Robb Report Singapore

The Unsung GIANTS

- Words: Helena Madden

From Black architect Paul R Williams, who designed homes for Hollywood’s biggest stars, to Gira Sarabhai, who co-founded a design school in her native India, talented Black, indigenous and people of colour have too often been overlooked. Here, some of today’s brightest stars shine a light on eight visionarie­s who deserve a fresh appraisal.

Riten Mozumdar 1927-2006

FOLLOWING INDIA’S INDEPENDEN­CE from the British Empire in 1947, artisans moved to revive the subcontine­nt’s ancient handicraft­s. One of the most notable was Riten Mozumdar, whose work significan­tly shaped the country’s postcoloni­al modernist designs. An apprentice of pioneering artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, Mozumdar has a multifacet­ed resume, ranging from furniture and artwork to fashion and sculpture. He gleaned inspiratio­n from India’s rich history – at one point travelling throughout the country to learn more about fabric-dyeing techniques – as well as abroad, in places such as Finland, where he worked in textile manufactur­ing and absorbed some of the no-frills elements of Scandinavi­an design. His works are minimalist but often feature bright, bold colours, as seen in his graphic linens for Fabindia and his Kashmiri rugs, awash in fluid calligraph­y.

Mozumdar designed pavilions and exhibition­s in India and showed his work around the world at such prestigiou­s venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen.

“Unlike many modernist Indian designers who emerged from the National Institute of Design with a Western-focused approach, Mozumdar studied at Santiniket­an as an artist and approached modernism from an indigenous angle. Working with Kashmiri felt-rug makers and Gujarati tie-and-dye artisans and drawing inspiratio­n from traditiona­l Mughal calligraph­y and Bengali script, he developed a modernist design language that felt fresh and new but was still deeply rooted in Indian traditiona­l craft. For me, Mozumdar’s work resonates because it synthesise­s traditiona­l Indian motifs and patterns with Western minimalist and abstract art.”

Puru Das, DeMuro Das

Sami El Khazen circa 1943-1988

“Sami El Khazen was a Lebanese designer in the ’60s and ’70s whose legacy was interrupte­d by war, cut short by an early death and then erased by Beirut’s constant growth. The homes he had designed exist by word of mouth and very little has been documented or published.

“The project that our studio takes a lot of inspiratio­n from is his home and studio in Rose House in Beirut, which is decaying now but was a beautiful rose-coloured home in traditiona­l Lebanese architectu­re. His space within the home was published in 1974 in Architectu­ral Digest, and the article notes Sami’s creation of Oriental Contempora­ry, blending East and West. The space is timeless, chic and, above all, has identity. We bring it up a lot to our clients who like contempora­ry design and architectu­re as a case study, since a lot of them are from different countries or firstgener­ation born here in the States. We ask them to pull from the different identities within them to create a unique space that’s actually reflective of their journey, not just a Western image of what contempora­ry is.”

Homan Rajai, Studio Ahead

BORN IN LEBANON in the early 1940s, El Khazen was a pivotal interior designer in the Middle East, though much of his work has been lost. Many of the homes that he decorated were destroyed in the Lebanese Civil War that ravaged the country during the latter half of the 20th century. Still, bits and pieces of his influentia­l oeuvre remain. He received one of his biggest commission­s remarkably early in his career: the interior design of the Lebanese Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The centrepiec­e was a massive, nickel-plated-bronze and acrylic chandelier (above) that he made in collaborat­ion with Italian manufactur­er Arredoluce. The shah of Iran purchased it and displayed it in his palace dining room after re-engineerin­g it into a slightly smaller piece; it sold at auction for US$32,500 in 2018. What defined El Khazen’s approach was his ability to combine Eastern and Western traditions while also prioritisi­ng Islamic art.

His sensibilit­y is most evident in his studio and home on the ground floor of Rose House in Beirut, a colourful building constructe­d in 1882. El Khazen softened some of the Arabic architectu­re’s characteri­stic geometries to create a more calming environmen­t for work. It was featured in Architectu­ral Digest, which referred to him as “one of the Middle East’s most innovative designers”.

“The Hollywood style and art deco of California’s charm is all to do with his presence in the structures. He set the standard for the cinematic style and glamour for Hollywood and the film industry – something that is still replicated throughout Hollywood today.

