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Delhi, India: The next design capital?

The Indian city makes a case for itself as a design mecca

Delhi’s Connaught Place is the heart of the city’s central business district, and has become a hub for design in India’s second-most populous city.

Delhi is both ancient and sparkling new.

From the forts of yore to the city’s ultra-shiny architectural experiments—and a dedicated Design District—craftsmanship and art infuse it all. Dating back to 6th century BCE, the city today delivers a range of world-class contemporary design.

Three years ago, the campaign “Make In India” was launched with a simple message: Local is where it’s at. Designers young and seasoned alike heeded the declaration, finding meaning in Delhi’s design ethos—which dates to the Mughal empire—adding a contemporary sensibility appropriate for the third-largest urban area in the world, according to the United Nations.

And, this month, the Delhi Festival is launching India Design ID 2017 to bring design to the masses.

Lighting by Nikhil Paul, founder of design studio Paul Matter
Courtesy Paul Matter

“The design world in India is vast...just like the country itself,” says Nikhil Paul, founder of design studio Paul Matter. The studio just launched its second collection of lights—entitled Satellite—inspired by the conceptual and minimalist movements of the 1960s and ’70s with a distinctly Indian flavor in its contemporary flair.

Paul calls the pieces “fundamentally geometric and architectonic.” Each piece is custom made and draws from a rich material palette that includes aged brass, burnt brass, bull horn, and even stone. The result is a light sculpture levitating in space.

“Our current civilization is by all means ways apart from our ancient one, but we can’t deny that it’s still a big part of us—embedded in our culture. It’s there,” says Paul. “Whatever that identity is, is reflected in the design world in India that exists today,” he adds.

And that is exactly the evolution of Delhi, and of India, as a new crux for design. The country, with its ancient roots and its contemporary vivacity (it’s the largest democracy in the world with more than a billion people), has finally opened up to the globe.

“There is more interaction now with design communities from all over the world. We are more open to ideas and criticism rather than being happy living in a bubble,” says Rimzim Dadu, a Delhi-based fashion designer who comes from a family of garment exporters.

“The design world in Delhi ranges from minimal to OTT [over-the-top], traditional to contemporary. The juxtaposition of old and new in such stark contrast: the spice market of Old Delhi barely a few minutes away from the plush and regal Connaught Place...” says Dadu. “I see myself as somewhere in between—trying to marry the traditional to the contemporary. I borrow from our vast heritage of rich crafts and textiles and interpret them in newer experimental materials.”

One of the city’s many unique aspects is the way it doesn’t have just one design hub: Most of the design studios in the city are in small villages that are a part of the greater Delhi.

“It’s always nice to visit these studio spaces hidden and tucked away and to explore and discover new spaces and objects that people are producing, absolutely all over the city,” says Paul.

Playful ceramics by Aman Khanna
Courtesy Aman Khanna
“Bowlhead,” by Aman Khanna
Courtesy Aman Khanna

For Aman Khanna, a graphic artist, illustrator, sculptor, and a visual storyteller, the last five years in Delhi has delivered exactly that: a more area-specific and focused design community.

“Earlier there used to be one big creative community—there are now a lot of young and talented designers working in various genres of design,” Khanna says.

And with these areas of expansion comes a central question for designers: How can their work improve the lives of people in their reach? For Khanna—who set up his own design studios, Infomen in London in 2005, and Infonauts in Delhi in 2009, and is currently working with clay—this is precisely the area that Delhi’s design scene should be moving toward.

“I wish there was more dialogue, better interaction among designers so that we could solve some of the social, environmental, and civic problems that the city and the country has been facing,” Khanna adds.

According to him, Delhi, and India on the whole are both, after all, big on “makeshift objects [created] by non-designers or common people based on their day-to-day needs”—sparking design innovation pretty much anywhere, anytime.

Celestial lighting by Nikhil Paul
Courtesy Architectural Digest India

The “Make In India” campaign is encouraging exactly that—with new ideas coming to light for infrastructure (like the industrial corridor from Delhi to Mumbai), greener architecture, air pollution solutions, and products designed to combat medical issues.

“The initiative is at a very nascent stage as of now, but it holds great promise and potential,” says Paul. “And it has been received really well by both small- and large-scale industries.”

Even if the intense marketing and branding is merely shifting the perception of the country towards becoming the next destination for innovative design, half the work is almost done.