An antiques warehouse is an unlikely backdrop for a contemporary design exhibition. But the sprawling Heritage Arts in Mattancherry (which also houses the Museum Hotel from our previous story) is better suited than any white cube to a show brimming with cultural references.
With her Kochi Muziris Biennale collateral show, ‘Kissa Kursi Ka: A Chairy Tale’,Delhi-based artist and designer Gunjan Gupta celebrated 10 years of explorations around the chair.
The exhibition opened with a totem pole piled high with types of (mostly) informal seating, that tells us its history in India before the chair made its arrival with Vasco da Gama, who coincidentally passed away and is buried in Cochin. There are of course, iconic pieces from her Thrones series, and newer designs like this couch potato's favourite, the Bori sofa, made from deceptively comfortable sacks of foam potatoes.
We chatted with her over ginger lime sodas on the terrace about her art-meets-design practise.
The totem is the first work a visitor to your show encounters. Tell us about that piece.
The Totem Pole is a vertical installation of objects that existed prior to the chair, like the bamboo muda, the gadda, the bolster, the masnad, the chest and the thakat.
What is Kissa Kursi Ka? Take me back to the inception. Why the chair and not everything or anything else (that you design)?
Prior to European arrival Indians sat, ate and socialized on the floor. Since Vasco Da Gama was the first European explorer to have arrived in India, in essence, he brought the chair with him. My first design involved the idea of elevated seating and I worked on a series of thrones subverting the social hierarchy. So it all fell into place when I was invited to participate in the Biennale. The Heritage Arts venue was the starting point for this dialogue. The juxtaposition of contemporary furniture against a backdrop of antiques really worked for me and Kissa Kursi Ka was born.
You seem to take the street into the home a lot. Bicycles, sacks of potatoes. Where do you get your inspiration?
My studio is situated in an urban village in New Delhi and the inspiration for my work is everywhere I look. I designed my first bicycle throne for a workshop in Amsterdam and since then the street side vocabulary of India has been hugely appreciated all over the world.
When and what was the first piece of furniture you ever designed?
I designed the Dining Throne in 2006 as part of my Masters Graduate collection in London at Central Saint Martin’s. It is a conceptual piece of design, wrapped in pure silver, in association with traditional craftsmen.
There was a whole team involved in the show. What were the roles that Vishal K Dar and Yoichi Nakamuta played? Why was it important to have a curator?
Vishal helped in using the space effectively with all the existing elements and juxtaposing the chairs with traditional artefacts. Yoichi Nakamuta acted as a great bouncing board and opened up different ways of looking at the exhibition. Bringing a curator on board was important for me as this exhibition was marking my 10 year journey in design, and Yoichi, with his expertise in design and art, was the perfect choice for this.
How would you describe what you do?
My practice has two verticals. One is Gunjan Gupta artworks and sculptural furniture which is my artistic practice within the global design context.
Studio Wrap is an interior design and bespoke product design studio that draws from the Gunjan Gupta philosophy for commercial projects in India across the spectrum for real-estate, hospitality, residential and corporate.
What was your favourite thing about the Kochi Muziris biennale?
It was a very strong biennale that had a multidisciplinary approach, mixing tradition with modernity, and I particularly enjoyed all the collateral projects and discovering their exciting venues.
If you had to pick one chair to tell your story, which would it be and why?
I would not pick one, I would pick two. They would be the Dining Throne and the Bori Bicycle Throne, because they represent the paradox of India that is typically about high and low culture, craft and jugaad, that come together to create the unique Indian landscape.
Almost everything I do has a strong component of working with craftsmen in India.