“It does a lot for me to think about what he may have been experienci­ng during the designing period, knowing the state of the country during the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and its treatment of Black Americans. He pushed through to produce memorable works to be used by the public; his works were wanted by the very Americans who rejected his Black body, and that speaks more to me as a Black Caribbean designer in 2021.” Leyden Lewis, Leyden Lewis Design Studio

Paul R Williams 1894-1980

HIS ARCHITECTU­RE DEFINED the Hollywood aesthetic in the mid-20th century, and yet Williams had to sketch his ideas upside down. The trailblazi­ng Black architect consciousl­y opted to sit across from his white clients rather than next to them, cognisant that such proximity to a Black man might make them uneasy. It’s just one example of the rampant racism that Williams faced in his profession. His contributi­ons to the Beverly Hills Hotel (below) include its instantly recognisab­le swoopy logo and pink-and-green colour scheme, as well as his work on its Polo Lounge, but he was not permitted to stay there. He designed 2,000 homes in Los Angeles – celebrity clients included Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra – but many were in neighbourh­oods where he would have been barred from buying a house. His legacy, however, is indelible. As the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects, he hoped that his work would ultimately open doors for the next generation.

Clara Porset


PORSET WAS BORN in Cuba in 1895, but she travelled the world to hone her craft at institutio­ns such as the famed École des Beaux-Arts and the Louvre, in Paris.

After returning home, she created furniture for schools and gave lectures about the importance of modern design, but her outspoken support for the Cuban worker uprisings quickly led to political exile in 1935.

Porset decamped to Mexico, where she married painter and muralist Xavier Guerrero. The two entered the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishing­s competitio­n as a team in 1940 – the first time that Latin American designers were included in a call for proposals – but only Guerrero received credit. While in Mexico, Porset advocated for the use of traditiona­l handicraft­s and techniques, in contrast to the prevailing enthusiasm for more efficient industrial manufactur­ing methods.

Perhaps her most notable achievemen­t is her reinventio­n of the Butaque chair, a lowslung seat that was originally introduced by Spanish conquerors but was later appropriat­ed by Mexicans as a symbol of nationalis­m. Porset took that activism a step further, tapping local artisans to make the popular design with regionally sourced materials, including wicker, oak and leather.

“Within the design industry, there’s no doubt that Porset is considered a pioneer. However, in the mainstream, her work is often lesser known to that of her contempora­ries, including architect Luis Barragán, who commission­ed her now-iconic Butaque chairs. Porset was one of the leading voices of Mexican modernism, believing that contempora­ry Mexican design should also honour its craft history. She was part of a group of progressiv­e designers in Mexico who encouraged the use of local materials, age-old techniques and indigenous design motifs to create a distinct Mexican modernist style.”

Natasha Baradaran, Natasha Baradaran Interior Design

“Demas Nwoko is a Nigerian artist with no formal training as an architect, but nonetheles­s has designed beautiful buildings and special projects and is at the forefront of creating a modern African vernacular in design. He has a very distinct style that’s almost a deconstruc­ted, African maximalism.”

Tosin Oshinowo, CmDesign Atelier

“Gira Sarabhai, who passed away earlier this year, was a visionary in Indian design education, modern architectu­re and research. She achieved too much in her life to put in one or two sentences, so I would have to focus on something I got to experience: the National Institute of Design campus. Walking through the campus as an outsider, I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the students who got to live and learn in such an incredible space. While she is credited with having brought numerous global design icons to India as it transition­ed to being an independen­t nation, she is no less an icon herself through the impact she has had and will have over the future of Indian design.”

Urvi Sharma, Indo-

Demas Nwoko Born in 1935

BOTH AN ARTIST and an architect, Nwoko has prioritise­d his native Nigeria’s traditions throughout his career. Now 86, he studied fine arts at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria and later studied scenic design at the Centre Francais du Théâtre in Paris, experience­s that exposed him to different aesthetic traditions. In the late 1950s, just before Nigeria gained independen­ce from the UK, he founded an art society, which became known as Zaria Rebels, with a handful of other students, among them the renowned artists Bruce Onobrakpey­a and Uche Okeke. Their goal was to reintroduc­e indigenous ideas and forms into the postcoloni­al landscape

while incorporat­ing a few of the techniques brought by Westerners. The objective carried over into Nwoko’s architectu­ral practice, where he worked with local materials in order to create a new, distinctly Nigerian design tradition. One of his first major projects, for example, was for the Dominican Mission in Ibadan, which wanted to redesign its churches with African motifs following independen­ce. Nwoko’s chapel (above) features a semicircul­ar design evocative of indigenous architectu­re and stained-glass windows in the shape of crosses scattered, off-kilter, along one wall. Nwoko also built a cultural centre in the same city, as well as a theatre in Benin.

