library and an auditorium. By the end of two hours, I had learnt, dizzyingly so, all about grids, reverse beams, funicular shells, cantilevers, expansion joints, woodworking machinery, and how to aesthetically put beams and columns together. He also described in vivid detail how he came to design the NID faculty housing, the Director’s Bungalow and the student hostels, the challenges he faced and how he overcame them. By then, my education in GU’s contribution to the architecture and to education at NID was complete.

GU hailed from a farmer’s family in a humble village in Gujarat and spent a carefree childhood climbing trees, running through the fields and walking 26 kms daily to school. It was his literature teacher, the kind and soft-spoken Mohan Patel who encouraged him to pursue his dream of studying architecture at MS University (MSU), Vadodara. Patel was a great storyteller and read out a story in class one day on the wheel of life that moved the children to tears. GU said that he learnt valuable lessons from Patel’s storytelling that applied to a good story, to good design and to life at large: it should have no unnecessary narration; it should have a moral; it should be useful and serve a function.

Lawyer’s Chair for the Gujarat High Court for HCPDPM | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Lawyer’s Chair for the Gujarat High Court for HCPDPM Image: Saurabh Shrivastava, NID

When he visited NID in 1962, Gira Sarabhai spotted the young architect’s enormous confidence in his own abilities and invited him to join the Institute once BV Doshi had interviewed him. Since he showed an affinity for work related to furniture, Gira asked GU to copy Danish designer Hans Wegner’s classic dining Cowhorn chair that had come to India as part of the exhibition, Art in Europe and America. He made two of these and in so doing, developed a deep respect for material and construction aesthetics. “During my school days, I had watched a film where the craftsmen made a chair with great pride and after it was ready, they threw it aside to see how strong the chair was. I did the same to the chairs I made.” GU went on to design the functional and elegant India Lounge or 24/42 chair as part of a scheme for mass-produced low-cost furniture, along with Professor Hans Gugelot of Ulm School of Design and it became quite popular. At Gugelot’s urging, GU designed tables of different sizes, racks, and a long bed using similar techniques. “I worked so hard for three months that I wore my shirts out with my sweat! Thus, began his incredible experience of learning from everyone he came in contact with. In 1964, he developed several furniture items for the famous Nehru Exhibition and worked with Charles Eames too.

GU and BV Doshi. NID, 2016 | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Gajanan Upadhyaya and BV Doshi, NID, 2016 Image: NID Archives

However, his greatest learning came from his association with George Nakashima, an American architect and furniture designer of Japanese origin. He said “Nakashima saw that the Sarabhais had copied a chair he had designed. It was robust and comfortable, but quite heavy as it took more volume of wood. Nakashima felt the joinery had not been done right and we drew the whole design again. Giraben was quite pleased when Nakashima generously permitted her to make the Kornblut chair in the NID workshop. He refused to accept any fee or royalty for it and asked her to donate the proceeds to the ashram in Pondicherry, started in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and designed as a meditative space, Golconde, in 1945 by Tokyo-based Czech architect, Antonin Raymond.”” GU said, “Nakashima told me that any chair had to be ‘Kevinised’ (Kevin was the name of his son) i.e. it should be capable of being handled roughly.” From Nakashima GU learnt to judge the quality of wood, “When we were making the first few furniture prototypes, I accompanied Nakashima to Latibazar in the old city of Ahmedabad to purchase cut wood. I was surprised to see him lick his finger and apply the saliva on the wood. Nakashima explained that water gives transparency and by doing this, you can see all the grains in the wood. In my opinion, no one could know wood better than this wonderful designer.”

Nakashima's daughter Mira and GU. Nakashima Symposium. NID. 2016 | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Nakashima's daughter Mira and GU. Nakashima Symposium. NID. 2016 Image: NID Archives

GU also acknowledged a huge intellectual debt to other visitors at NID such as Tapio Wirkkala, “a versatile Finnish designer who could design anything”; Enrico Peressutti, “a jolly Italian architect whose signature use of brackets in tall buildings made the buildings bigger”; P.P. Hancock, from the Royal College of Art, London, “who was great at wood working”; Claude Stoller, American architect, who “made a chart in order to judge and select good furniture” and Harry Weese for his unusual design for Air India staff housing in Bombay. Most importantly, he had immense respect for Premji Mistry, Gira’s aide, genius and craftsman extraordinaire who could design and recreate the geodesic structure of Buckminster Fuller on Gandhi Road (the Calico Dome).

During this initial period, no formal training was imparted to students in Furniture Design at NID. All activities concentrated around a wood workshop which undertook batch production of furniture items beginning with Nakashima who designed rosewood furniture produced at the workshop.

