In Conversation with Doshi Levien

Design duo Doshi Levien spoke to us on the sidelines of Salone about their creative process and their new collection for Kvadrat.

Doshi Levien by George Powell.jpg

Design Anthology: I wanted to ask you about your childhoods and how they may have influenced your sense of colour, because both of you've obviously grown up in very different countries.

Jonathan Levien: If you were to limit it to the subject to colour, I'd have to have to say I like brown especially. I grew up in a factory environment. My parents soft toy kit manufacturers. And they had a factory where they were stamping out fabric and sending it off in brown carboard boxes all over the world.

Design Anthology: Not the green rolling hills of Scotland?

Jonathan Levien: No, <laughs> materials aplenty, tape machines and cardboard to play with. I think that did more than anything to inspire my love of making and design. So that's the colour of my childhood, sorry. Corrugated cardboard.

Nipa Doshi: The colour of your childhood was about making.

Design Anthology: That's interesting. What about you Nipa?

Nipa Doshi: I grew up in a dusty pink Art Deco house, in the heart of Delhi. But I was born in Bombay. My grandmother had a beautiful Art Deco apartment in Bombay. But they also had a beautiful little house in the village, a really old Indian house. And then my Aunt's house was designed by Le Corbusier's assistant, in Ahmenabad, where I went to college. We had Le Corbusier's Sanskar Museum opposite. Then Louis Kahn developed this incredible campus. And I think for me that the world that I grew up in was incredibly plural. I used to think that Vesper was an Indian brand. That Art Deco was a distinct Bombay style. And I think growing up there was a modernity, and in a way that also influenced everything in life. And you know everybody sees India as a land of colour. I think India is also a land of textiles. Colour and textiles. Of course we have incredibly barren desert. And yet the tribal women wear the brightest colours. And then you go to Kerala where everyone wears white because everywhere there is so much green, there is already so much colour.

For me I think the plurality of architecture, tradition, modernity, manufacturing and everything happening around me, really influenced my approach to colour. There's a plurality in how I see colour. I don't have a preference for colour, I think every colour is beautiful, it depends on how and where you use it. And it's something that's constantly evolving. I'm a person who looks, I'm a visual person. I remember when I was off to college when I was working in Delhi, and how it was incredibly painted it was. And I remember sitting in traffic and a really smoky bus was coming up next to us. And I noticed the red of that bus. You can see beauty in really ugly situations, there's always beauty everywhere. If you have the eyes to look. And I think perhaps that's where my love for colour came from. And I try to show that in our work, both of us. There is a sense of daring. Not having a style, but really going deep into something. And having an approach and making, and painting. It's a very hands on way of creating.

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Design Anthology: I guess it's hard to pick one color when you're from a country like India. The two of you obviously have grown up in very different countries but also what you studied was very different.

Jonathan Levien: Le Corbusier didn't come to Scotland, unfortunately.

Design Anthology: What a shame.

Jonathan Levien: Deco pink was not there either. We had the yellow of the heather gorse bushes by the sea. But brown cardboard it is, I'm afraid <laughs>.

Design Anthology: Brown is a color.

Jonathan Levien: It's true. Every color is beautiful.

Design Anthology: Absolutely. So how much of that contrast between the two of your upbringings and your studies and your set of interests before you came together, how much of that do you think makes up the dynamic of how you work together as two creative people? Is that a big part part of what makes you two successful as a design duo?

Jonathan Levien: I think in the way that we work, and the way we think about our work and our process is remarkably different. I think that probably has more to do with the contrast in our work, and how we complement each other. I'm coming from making background and I would say I'm more three dimensional in my thinking and design approach. Making is still a really intrinsic important part of my process. Although I'm not making the final article any longer, it gives shape to what we create. Nipa, I think has a very different skillset and a very different way of looking. And as she just explained, her upbringing in India obviously contributed a lot to the way she sees the world, and how she interprets visual culture in her work. I don't have access to that. And I think that's wonderful, that we have this, that we have to reconcile our differences through our work. Fortunately there's an openness to each other that was established at the Royal College of Art. It's important to have contrasts and differences. But then you also have to be open to change, to see things from the other person's perspective. I think it's a very important part of being able to create something out of our different abilities.

Design Anthology: I can imagine being based in London must be quite unique, for a lot of the reasons that you've just explained. I'm wondering about the effect of Brexit, wherever that is right now, how are you feeling about being based in London? Do you feel like the creative energy is changing there or is it still as appealing as it always has been?

