SPACES / SHOP AND STUDIO
Three years ago before LOVER was born, this editor accidentally stumbled upon a little shop with moss-covered walls in Kerala’s Thekkady, best known for its tiger reserve and spice shops. It was outside the tourist season in this small, sleepy town in South India and the last thing she expected to find was a design store.
Four years later, she tracked down Viakerala founder Theresa George and visited their flagship in Fort Kochi and their studio across the water in Ernakulam to learn more.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background
I am a Cochin-based graphic designer and typographer. I’ve had my formal training in Fine Arts and later worked for graphic design studios in Bombay before moving back to my hometown Cochin, to set up Thought Factory Design in 2003.
I’ve always been interested in text-based visuals and how they go beyond the mere utility of reading, to communicate something that’s visceral. Since I spent most of my childhood outside Kerala, even though home was here, I was more comfortable communicating in English. My own early work, and the typographic work of the studio in the first few years was primarily around the English alphabet.
How did Viakerala come about?
After a few years of working on identity design systems for independent brands, the question of my own individual identity, that of my team, peers, and friends like me (who are from Kerala but did not grow up here) - became important to articulate. We were the new generation that had a very strong Kerala identity right from the way we were named, we dressed, our accents and aesthetic sensibilities, but we had started incorporating global influences into our own image, thoughts and actions.
The studio itself started getting exposed to a lot of international attention and I was fortunate to be selected for a workshop on typography at Basel School of Design where there were students of 17 different nationalities. This was definitely a turning point in my career when I realised my identity in a group such as this was generalised as ‘Bollywood, tikka masala and the Taj Mahal!’ none of which I can relate to, nor do most of my fellow Malayalees. It was hard to explain to my classmates at Basel that I come from a communist state which won a democratic election, and belongs to a larger democracy that it functions within. And it perplexed them even more to learn that Hindi was not the language spoken in my part of the country.
Being a typographer, the early ideas for Viakerala started out as a typographic experiment where Malayalam and English cohabit the same space - it was fun to analyse the immediate surrounding and come up with something that is rooted yet modern, just like the modern Malayalee. Just how we use so many different English words to speak the language, we started looking at it even to write the alphabet. This gave way to more ideas inspired by Kerala, and seen from a contemporary viewpoint. The Viakerala emblem encapsulates this idea in the flying elephant symbol.
Who designs at viaKerala? Tell us about your team, your work process and the mediums you work with.
Viakerala is a truly multidisciplinary team. Every design at Viakerala has a story of collaboration. Over the years there have been architects, sculptors, fine artists, engineers, screen printers and designers involved in the design and production. As the name suggests, Viakerala products are ‘made via Kerala' as much as possible. Apart from the T-shirts which we source from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, everything is designed and produced here.
Any handmade product is stitched through our own networks of women’s self help groups where we supply material and provide training for stitching & design detailing. Locally relevant materials like terracotta, handloom fabrics like Kerala towels and saree yardage get new avatars through innovative product design.
We love screen printing - many of the products here are screen printed with lettering at our very own print studio. We print on materials like cotton canvas, handmade & recycled kraft papers, kora fabrics and thorth (kerala towels) which go on to become products at the stores.
We first discovered you in Thekkady back in 2013. How did you end up there?
We had an opportunity in Thekkady to rent a previously unused room facing the street, which was right outside the Periyar Wildlife Reserve. This was in 2012, where the idea of Viakerala finally became a tactile space with products that shared a common philosophy. Being a Kerala based design house, we also believe that one neighbourhood theme at every store is important to make it relevant to the space that it represents. This led to extensive research with a lot of support from the Periyar Tiger Reserve and a collection called WILD 5 FIVE was launched at the Viakerala Thekkady store opening. What first seemed like a neighbourhood theme for this particular store is now a continuously updated collection and found in all Viakerala stores because of its relevance to Kerala, Western Ghats and the larger peninsula of India.
How would you describe a Malayali/Kerala design identity? How would you describe what viaKerala does to a stranger?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the identity of a Malayalee or that of Kerala - it is such a small geographical area with a diverse landscape, a complex letterform and an array of multicultural influences over a period of 2000 years of trade. At Viakerala, we use the alphabet / letterform as a metaphor to describe these aspects - the land is as curvy and curly as the script; you have the winding waterways, the rolling hills and the twisting roads. The personality of the Malayalee can be described as generally friendly; sometimes overstepping personal boundaries for the sake of curiosity - the letterform with its lack of formal geometry is representative of this. There are letters which are wider or taller than the majority of the script and sometimes look out of place when written on a layout.