In 1966, the Sarabhais sent GU to Copenhagen to join the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to specialise in Furniture Design. He travelled by ship via Alexandria and Cairo and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the pyramids and the sphinx, was severely short of money and was helped by several people along the way. To his surprise, the renowned designer Poul Kjærholm, whose work he’d admired at MSU, was his teacher. “But, it took me almost a month to attract him enough to come to my table. I recalled the example of a tiger in a ring. If you step into the circle, the tiger will pounce on you but if you keep a distance, the tiger remains still. So, it is only the moment that controls the tiger and not the ring. It is that moment that one has to recognise which I did with Kjærholm. I couldn’t speak Danish, he could not speak English but from then on, we didn’t need language to communicate with each other.” Impressed with GU’s work ethic and award winning prototype of a double folding stool, Kjærholm recommended him to a teaching position at the Academy.

GU Classic Chair, NID | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
GU Classic Chair, NID Image: Saurabh Shrivastava, NID

During the years in Denmark, he first worked with Nils Fagerholt and Poul Kjærholm, and later, set up his own design practice with Dan Svart and Peter Hjoert Lorenzen in Copenhagen. He worked closely with leading Danish designers such as Vibeke Klint, Dorte Raaschou, Borge Mogensen, Bo Bonfils, Jens Moeller Jensen, Rigmor Anderson, and Werner Jakobsen. In Denmark, he designed all manner of things. A monograph on him published by HCPDPM in 2009 states, that he designed,"furniture, glassware, ceramics, kitchen equipment, charcoal grills, fireplaces, including tools for fireplaces, alarm clocks, railway compartments, even wine and beer bottles. His projects included architecture, exhibition, furniture and industrial design.” He observed how the Danes held their designers in high esteem. He said, “At a restaurant, if people saw Tapio Wirrkala arrive, they would stand up to show him respect.” One day, he dined with Dieter Rams, German industrial designer and retired academic, closely associated with the consumer appliances company Braun, the furniture company Vitsœ, and the functionalist school of industrial design. Rams was scaling the heights of design standards at the time with music systems, tape recorders and radios, and GU promptly bought a portable Braun radio to listen to music from India.

During this period, GU was upset with the Sarabhais over two issues. When they sent him to Denmark, they made GU sign a contract that he would have to pay a certain “hefty” amount, if he breached the contract. “I had decided that I would not take this lying down and after a year of working hard, I sent them the full amount and freed myself of any obligation to them. They were naturally upset but my self-respect was important to me.” The second reason for his displeasure was the chair he had worked on with Gugelot. The subsequent publication at the Institute had removed GU’s name and credited Gugelot entirely!”

Cafeteria Chair, NID | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Cafeteria Chair, NID Image: Saurabh Shrivastava, NID

A homesick GU returned to India in 1974, and was persuaded by Pupul Jayakar, Charles Correa and Director of NID, Ashoke Chatterjee to join the Institute to develop the postgraduate programme in Furniture Design leading to an uninterrupted 20 year stint as faculty in industrial design. At this time, he also contributed to the Institute’s efforts to develop conservation plans for places such as Fatehpur Sikri, Chidambaram (Trancobar), Brajbhoomi and Sir George Everest Park in Mussoorie and worked closely with Professor Satish Davar, School of Architecture, Delhi.

I work more and more at it until one day I see that I can’t change a thing. You refine your furniture to such an extent that it is impossible to take it further unless you change the brief or the material. At this point, none can touch it. – Gajanan Upadhyaya

The first furniture he designed for NID after 1976 was for the NID hostels. GU wanted his students in the programme to see what kind of furniture he could make, and inspire them by example. In 1978, he designed what is called the GU Classic Chair using teak and canvas. His objective was to design an affordable, low seating, semi knockdown but stable chair for his colleagues which would work both as an easy and a dining chair. He deployed the Aramco bolt, a high-tensile steel bolt that he’d seen in Copenhagen. He sagaciously sourced the fabric used for the seat and back; it was a non-stretchable fabric called ‘filter cloth’, manufactured locally, used to make bags for packing animals! He then went on to design many pieces of low cost domestic furniture for the NID faculty residences. He also designed the horizontally stackable Cafeteria Chair using mild steel, inspired by the Thonet Vienna chairs he had seen in the cafetaria of the Academy at Copenhagen. Drawing chairs was a deeply meditative practice to him and he would draw every day on the floor of his home. “I work more and more at it until one day I see that I can’t change a thing. You refine your furniture to such an extent that it is impossible to take it further unless you change the brief or the material. At this point, none can touch it.”