Nipa Doshi: London, for me, London belongs to everybody. London doesn't belong to Britain. It belongs to the people that come there because they can express their creativity, where young people have opportunities. Where you can be from any country. And I think London has many things which are beyond Europe. Our relationship with Europe is very important but I think London is bigger than that. And I think the relationship that London has to the rest of the world, it's not provincial. Which other European city can you go to and find people from everywhere, and dress in whatever way you want and nobody will even look at you twice. No one will say 'what are you wearing?' For me, it's incredible freedom. You know and coming back to your question about upbringing, I think that upbringing is one thing, there are a billion people like me. And there are a million people like Jonathan.

Jonathan Levien: Only a million? I'm more rarefied. <laughs>

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Nipa Doshi: For me it's not the upbringing that's important. It's what you do with what you're exposed to. I think that for me that's more important. And it's also about the other person having something you don't. It's not even necessarily the cultural background, it's the fact that Jonathan can make things beautifully.

Jonathan Levien: The question was about Brexit.

Design Anthology: We're circling around to that.

Jonathan Levien: I think it's annoying. It's a big annoying waste of time.

Nipa Doshi: It's a political tragedy. 

Design Anthology: I'm looking at it as an outsider. 

Nipa Doshi: I don't think anything's going to change actually. 

Jonathan Levien: Ultimately it'll get resolved and we'll carry on as usual. But how can you undo something as intrinsic as the deep cultural relations that we've formed, over decades. How can you have the arrogance to think you can just undo that, and just unpick it. You can't. It'll find its way back once the politicians have stopped, you know. 

Design Anthology: Yeah, I think I think you're right. 

Jonathan Levien: I mean making a mess of things. I don't feel any differently. It hasn't impeded or enhanced my creativity or my desire to stay. I would say we are slightly apologetic to our European clients. I felt a little bit sheepish I think when the vote was called, and just to make it clear we're definitely not on that side. How could we be? All our clients are in Europe. 

Design Anthology: I agree with you Nipa, I think London is an entity unto its own almost, in way that it is almost a country in a city. So I hope you're right that it will never change. 

Nipa Doshi: I think it comes back to what's happening in Britain with Brexit is not that different to what's happening in Austria, or Hungary or the United States, or Australia. Or many other parts of the world. They have this wanting to go back to being 'pure'. 

Design Anthology: Whatever that is. 

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Nipa Doshi: Whatever that is, right. And I think for me, that's the issue here. Brexit is just one thing. I mean, look at Italy. So many countries are now wanting to keep the foreigners out. When they were foreigners in the first place. It comes back to this idea of plurality of global culture. I think that there's beauty in plurality. And I think Brexit in a way is a rejection of plurality. But you know what's interesting to say that 'I don't want to be friends with my neighbour's but I'm going to be open to the rest of the world. 

Design Anthology: Yeah, it's ludicrous. 

Nipa Doshi: We'll do trade in Australia, and India and Brazil, and all over the world. But I don't want to do it people who are actually ethnically probably closest to me. It's like Australia or Hong Kong saying that we don't want to do business in Asia, but everywhere else. 

Design Anthology: So I'm curious to know about the creative process with you two. You now have a studio, there is a small team that you work with. How does that start when a client approaches you? Are you two off drawing or talking on your own, and then come together? Is the studio involved in that from the very beginning? And is it different with every project? How do you approach the process, considering your background and your training is quite different, maybe your approach is too? 

Nipa Doshi: I think that at first when we started the studio, you know, we had more client designer relationships. And I think what's interesting about working in Europe, in fact we don't call them clients, we really think we're collaborating with B&B, we're collaborating with Moroso, with Kettal, all the companies we work with. But of course there are situations where a make-up brand would come to us and say we want you design our packaging, and then of course you have a very different scenario, almost like a creative service provider kind of relationship. But the way we are working now with Kvadrat, who are equally interested in what we are bringing to the table, it's a true collaboration. If we are successful, they are successful. And that's something that underpins European design. Most designers in our industry talk about collaboration, not 'Kvadrat is my client'. 

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Jonathan Levien: And as for how we work together, I think it comes back to a reconciliation of each other's approaches and we'll sit opposite in the studio where we can sit down and work together. We have a lot of other things to do also... But when we are just sitting face to face around a table with our sketch books out, and materials, and what have you. I think the real genesis happens, and the spark occurs, when we're interpreting each other's language, or ideas. And quite often it's a misinterpretation but it leads to something else. Like Nipa will be pouring through her art references and then she'll be re-drawing them as a way of learning about them and getting closer to the thinking behind those artworks and then that'll kind of morph into an object or it'll become something, it could be a table for example, and I'll look at her drawing and I'll say well there's a light idea in there, you know maybe because I'm seeing everything upside down from the side of the table. <laughs> So I'll start creating a light with that concept, that will quickly become a mock-up or a model.

