Mumbai’s burgeoning design scene has been gaining momentum in the past few years with individual designers and studios making their presence known through public projects, restaurant architecture and retail formats. At the end of March, it all came together at the first edition of Design Fabric Festival, curated by Sanket Avlani. The designer is known for founding Taxi Fabric, an organization that collaborates with textile designers to transform the interiors of old black-and-yellow cabs. “It’s time to build the momentum for bringing design into mainstream conversation, as a significant contributor to culture,” he says. Avlani’s vision was to turn this event into India’s most valuable design festival and the overarching theme at the event was “Culture makes Design; Design makes Culture.”
DDF’s impressive lineup included Christoph Niemann, whose illustrations frequently grace The New Yorker covers; Scott Schuman, of the fashion blog The Sartorialist; ad-man V. Sunil; and Brooklyn-based graphic designer Adam J. Kurtz. The festival took place at Famous Studios—an institution that has been part of Mumbai’s filmmaking and advertising history. Discussions ranged from the importance of personal projects to how political discourse inspires artwork to how design has created some of India’s strongest brands.
The event evoked a sense of community among the city’s students, freelance artists, and working professionals who came together in this format for the first time. Having intellectual discussions with some of the world’s most influential designers in their own city resulted a powerful experience for this audience. Avlani and his team created an extraordinary first edition of the festival, with a confidence and innovation that has started a larger dialogue about design in a country where the discipline is still fairly mysterious to the larger population. Here, our ten favorite moments from the celebration.
1. Typervention Workshop by Kriti Mongia
A letterer by profession, Mongia conducted a typervention workshop at DFF where the participants learnt how to make modular installations using everyday materials such as eggs, pencils, and tea lights. “It was unexpected and playful and geeky all at once,” says Mongia. “Working with something in 3D, trying to make something with it while navigating its unique properties or constraints throws everyone off the bigger picture of making type. They can’t get intimidated or overthink it.”
2. Adam J. Kurtz
This Brooklyn-based designer started off DFF’s second day with a freshness and comic timing that resonated across cultures. Kurtz spoke extensively about the importance of personal projects and gave real-life examples on how these can be instrumental in shaping your career. “Make something that doesn’t need to exist. Make something for yourself. People can tell when you’re faking it.”
3. Graphic Storytelling in India
A panel discussion moderated by graphic designer Mira Malhotra with Aarthi Paarthasarathy, Alicia Dzouza, and Priya Kurian speaking on their personal experiences of being visual artists in India. Dissonance emerged as a common theme in the practice; Kurian emphasized the importance of expressing oneself without censure. Paarthasarathy , who is the author of a webcomic series, Royal Existentials uses her artwork to convey themes like feminism, privilege, and caste. “There’s a lot of inspiration, given the times we live in,” Paarthasarathy says. “So the things churning in my head find their way into my comic writing.”
Ruchika Sachdeva won the covetable International Woolmark Prize for womenswear this year and Sachdeva’s talk at DFF was testament to this achievement. Her label is deeply rooted in Indian culture and she talked about adopting age-old, grandmothers’ upcycling practices and utilizing the country’s rich craft wealth. However, her aesthetic remains decidedly modern and androgynous, akin to what you’d see on the streets of Paris or Tokyo. “I was working with a weaver in the town of Kullu in the Himalayas and I commissioned him to create a textile using his own creativity where no two wefts were the same. He ended up being ecstatically proud of the result because it broke the generic mold and gave him a chance to express himself.”
5. Fashion imagery in India
Aishwarya Subramanyam, editor of Elle India, moderated a panel between Sanjay Garg, designer of Raw Mango, and photographer Ashish Shah. “I grew up on fashion imagery from the West: ball gowns and bikinis on beaches,” Shah says. Later in his career, he collaborated with Sanjay for a Raw Mango photoshoot, which evoked a different aesthetic, one of modern India. They related their shooting escapades from inner city, New Delhi to the lakes of Meghalaya; the locations play a dramatic role in the photography, as does Sanjay’s clothing—which is mainly saris. “You’ve made it cool to wear a sari,” Aishwarya told Garg. “I was always a sari-wallah,” he responded. “Selling my wares in open-air craft markets in New Delhi. It’s the fashion industry [that] views my work differently now.”
6. St+Art India
The organization’s larger-than-life public art projects in India’s slums and red-light districts are changing the conversations in these neighborhoods. Cofounders Hanif Kureshi and Guilia Ambrogi spoke about their early struggles to get permissions from local municipal corporations and being chased by the police, the vision of creating art districts in Indian cities, and the impact public art has on the youth in these communities.
7. V. Sunil
Visionary marketing expert V. Sunil is well-known for creating Indian brands. At DDF, he presented the Indigo Airlines case study. “We recommended that the brand spend their budgets on the design of physical touch points like food packaging, safety cards, and crew uniforms and not worry about advertising,” Sunil says. He also presented the Make in India campaign which drew $230 billion in foreign investment in 2016; their famous logo was a combination of the Indian lion and the Ashok Chakra wheel—a national emblem meant to declare India’s industrial prowess to the world.
Contrary to the idea that an hour-long talk on file transfers can be mind-numbingly dull, Rob Alderson was one of the most interesting speakers at DFF 2018. “Ever since we launched, in 2009, WeTransfer has given 30% of its background wallpapers to showcase global art, photography and music. In 2017, that equalled five billion pages of ad inventory. Sending a file is a pretty unglamorous task, but if you can discover a great young photographer, or little-known South African band while you’re there, that will feed into your own creative outlook.” He also exposed Mumbai’s design community to some unique global artists such as Second Life Toys from Japan, which fixes broken stuffed animals with new parts.
9. DIA Studio
Creative Director Mitch Paone is a type designer as well as a jazz pianist. “Film and animations closed the gap between my two obsessions: type and music. Now we can finally make typography dance and turn dance into typography,” he says. His kinetic typography has appeared onscreen at the concerts of DJ, Producer & Turntablist A-Trak.
10. Christoph Niemann
The illustrator has celebrity status in the design community and this was evident at the closing event of DFF 2018. Neimann titled his talk “Everything I know about design EXCEPT the fact that creative process is painfully difficult even though that’s the most profound thing I know.” He spoke about the craft: how design is an art form, what level of abstraction is apt and how editing is crucial. “If someone can describe your design in two lines in an email, forget about it,” he said.