Over years of spice trade and cross cultural exchanges, the language imported foreign words from Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Dutch and many more - we could also predict that there were influences on the form of the script from the languages used on the ships sailing via Kerala along the spice route. The old port of Muziris has been named on ancient maps as one of the trading hubs of the old world - we see these influences in architecture, furniture, cuisine and language. Viakerala brings out these ideas through products that have influences of these ideas from our own past.
Animals are a common motif in your designs. What is the Wild Five?
Animals are a common motif in Kerala. Our public institutions all have elephants in their emblems. One of the recent interns at Viakerala mentioned to me that when you happen to see any animal walk by, even a stray - it is an ’extraordinary’ moment. It represents a comfort in the sense of cohabitation, and in a larger sense, balance in that particular setting. On a similar note, a research project that we helped design, was the study of the small, seemingly insignificant Malabar Flying Squirrel which is a marker for the health of the entire biosphere of the Western Ghats. I'd like to believe that the presence of animals in the Viakerala product story has such significance to the larger Kerala consciousness.
The animals that appear in our classic collections are all indigenous and commonly found; special mention here for the common wall gecko that is present in every home! The Wild 5 Five, on the other hand, are the heroes of the Western Ghats, they were chosen for the relevance, importance and status in this particular biosphere - they are the elephant, lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri tahr, tiger & Malabar hornbill. The collection creates awareness through playful products on the importance of the flora and fauna of the Western Ghats and its connection to the wellbeing of Kerala as a state.
You’re big on Malayalam typography. What makes it special for you?
A good piece of typography can make my heart sing! I started experimenting with Malayalam type much later in my career but the possibilities are exciting. Coming from my personal background where I don’t use Malayalam to read, it is both an advantage and a disadvantage since i see it as a collection of squiggles and U-turns rather than reading the text. Having spent most of my childhood in Tamil Nadu, my favourite part of the drive back to Kerala was crossing the Palghat border. The colour of the soil changes from sandy brown to mud red, the green is overwhelming, the Malayalam script on the walls were like flags telling me my home in Cochin was just a few hours away! So yes, it has an emotional tug as well, and I discovered a way to use this to explain my identity.
Tell us about some of your products and experiments bearing Malayalam type.
I’ll have to mention Kerala kutty as the first since it is the most popular. It started with the question - what is the one thing that is common to anyone who is from Kerala? Whether you are young, old, man, woman, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. this is a word by which you have been referred to at some point, or many points, in your life. Some people even have it in their official names or surnames. It is almost an equaliser. And yet, it’s a word found only in Kerala. The design combined English & Malayalam; the word kutty in a simple clean Malayalam script, which in case of a non-reader, it was still recognised as part of the local language.
Street typography and found letterforms are also part of the design inspiration - we use some painted letterforms and then digitally play with them on softwares like Fontstruct to get newer or more dynamic forms. Stricter typographic spreads for paragraphs and layouts use open source Malayalam fonts. At certain points, the graphic persona of the type takes over from the readability, and yet somehow retains the connection to the script.
Could you tell us more about the Malayalam Project with the previous Biennale?
The Malayalam Project is a collaborative forum where we connect with peers who are following some form of practice in the Visual arts. Since we opened at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014, we have had over 40 collaborators - they were all given concept briefs by the research team and could have their own personal interpretation of it in any medium of their choice. The briefs were collected from literary pieces and had the running theme of the ‘narrative of a woman’ . The Malayalam Project aims to explore visual interpretations and reinterpretations of social constructs propagated by popular literature and poetry over the last century - a definitive influence on the social environment of Kerala. The project is now available in the form of a set of handbooks which have a documentation of the exhibit and the artworks.
What is your latest collection? What is coming up?
Every theme here is Kerala inspired. The latest collection just getting into stores is called Malayalanama; an old word for the land before the term Kerala was coined. It literally means ‘ the place of malayalam’. Of course the collection is heavily influenced by letterforms and typographic scripts from copperplates and older manuscripts. Lost letters, currency, symbols and numerals that are not in use anymore find their way into this range. Materials like handloom fabric, cotton canvas, paper and cloth based stationery and t-shirts are part of this collection. Viakerala is also collaborating with independent artists this year to bring in a more diverse range that will showcase different craft forms and materials.
What are the three best things about living in Kochi and why?
Kochi has a small city vibe, and yet it's big - cosmopolitan, diverse, and a lively centre for the creative arts.
Being centrally located, it is well connected, and an hour’s drive in any direction will take you to a different landscape - the old world backwaters, the cooler hills, or the sandy beaches.
As history has seen, adaptation and tolerance is inherent in the culture of Cochin and Kerala in general - this is an inspiring characteristic that makes Kochi a place that can lead by example.