Gira Sarabhai


SARABHAI WAS BORN into a prominent family in India in 1923 and moved to New York when she was a teenager. In the following years, she trained under Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin West studio in Arizona, then returned to India to create the project that she’s best known for: the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. The architect was a co-founder of the institute, along with her brother Gautam – the two collaborat­ed on the design of the campus’s main glass-andconcret­e building (above).

Sarabhai was instrument­al in enticing talent from abroad to join the new school as consultant­s, including Finnish designer Helena Perheentup­a, who set up NID’s textile department. Sarabhai helped create an Indian design identity, as the academy not only preserved the past – she stocked its library with important works from the country’s history – but also nurtured young talent for the future. NID still operates today, as does her Calico Museum of Textiles, which houses an extensive collection of Indian fabrics.

John Moutoussam­y 1922-1995

IN 1971, MOUTOUSSAM­Y became the first Black architect to design a high-rise in Chicago. In 2021, he remains the only one. The commission came from John H Johnson, the powerful founder of Johnson Publishing Company and the first Black businessma­n to appear on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the US. Moutoussam­y designed the 11-storey concrete, marble and glass building (below) as the headquarte­rs for Johnson’s magazines, led by Ebony and Jet.

The building received city landmark status in 2017; two years later, apartments replaced the offices, but the exterior signage for the original publicatio­ns remains. The Chicagobas­ed architect continued designing in the Windy City for the rest of his career, working on projects such as Harry S Truman College and the Chicago Urban League building. He is also remembered as the first Black architect to be named a partner at a major firm, a milestone he achieved in 1966.

“One of my favourite Black American architects is John Warren Moutoussam­y, who’s best known for designing the Johnson Publishing Building in Chicago. It is more popularly known for its bold interiors (often heralded as a celebratio­n of Black American culture), but I also appreciate the simplicity of its understate­d, geometric facade. The minimalist aesthetic is most often credited to Mies van der Rohe (under whom Moutoussam­y studied), but I also think it’s important to examine the ways in which modernism was largely inspired by African aesthetics. I think the juxtaposit­ion of the minimalist exterior with the colourful, pattern-rich interiors makes for an interestin­g conversati­on about Black ownership over different styles of American design.”

Tariq Dixon, Trnk

Jaya Ibrahim 1948-2015

AS ONE OF Indonesia’s pioneering and most prolific interior designers, Ibrahim helped define the much-imitated look and feel of Asia’s luxury hotels. But he never formally studied design. It wasn’t a popular discipline in Indonesia in the 1960s, so Ibrahim earned an economics degree at the UK’s University of York instead. After graduating, he took a job as an assistant to a friend, actress turned interior designer Anouska Hempel. It turned out to be his first big break. Hempel noticed the attention to detail that Ibrahim brought to arranging table settings for her lunches – always symmetrica­l and colour-coordinate­d – and started training him.

By the early 1990s, Ibrahim had returned to Indonesia and was making his mark with commission­s for prestigiou­s, five-star hotel projects such as the historic Aman Summer Palace in Beijing, Legian Bali and Setai Miami Beach. The prevailing aesthetic was simple: symmetry above all else. Ibrahim also had a keen eye for creating spaces that felt calming and tranquil while still leaving a lasting impression on visitors.

Following his death in 2015, his legacy endures via Jaya, his interiors firm and furniture-manufactur­ing practice, and his projects continue to influence hospitalit­y designers the world over.

“Jaya Ibrahim was an Indonesian designer who lived and studied in London and Singapore. I share with him that experience of both Western and Eastern cultures. He was one of the first generation of Southeast Asian designers to create a new aesthetic of Asian design that was contempora­ry and bold.”

Andre Fu, Andre Fu Studio

 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? A Namda felted-wool rug by Riten Mozumdar, made with tie-and-dye, resist block print and embroidery.
A Namda felted-wool rug by Riten Mozumdar, made with tie-and-dye, resist block print and embroidery.
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Clara Porset’s wood-and-hide Butaque chair by Luteca.
Clara Porset’s wood-and-hide Butaque chair by Luteca.
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? An Amanfayun Hangzhou villa guest bathroom designed by Jaya Ibrahim.
An Amanfayun Hangzhou villa guest bathroom designed by Jaya Ibrahim.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore