Architecture + Design
Carving a Niche with Cultural Roots in Contemporary Vocabulary…
She introduces herself as an architect and a carpenter. Together with her Padma Shri Award winner mother Sunita Kohli, Kohelika Kohli has given a definition to the Indian design narrative. She is her mother’s daughter, and her mother has been her greatest influence and critique, but Kohelika has created a distinct identity for herself. Kohelika received her formal education from the Pratt Institute of Design, New York, where she studied architecture and furniture design. She worked for Oliver Cope Architects and Norman Foster and on her return to India she started her own practice and in 2010 established K2India, with Sunita Kohli. We came away enthused with her zeal and enthusiasm, and her commitment to create a distinct identity for Indian Design.
Seema Sreedharan (SS): You’ve grown up watching your mother Sunita Kohli who’s a much-celebrated designer. How has the experience of growing up watching her at work shaped you as a designer? Kohelika Kohli (KK):
For me she has always been just mom. It is not until I hit my 30s did I truly realize the different ways in which she, as a woman and as a designer was breaking the glass ceiling. I am certain that subconsciously, while running around her studio as a child, playing with the Staedtler colour pencils and architectural implements which were then all imported, folding stacks of blueprints for a design presentation before she travelled abroad… not only influenced my decision to study architecture, but also shaped me as an architect and a designer. But the one distinct memory I have is of how hard she worked…she has always told me that talent aside, there is no substitute for hard work.
SS: You’ve worked with Norman Foster. Tell us more about the experience. KK:
I was young then and in awe and perhaps still am in awe of the master that the man is! We pretty much had our heads down and worked. This was in London. I spent a lot of time in the model shop which was just so beautiful. But the few times we did come up for air and into the main building, we went and met the man. Or let’s say we were in his presence and one knew that one was in the presence of a great mind.
SS: You introduced yourself as an architect and carpenter. Why and how did you venture into furniture designing? KK:
I had the privilege to get a scholarship to study in England, at a school called Millfield. There, I studied a course called ‘Design and Technology’. The professor took a special liking to me as he had figured out that being one of a handful of Indians at the School, I was being discriminated against by my peers, maybe even unknowingly…High School can be tough! So, I was loner and spent a lot of time in the design workshop. The professor decided to help and teach me outside class time and encouraged me towards furniture design. I was not particularly good at sketching, but I could build! I have to say I also have my parents’ genes. My father has always been brilliant with his hands and in his time at The Doon School he developed very good skills as a carpenter and a sculptor. His name is still up as the ‘Best Carpenter of the Year 1959’ and one of his very tall statues is still displayed in the grounds of the school with a plaque that bears his name.
Both your mother, and you have played an active role in defining the India design story. From the time you started, to now, what changes have you observed in the past few years? Especially as a woman in what used to be a male-dominated profession? KK:
My mother is a self-taught designer. From the very start she has worked with master craftsmen and craftswomen, no matter in which part of the country or the world she was working in. She is research-based and sentient of the cultural values of the place where her project/projects were based. She would discover artisans and get them to make insane things within that craft tradition. This comes from a deep passion not only for the arts but also for the sustainability of the crafts. I have continued in that tradition. Therefore, while the world of furniture, especially recently in India which has moved on to everything being machine made, we at K2India have remained a company that is a boutique-craft company where our emphasis is and always will be on the hand-made and the hand-hewn.
Women will always find it hard, as not just this profession but almost every profession, except of being a housewife or a mother…which are simply the hardest…are all male dominated. But I think it is being the underdog that is resulting in us now being ahead of the game.
SS: How would you define your design style? KK:
I am a contemporary designer. This should not be mistaken that my work is only modern. My thoughts, my process all belong to the now, but as a company we are as good at designing a classical style, a colonial style, a neo-classical style as we are at designing a contemporary modern style. In fact, I can rather confidently say that in our furniture branch we are perhaps a handful of manufacturers that offer a wide range of furniture styles ranging from classical English and French styles, to art deco, Biedermeier, classic contemporary, mid-century, contemporary and to modern furniture.
What and who inspires you? KK:
I am an introvert by nature, but as the profession demands am an extremely visual person. Travel, art, history, conversations can all be inspiring. So, I cannot pin it done to one thing or to one person.
