People: Cultural hybrid – Doshi Levien

By Matt Balmer
June 3, 2018

Charpoy, Doshi Levien’s first collection for Moroso, brought them to attention in 2007. But the duo’s work is about more than merely seeing the East-meets-West design cliché, they tell Elizabeth Choppin, and their different childhoods are the key to their success.

by Elizabeth Choppin

Amid the prototypes, sketches, trinkets, and fabric scraps in Doshi Levien’s bright east London studio, there are clues as to what makes the design duo tick.

Since forming their practice in 2000, much has been made of the fusion of cultures New Delhi-native Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien, born and bred in Scotland, bring to the work they’ve produced for brands including Moroso, B&B Italia, Hay, Cappellini, and Kettal.

It’s a well-worn line of enquiry, but not without merit.

The pair met in the late 1990s at the Royal College of Art and made their name in 2007 with Charpoy, a collection for Moroso that references traditional Indian daybeds – each mattress of cotton and silk hand-crafted at a workshop owned by Doshi’s aunt and set within a timber frame. The pieces feature an embroidered facsimile of an Indian checkerboard game “reminiscent of a time when kingdoms and wives were won as bets”. It had a rapturous reception in Milan that year, cementing a creative relationship with Moroso that has been exceptionally fruitful in the eleven years since. It also introduced Doshi Levien as a creative studio with high-tech, industrial design chops that doesn’t shy away from cultural narrative, colour, pattern, or the overt pursuit of beauty – all quite novel in the mid-noughts when utilitarianism reigned supreme.

What’s less known is that Charpoy was born out of a conceptual project, Our World, commissioned by the British Council for the Lisbon Biennale in 2005 – a body of work that set the tone for Doshi Levien’s career. For Our World the pair created an environment referencing shop fronts in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. “We explored the notion of the cultural hybrid and also the ritual, where you walk in, take off your shoes, and sit and talk while the craftsperson makes jewellery or perfume or whatever it is. There’s this commercial exchange that happens, but it’s also a very human and social interaction,” says Levien.

The duo designed a number of products for Our World including the first iteration of Charpoy, which they eventually pitched to Patricia Moroso, and a water vessel made of terracotta – a material used in India for its cooling properties. “We looked at the high performance capability of the low tech and how you bring influences from India into the work. India is not just a place to make things cheaply,” says Levien. “It’s a place we go and learn from the natural wisdom of materials and the culture, and then bring that into our design language.”

Doshi and Levien began exploring cultural identity at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, and over the years it has manifested in pieces like Kundan cabinet for Galerie Kreo, which is based on traditional Indian jewellery that uses sequences of geometric shapes, the Shanty console for BD Barcelona, and a collection of rugs for Nanimarquina that evoke the tribal folk embroidery of India. There is, however, a danger of oversimplifying the connection, says Doshi. In Objects of Devotion, a series of limited edition pieces for Galerie Kreo, the designers create a textile that makes literal references to Corbusier’s work in India – perhaps a way to illustrate Doshi’s personal experience of her home and its meaning in her life versus a more generic understanding of what India means visually and culturally.

“We don’t want to be pigeonholed. It’s very easy to put the cultural spin of us coming together as something visual – as something that you can see. For me, it’s the materiality and the values, and the attitude to making things. That’s where Jonathan and I come together at many levels, not just the clichéd East meets West, which I find really lazy,” adds Doshi.

The designer gained her degree at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, which was founded on principles laid out by Charles and Rae Eames, and her childhood was steeped in modernist references in architecture and design – ranging from Vespas and Art Deco to
Corbusier’s Chandigarh.

“I think there is a class divide culturally – Jonathan grew up in a family where his parents started by making things themselves,” says Doshi. In fact, Levien began building and tinkering from the age of six, and left school at 16 to train as a cabinet maker before going on to study industrial design. “I grew up with this notion that life and work were somehow united –not only because my parents were working together, but their soft toy factory was next door,” says Levien. He would drift in- between and use whatever was available – packing materials and tape – to make things.

“I never made anything, but I would work with people to make things for me,” Doshi adds. “There’s such a big cultural gap between the European way of working, and the ethic, and growing up as a middle class kid in India where craft is readily available to you. You can commission people to make things and you can have beautiful things made without making anything yourself. I think that links to our working relationship now. It’s linked to our childhoods and not just in a clichéd, cultural way,” she says. When setting out a design, for example, Doshi creates paintings and sketches while Levien works more in 3D – forming an idea with materials like wire and cardboard. “Taking me back to Scotland,” he jokes.

Now that the pair is well and truly established, the client list has swelled to include household brands like John Lewis, for which they launched a 13-piece furniture and lighting collection last year. It rounds off the studio’s body of work nicely – from uber-conceptual to high design to high street. “It was interesting that we launched the John Lewis collection on the same day we launched a limited edition day bed and light at Pad London,” muses Doshi. “I think it’s the kind of people Jonathan and I are. We don’t want to limit ourselves to one extreme or the other – but there’s always something conceptual in what we do.”