Taj Mahals for Today
Rajiv Saini's generation is setting new standards for Indian luxury
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 2/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The principal of Rajiv Saini and Associates. Photo by Sebastian Zachariah.
The sandstone exterior of a ground-up two-family New Delhi house. Photo by Ken Hayden.
One of its master bedrooms, with traditional wood marquetry on the wall and ceiling. Photo by Ken Hayden.
The other master bedroom, with a wooden ceremonial sculpture from Kerala and tinted plasterwork. Photo by Ken Hayden.
The powder room of a Mumbai penthouse. Photo by Sebastian Zachariah.
A child's bedroom in a Mumbai apartment. Photo by Sebastian Zachariah.
Since opening his own firm 15 years ago, at the age of 23, Rajiv Saini has been shaking up India's design scene. Think polished interiors and furniture, all imbued with the rich colors and textures of his native land. That sensibility is one that Rajiv Saini and Associates has brought not only to residential work but also to commercial renovation projects, from Mumbai's eccentric Velvet Lounge to the understated Carma boutique and minimal-eclectic Senso restaurant, both in New Delhi, and the award-winning Devigarh hotel in Udaipur. Saini's furniture and lighting have been exhibited at the Fondation Pierre Bergé in Brussels and Art Basel Miami Beach. During last year's Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, the New Delhi gallery Nature Morte teamed up with Otto Zoo to mount a show of his limited-edition pieces, which are currently available through Nilufar, also in Milan. As Saini expands into ground-up buildings, he offers a snapshot of the burgeoning design scene in India.
What is contemporary Indian design? Given globalization, is that even a valid question?
I think it's very valid. India has seen so much happen in the past four or five years.
The world is shrinking in size, and design is becoming homogenized but, for anyone living in India, traditional culture is so embedded at a subconscious level that it re-flects itself in what we do. Not so much in terms of the obvious patterns or motifs, though. Rather, we tend to use a greater diversity of colors, textures, and materials. There's perhaps a bit more vibrancy.
What about crafts?
That's another facet of reinterpreting tradition. For example, wood marquetry was a dying craft that, like many in India, was associated with religious practices. But I've used marquetry on several occasions to create something very contemporary. At a house in New Delhi, for example, I employed a specific craft in every bedroom. Wood marquetry covers the walls and ceiling of one. We used charcoal-tinted plasterwork, another Indian craft, in another and enamel to do furniture in another.
Is India becoming increasingly design-conscious?
When I started my practice, it was a challenge to convince clients to do something new. We still have a long way to go, but now I would say more people want contemporary than traditional. Also, the economics in India were not there to support great design at a finely executed level. But we've seen a sea change in the last few years. Times are good.
You're not feeling the economic pinch?
Everyone has been affected in some way, but my firm hasn't lost projects. The ones we had are moving forward, and new ones continue to come. We work mostly with high-end clients, so we're somewhat cushioned. We are, however, reassessing budgets and not indulging in mindless expenses. We're being more sensible about spending.
Then again, the kinds of budgets Western architects have can seem absurd in a developing economy. You wonder if it makes sense to spend that kind of money on a resort when it could be put to better use. But I think you can also do interesting things with low budgets. I designed Carma, a small clothing store in New Delhi, with just $10,000.
What are some challenges of designing in India?
One is that you're working with people with limited skill sets. You can't ask for something to be detailed and assume it'll be executed properly. It has to be monitored far, far more than in the West. Another big challenge is the almost complete dearth of project-management teams. The old mind-set in India was that the architect would just make it all happen.
Is your background in design?
I studied computer sciences at university. Design was just a passion. But after a string of encounters with interesting people from the field and through my own reading and self-teaching, I got sucked in without realizing. My big break was the Devigarh hotel, an old fort in complete ruins that we transformed into a boutique resort. Now we have 16 architects on staff.
Has last year's Mumbai massacre affected the way people in India think of hotels?
No, I don't think so. It's not possible to build anything that's completely secure. If terrorists want to get through, they'll get through one way or another.
What's next for you?
We're doing a couple of ground-up houses. I'd like to do more hotels, restaurants, and bars, which get enjoyed by a larger group of people. I'm also in talks with some American and European companies about designing furniture. That's something we're starting to see, Indian designers working with European manufacturers. Right now, there are very few people like me here. But it's just a matter of time before you'll see more of us, from this part of the world.