Design Anthology: So it's a very organic process? 

Jonathan Levien: It is organic, even to the degree that, at the end of the day having created something you had no intention of making in the beginning. You have to be open to ideas, and you can't tell where the're going to lead. That's how the creative process plays out. 

Design Anthology: I heard you say in a previous interview that you often argue, and that you both think that you're right. That you always argue the point, and as a couple as well... Has there ever been a situation where you haven't been able to resolve a disagreement in a work setting? Or does it always end up with something that you're both happy with? Is that how you decide to go ahead with a design?

Nipa Doshi: I'm always right. 

Jonathan Levien: You're so predictable. It's really whoever argues the strongest. It really sharpens your intellect and you have to argue the idea out, rigorously, and fight for it. If you really believe in it. And try and encourage the other person to see the way you're seeing things, so you really have to describe it.

Design Anthology: The power of persuasion?

Jonathan Levien: The power of persuasion. And it's great, to have that.. It's good.

Design Anthology: Is that how the collection with Kvadrat came about?

Jonathan Levien: I have to say this is really, the colours, as a project, is coming from Nipa. Absolutely. I'm sort of looking from the wings, from the side. While Nipa is working on this, and she's painting and creating colours, not choosing colours. It's really about the process of painting. So there's that sort of coming back and taking a look, and really enjoying it, the process.

Design Anthology: That must be a really fun way to come up with a color palette.

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Nipa Doshi: Actually this collection was interesting because we were looking at the royal miniature paintings from the Jodphur Palace, and equally I'm very inspired by Le Corbusier's paintings, his paintings are absolutely stunning. And looking at Chinese porcelain colours and trying to get a feel around the palette. And this idea that when you're looking at the paintings that other colours are coming through, and I think that's something that's really visible in this collection. Like you feel that there is another colour coming through, or there were two layers of colour and one layer has been taken off. So in that sense for me, this project was really about creating texture through colour. And texture through the actual yarn. So we were basically trying to capture the colours that we were putting together, and I was also looking at 50s fashion. Looking at Lanvin and Balenciaga. We were looking at ceramics from Sevres, so it was a very layered process of finding colours. You'll see the palette, they're not bright, bold colours. They're mid tones, they're quite soft in a way, and the combinations are really unusual. In the way that we combined Lavender with Brown. Or a Maroon with this almost Lemon Beige. So hence you have a new neutral. So their was a lot of research that went into creating the colours, and I think I painted at least 150 colours. We had stacks of these painted sheets. 

Design Anthology: What medium were you using to paint? 

Nipa Doshi: Guache. I love painting painting with Guache. It doesn't have any sheen, just that nice flat matte finish. We have images of some of the process. 

Design Anthology: So this is what you took to Kvadrat in terms of coming up with the actual weave and the texture of the fabric itself, it was still paintings?

Nipa Doshi: Yes. But I have to say that this exercise was mainly in colour. Because also when you look at a fabric like this, when you just have one colour, it's a different fabric. It's about working with the warp and weft and how do you add colour to it, and mix it, and play with it.

Design Anthology: How long was that process then, from you experimenting with these paintings, in terms of color, but also texture, and then translating that into a physical woven product?

Nipa Doshi: We started in March, last year.

Design Anthology: So not a quick process then.

Nipa Doshi: Relatively quick. With textiles you don't have to tool up. So then we gave the references of the colours to the textile mill, not references,the actual painted samples, they matched the actual painted samples. Rather than an NCS or something else. Because actually when you paint colour it's very difficult to get that colour in a another reference. And we didn't want to compromise.

Design Anthology: Right, it would've defeated the purpose almost.

Nipa Doshi: So, some of the colours don't exist in both collections. But some of the colors are across both. The collection is called Raas and Lila. And Raas and Lila in Hindi mythology is a sort dance of aesthetics. It's symbolic of the dance between Radha and Krishna, the god and goddess. And this idea that there's a play of aesthetics between these two fabrics. And it's very much about beauty as well. So Raas is like the essence of something, and Lila is play. So it's the play of the essence, or the dance of the essence, so to speak. So we called it Raas and Lila because basically one is more precise, almost contract and sharper, shall I say, and the other is a little bit looser and more flowing.

Design Anthology: I have one more question. So the studio is quite multidisciplinary in terms of the projects and the products that you do. Is there anything that you haven't designed yet that you like to?

Nipa Doshi: A hotel.

Jonathan Levien: We've done everything else, you know, to go in it.

As told to / Suzy Annetta

Photo by I Do Art Agency

Photo by I Do Art Agency