Interviews: Shivani Dogra
“Shivani Dogra’s captivating work is truly one of a kind that will leave an ever lasting impression on you. In an exclusive interview with our magazine, Shivani told us how she got into the design field having no formal training and how her practice focuses extensively on reuse and restoration.” - Editor
About the firm: Shivani Dogra
Shivani Dogra is a multi-disciplinary design studio based in New Delhi, India . We restore deteriorating places with respect and fill new spaces with vibrance. Communicating through the language of colour, careful curation and the creative use of natural materials, the spaces we create are warm, soulful and informed. From rooms decorated simply, to those layered with texture, pattern and colour, each of our projects is unique– formed by the individual owners perspective and driven by our passion for beauty & harmony.
Know more about the firm here.
Tell us a little about your initial days and how did you get into the design industry?
I did not study Interior Design or Architecture. I dabbled in different careers for a while before discovering that Interior Design and working with older Architecture was my calling. My early years contributed to this choice of career. I grew up between Periyar in Kerala and The Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu-- both places that were somewhat isolated and replete with natural beauty. They were also places where one experienced a culture that was still heavily ‘Raj’ influenced and in some ways, cut off from mainstream culture. Although the buildings I grew up in and around were colonial, they were altered sensitively on the interior with a style that was subtle, elegant and completely Indian. In hindsight, I now see how this has made an impression on me.
I went on to study Literature in college and thereafter Communications and soon found myself working in film in Mumbai. Before long, I realized it wasn’t for me and I moved within two years to stay at a family home in Delhi. In Delhi, I tried my hand at the product and shoe design, even working in a shoe factory in Agra for a bit and I temporarily gave up the design dream when I found a job at NPR, an American news radio network. At that time, I’d decided to move out of home and rent a place not far from where my family stayed in Shanti Niketan, Delhi, mainly for my independence. The space I rented was an old artists studio at the end of a long driveway and above an aunt’s servants quarters. It was dishevelled and run down, but had immense potential and I slowly began to work on it over the weekends. I visited scrap shops around Shanti Niketan and picked up discarded furniture at fantastic discounts. I had the kitchen repainted, the bathroom was redone, furnishings repurposed from old fabric that I found at home and slowly developed a space that was wonderfully comforting to come back after work. Meanwhile at NPR, while I enjoyed the interaction with diverse traditions and places on the job, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with it. This led to a long search for wisdom within and career tests online that could guide me to this elusive calling of mine. I discovered, unsurprisingly, that every answer pointed to conservation, heritage management and interior design. The challenge now was how to set a foot in an industry I had no experience in. At the behest of a friend, I took pictures of my studio and documented it’s a transformation on a blog. The blog gained some traction and I followed it up by sending images to the Good Homes magazine which featured the space. That was a morale booster and later I used that published piece and my blog to advertise my services for a nominal rate on a Delhi online networking group. The response was encouraging and my first project from that advertisement was a lovely older home on Amrita Shergil Marg in Delhi. My journey began in fits and starts from there.
Your signature style is truly one of a kind. Creating a blissfully crafted amalgamation of colour, textile and styling resulting in soulful spaces that leave an everlasting impression on the user. More importantly, your work somehow represents or rather effectively uses Indian craft and ethnic décor majorly. How would you describe your style in your own words?
I’m hesitant to put a ‘market generated’ label on the style, as it tends to change depending on project requirements. Through the years my style has been defined in terms such as Eclectic, Ethnic, Anglo- Indian, Bohemian et cetera depending on the projects people see, but I believe I can mould myself to any creative style.
I’d say that if there were a definitive undercurrent to the style, it is authenticity. Authenticity for me is the conscious choice to stay true to the space, client, context and my personal understanding of beauty and soul. I largely tend to steer in the direction of design based on integrity and craftsmanship, rather than marketing..
My style also stems from the influences that have come from over 10 years of intensive travel through India on both my previous jobs for radio and film. On my travels, I was influenced & delighted by the way people everywhere created beauty with colour; the cheery flamingo-pink of a schoolhouse amid tin shanties in a Mumbai slum; the brilliant green of a beautifully tended garden within a dusty Delhi wholesale market– I loved the way colour transformed and uplifted! As I traversed rural stretches of the country, I was also moved by the elegance of dwellings simply constructed from materials found in nature, ornamented with handmade crafts. They’ve led to the growth of a design studio that promotes homegrown design, organic textures & spaces that bring nature in.
Your practice is extensively oriented towards reuse and restoration. Could you guide us through the inspiration behind this affinity and your approach towards restoration projects?
I’m naturally inclined towards restoring the old and the used. Part of this comes from the nostalgia of growing up amid older architecture, furniture and literature, surrounded by the smells of teak, tobacco, tea. And part of it comes from the admiration I have for the artistic integrity and the well-considered construction processes behind older structures. I find in particular the mystery, elegance and connection of older things to another time interesting material to work with.
I approach restoration with sensitivity for a space or piece’s heritage and a respect for the people that crafted it. Staying authentic to the soul of a space, meddling with as little as possible and bringing it up to date in a manner that is respectful and gentle are core to my process.
Over the years I’ve seen irreplaceable Indian heritage torn down without conscience and sold overseas by the container full, while Indians now are happy to sometimes buy badly done newer pieces just for perceived brand value. This is a sad ‘new lamps for old ones’ phenomenon, as I believe that the craftsmanship and materials of an older Indian style are sometimes superior to newer factory produced, or unimaginative hand-made pieces. This sometimes stirs the activist in me to want to restore and at very least keep some of this heritage back here.
Tell us about your studio in Delhi. Your team and work environment?
We’re based in Nizamuddin East in New Delhi in the vicinity of Humayun’s Tomb although we’ve been working from home this year. It’s a small studio with just 4-5 people at any time and an assortment of freelancers that contribute to our journal and help with the website. The atmosphere is casual at most times, except when we have a tough client. I intend to keep it intimate for as long as I can, as this seems to allow each of us the freedom to travel and work from just about anywhere.
Delhi is a competitive market when it comes to design. Lots of good firms and work, was it a challenge for you to set things up initially?
I haven't made the effort to completely integrate with my ‘new career’ and have little idea of the competition or the design firms in Delhi or elsewhere. My network is still largely from the media and I also continue to dabble on the side in other professions- teaching yoga and writing. Besides, most of our work comes from places outside Delhi.
When I started work as a designer, it was challenging, but largely because I didn't have a portfolio, the experience or guidance about how to get work in the field. Philosophically, I believe there's work for everyone and no scarcity-- the work that is meant for you will come to you. As an aside, I think it’s important to say that I started this career for the joy of creating and from the purpose of leading a more fulfilling life-- to assess the competition would defeat that purpose.
In today’s scenario, it is difficult to survive as a firm without being multi-disciplinary. What other areas, in-sync with your projects or not, does your practice venture into or aims to in the future?
I believe that it can be challenging, particularly at the start. We are planning on getting into retail soon, mainly because of having to take most of the work that comes one’s way, even when it’s not ideal. I also think it will be enjoyable to create something new with our trademark style for a larger clientele.
What projects are you currently working on or would you like to take up in the future?
We’re currently doing work in Hong Kong, Hyderabad, Delhi, Faridabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and possibly Gorakhpur. I look forward to the day when I finally have the time to work on my own space.
What would your advice be for young designers especially during the pandemic?
That if you don't have as much work now, it’s a great opportunity to learn other skills or even create just for the joy of it. It’ll come to use at some point in the future. I feel like this is a good time for creative people as there's more quiet and less day to day intrusion than there was before the pandemic.
A: Shivani Dogra