I am a contemporary designer. This should not be mistaken that my work is only modern. My thoughts, my process all belong to the now, but as a company we are as good at designing a classical style, a colonial style, a neo-classical style as we are at designing a contemporary modern style.” —KOHELIKA KOHLI, Founder and Principal Architect, K2 India
I think each project, in its own particular way, is challenging. This often gives me a reason to be proud of it. What makes me most proud and satisfied is when a client is happy with the final result, because, at the end of the day, we are designing to make more beautiful and more relevant spaces for other human beings.” —KOHELIKA KOHLI, Founder and Principal Architect, K2 India
SS: Your most challenging project? And why? KK:
My most challenging project was the Parliament Building in Thimphu Bhutan– their National Assembly Building. This was designed by my mother in the late 1980s/1990. After twenty years, Bhutan was going to host the SAARC Conference for Heads of State and Government in April 2010. Many areas were to be retrofitted as well as many new systems were to be installed, together with the addition of eighteen new bathrooms. All the VVIP lounges were also to be fully furnished. This was the large scope of this project along with the adjacent banquet hall. While there was no need to alter any of the interior architecture that my mother had earlier designed, as it was timeless and done in a fully and deeply researched Bhutanese style by their master craftsman, all this new work had to be completed in five months. It was very challenging as I moved all the 187 skilled men and materials from India. I had to arrange to house them and feed them through the cold Bhutanese winter. In Thimphu, skilled master craftsmen and women were also employed to work on various items of interior architectural decoration, soft furnishings and accessories that are representative of the great craft skills of Bhutan. We were in Bhutan every week, personally supervising this prestigious project in one of the most beautiful of countries. I handed over this completed complicated project absolutely on time.
We earlier only used to work with wood, but since we are a boutique and primarily a hand-crafted furniture manufacturing company, we have been exploring and experimenting with several other materials– from brass, stainless steel, plaster of paris, stone, and are now also collaborating with an artist who primarily works with thread.” —KOHELIKA KOHLI, Founder and Principal Architect, K2 India
SS: One project you are proud of and why? KK:
I think each project, in its own particular way, is challenging. This often gives me a reason to be proud of it. What makes me most proud and satisfied is when a client is happy with the final result, because, at the end of the day, we are designing to make more beautiful and more relevant spaces for other human beings.
SS: Your dream project. KK:
My dream project would be to design a museum.
SS: One designer/artist/architect you would love to collaborate with. And why? KK:
I think it would be architect David Chipperfield, although I also admire many others. Chipperfield’s conservation and additions to the bombed out Neues Museum in Berlin are the work of a genius. What he conserved, how he chose to conserve it, what he built afresh are all inspirational and the work of a modern master architect.
SS: Tell us a bit more about your journey into furniture designing. What materials do you specifically like working with? As a furniture designer, what’s the greatest challenge you face today? KK:
From college I was taught that to design at different scales is critical to be a good architect. In fact, every architect in my studio has to be able to make furniture drawings and would have worked on them at some stage or another. Furniture design has always come to me naturally. I am also after all my mother’s daughter and I am certain some of her good genes have been passed on to me. We earlier only used to work with wood, but since we are a boutique and primarily a hand-crafted furniture manufacturing company, we have been exploring and experimenting with several other materials– from brass, stainless steel, plaster of paris, stone, and are now also collaborating with an artist who primarily works with thread. There are challenges in everything. But, I think, if there is one irritant it is when clients expect ‘Made in India’ to be cheaper than ‘Made in Italy’, which is more often than not, ‘Made in China’! We spend a lot of time customizing and use only the best available materials. This often requires convincing.
SS: What next? KK:
Well so much! K2india will complete 12 years this October, although my mother’s career in design is of 50 years and mine of 17 years. Internally, we have some exciting things lined up. We have a new associate partner who has joined us in 2021. We make a lot of furniture for other architects and designers which makes us push our limitations and come up with newer and newer designs.
SS: Your advice to upcoming women in design? KK:
I am not sure I can really give any advice. We all have a different set of challenges. I, for example, continue to be mistaken for an interior designer, rather than an architect.
Not having a male figure standing next to me continues to be challenging when pitching for projects. Sure, the world is changing. And while we celebrate Women’s Day, which is wonderful, I think that since I am a privileged woman because I have the benefits of an excellent education, more than anything else, it is my responsibility to push other women forward as well. So, I would say to every woman out there, “grow, but also help other women to grow.”