Gajanan Upadhyaya and MP Ranjan.  Cultural Day. 1992 | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Gajanan Upadhyaya and MP Ranjan, Cultural Day, 1992 Image: NID Archives

Along with his colleague, M.P. Ranjan, GU evolved a detailed curriculum for Furniture Design and implemented it. Each had their own strengths: Ranjan was conceptually sound, while GU would insist the students master the craft.  He believed that teachers must respect students’ individuality, let them find their own way and not unnecessarily influence them.  He also said something that is as profound as it is memorable: “While teaching, you find sometimes that a student is very close to a good solution. At that point, as teacher you have to be careful to say only the bare minimum, and not appreciate the work. If you tell them it is good, then it becomes your design, no longer remains their design and they will lose interest in it. Let them solve the problem and realise on their own that what they have done is right. If that happens, the role of the teacher is fulfilled.”

Like his own teacher at school, GU narrated stories with an underlying maxim to his students. He once gave the analogy of a tiger crossing a river, “A tiger will cross a river only in a straight line. If the water current is strong, it will take the tiger along, changing his direction. But, a tiger resists using all his might and through several attempts, tries to reach his goal. The same principle applies to design. Do not stop until you reach your goal; practice and not profess, and make opportunities not wait for them.”

Illustrative tribute to GU on his demise by his second student at NID and design educator, Chandra Vijai Singh (CVS) | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Illustrative tribute to GU on his demise by his second student at NID and design educator, Chandra Vijai Singh (CVS) Image: Chandra Vijai Singh (CVS)

GU took great pride in his students’ professional practice. GU once described to me in hilarious anecdotal detail how his very first two students in Furniture Design, John Matthew and Chandra Vijai Singh approached him to join the discipline. The outpouring of grief from his former students is testimony to their high regard for him. John Matthew, Founding Director, Dovetail Furniture and Founding Faculty, Srishti MIAD&T, says, “In my student days, GU was my guru and I was his sponge. He was happy that I readily grasped technical stuff, didn’t give too much blah (which he hated anyway) and instead, demonstrated my understanding through clear visualisation, detailing and actual making. He didn’t question my keen interest in photography, art and illustration but genially acknowledged my ability and unconventionality. He didn’t allow me to design a chair till I was well into my third year. He said it took maturity to design a chair. Two years later when I designed a chair as part of my Diploma project, I understood what he meant. From him I learnt the value of logic, of simple and sensible design, durable aesthetics, honesty in expression, passion for detail, a keen understanding of material and of manufacturability. He also taught me grace, accommodation and sincerity in living life fully and on my own terms.”

Gajanan Upadhyaya | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Gajanan Upadhyaya Image: Pravinsinh Solanki, NID

Sandeep Mukherjee, Managing Director, Quetzel Design and Founder Quercuspace, pays him a rich tribute: “There are men, too gentle to live amongst wolves, said James Kavanaugh, and these words aptly describe GU. He was gentle but not weak; proud but not arrogant; an introvert but not shy. He was the best example of the Guru-Shishya relationship that I have experienced. Our relationship was deep and the transfer of knowledge done with love and care. I learnt deeply, and I hope I can carry forward his belief of being true to one’s own self. GU intensely disliked verbosity and overly intellectualising design or philosophising. To him design was to be felt with all senses and internalised.”

As in tailoring, so in life, do not hide your flaws. Make a feature out of it instead. Design lies in detailing. – Gajanan Upadhyaya

J L Naik, sculptor, ceramic designer and design teacher admired GU so much he addressed him as Gaju. Gaju is short for ‘Gajanan’ but in Gujarati, it also means “great ability or prowess.” The two shared an agrarian temperament and straightforwardness hailing as they did from farming families, and importantly, an abiding friendship. He mentions how GU was generous to a fault. Thirty years ago, GU saw Naik’s sculpting tools drying in the sun, and gifted him a sturdy military bag to keep them in, a bag that Naik cherishes to this day.

Gajanan Upadhyaya | Gajanan Upadhyaya Tribute | STIRworld
Gajanan Upadhyaya Image: Pravinsinh Solanki, NID

Not many know that GU owned a foot pedalled sewing machine and had a passion for sewing. In his early youth, he took clothes from the members of his family and opened them up to study the principles of cutting and stitching; he became such a master at stitching that he stitched clothes for his children, wife, Kumudini, and himself besides upholstery and curtains for the home. For all his insistence on “being arrogant about one’s work” he was one of the humblest people I know. Someone who learnt something from each person he met. Who said he owed everything he’d accomplished in life to his beloved wife. He would always want to call a spade a spade and call out the bluff of any Emperor’s new clothes. His every practical injunction bespoke a philosophical profundity. He told me once, “as in tailoring, so in life, do not hide your flaws. Make a feature out of it instead. Design lies in detailing.” This attention to detail in his architecture, furniture and in his personal relationships is the quiddity of GU to me, made all the more tangible by his furniture that surround me both at office and home. Rest in Peace, dear GU. You are the star that shines on and lights the path for others.

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