Ajay Shah

A conversation about his new chair, 'It Looks Better In Orange'


VS : Tell us briefly about your new chair, It Looks Better in Orange and how it came to be.

AS : I started working on this chair when I had my studio under the Mahalaxmi flyover, that's five-seven years ago. And at that particular point, we were just looking for a new kind of a language for a chair. And one of the things that interested me was to be able to try and see how it is that I can relook the proportions. We even made some models back then. But we really didn't have a clear idea of material. And at the same time, I didn't want to make a chair that looked just different for the sake of looking different. After making some full scale prototypes, we didn't take the exercise any further. And the chair remained somewhere in the background. And it's only in late 2019, that I decided to revisit the design and started thinking about what we could do in terms of materials. And having covered a fair amount of ground over the years in working with sheet metal, I was able to start thinking differently as to how we can make this chair. So that's how it restarted the entire exercise.


VS : Okay. So you say it's been five, seven years since you've been at this...

AS : Well, lots of other things happened during that period of time. It's always been there. I even have them hanging from the ceiling in my studio. But what happens is with any product development that we do, we only pick it up when we have a little time on our hands. And when we feel that there's a certain period between projects, that we pick up these kinds of exercises. And then there are some days that we just work on it because we really enjoy it, so you know it depends in that sense. But yes, five to seven years - on and off.

VS : How's the chair evolved in those five to seven years? From idea to final execution? What have you learned in this duration, in terms of either working with materials or what you originally had in mind? How much of a gap is that?

AS : Well, it’s a good question, in the sense a lot has happened in these past five years that I've been working, I've had the opportunity of working on many other projects besides furniture, which I think in some sense, informed me indirectly about what is it that I really wanted to do with this chair. Other projects, where I explored similar kinds of ideas in terms of furniture, and then I started working with a particular material about three years ago, which is aluminum. I created a table called The Table that Almost Wasn't, and I think that really opened up my mind tremendously in terms of how to play with material, how to use material and the technique of cutting a flat sheet in a particular way, defining fold marks, and then folding it to create structures. And that is something that I'm really interested in now, as a designer. And when this chair came back to me, after all of this time, I decided to go back to that technique to see if we can use a similar kind of technique. And also I think that with age, I'm starting to think about other ways of designing and thinking about economy of material with regard to design. How do I design with minimum parts, I'm thinking about bringing some intelligence to it. So, the struggle that I have, as a designer now, at this point in my life, is if I don't find it stimulating enough, or I don't find it intelligent enough to some extent. And it's just another form. Then I'm not happy with it. So I think that those kinds of little learnings or those kinds of realizations have got a little stronger. I think this chair would not have happened five years ago, I probably didn't have the maturity or the understanding of the material to this extent.


VS : Right.

AS : And I'm also a great believer in taking time, so sometimes when I try some things, I don't know exactly how it's gonna go. So I just try these things and then some amount of serendipity takes place. And so with this chair also when I looked at it again, I just said, is it possible to revisit this material again from an economy point of view and I started seeing if I can make this chair with just one part of a flat sheet, which, of course, was very difficult. But then what's the next - two parts. Also the whole idea of using material to create something that's appropriate for that material is an interesting thought. I mean, how do I use aluminium, interestingly, to create a form that's derived out of the material itself in the process. So rather than trying to make it look like a wooden chair, or something else, I've used the material the way it's meant to be used.


VS : There's obviously been an evolution in the way you consider the material. Like you said, there's some maturity that's kicked in. So how do you know when the good time to, in some sense, pull the trigger on? Or decide that a product is ready or finished? Because you said it's a 5 to 7 year evolution. But that doesn't mean that this product could have gone on for another three years, right? Like, what makes this chair finished? Or it never finished?

AS : So there is no way of knowing. I definitely feel this chair's not done. That's one thing I'm sure about, I feel that there's a certain amount of further evolution that can happen with the design of this chair. And I'm also working on another version of this chair, which is under development, where I'm taking the same principle of design and I'm creating a lounge version of it. That's going to be the test whether it has the possibility of being extended to a family in that sense. But to go back to your earlier question - you never really know when to pick it up. It's purely intuitive. I could have not picked up this chair in 2019 and let it be for a little longer. But it's just that you walk into the office one day, and you say, okay, let's do something. I need to get this out, I need to make something. And every few months, every few years, this urge hits, that I have to make something. So I think yeah, it's just that particular day that you've woken up and you walked into the studio and you've got somebody sitting along with you who's equally enthused about the entire thing, you need to decide to put the energy into it. And then it takes an equal amount of energy to get the manufacturer on board. Because chances are that they’ve not been a part of the journey at all. It's been my personal journey, in that sense. To get them to realize that this is a journey that I've been through is also tough. So it takes a certain amount of time to get them equally interested in making the chair.


VS : So going off that, there's a very different manufacturing setup in India as compared to countries internationally. And since your products are not being mass produced, they're being made as smaller batches of products, maybe sometimes even single pieces. What is the level of collaboration with the manufacturer and others in your own team? And does that see changes in the final outcomes of the product?

AS : So I work with a very small team - just two people in my office. These two people have been with me for many years. One brings a certain amount of technical expertise to the entire project. And the other person is largely a person who helps me represent the idea into a drawing into a three dimensional drawing. But over time this person also has a certain sense of the aesthetic that I like, so I think he's able to contribute a little more now. I don't like having too many people when I'm working on this kind of a project. And externally, I have been lucky to some extent that I have worked with the same manufacturer for almost 30 years now. We've worked on so many different projects and that are so varied, that I think he understands and has a keen sense of how to work with material. He's also got a very, very keen sense in terms of construction and proportion. I think his contribution is immense. Because beyond the idea that I've taken it to, he's always able to bring a certain reason to the way it's got to be made. And I think that kind of collaboration is the only way that a project like this can be realized in our country. We don't have prototyping workshops or the possibility of patronage from large manufacturers. Anywhere in Europe or any other part of the world, you will find that the designer will take it till a particular point after which there's a tremendous amount of production support and specialists that come into the entire picture to be able to realize the design. But in our case, it's a two-three people team kind of job.


VS : Speaking about the broader design language, what you’ve referred to as an “economy of components”, and a “a new approach towards designing a chair”? You briefly mentioned that you see some future application of this, in the sense that it's an evolution that you've seen through The Table That Almost Wasn’t. And now through the chair, where do you see this going? 

AS : I'm not sure. You normally produce for two reasons, you produce because you create something as it gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Or that you know that in some sense, you're discovering a new way of making things. But very often, I mean, this is me being a little callous when I say this, but there really isn't any production uptake on these kinds of pieces. Again, it's a question of, maybe it's a piece that's a little too far away in time, for the context that we're in. So I'll keep making these things, because that's how I am. But I still wish there was a way that it could probably see some commercial realization. And I think that will determine my ability to be able to make more and produce faster. Otherwise, I'd still treat these as, you know, projects that I will pursue alongside other work. Unless I'm able to reach out to the right audience who will understand, appreciate and have the ability of being able to take this design further in a larger way, which is what I've been hoping for, for a long while. So the trigger for being able to develop more of this will still stay the same. It will happen impulsively, every few years.


VS : Are you constantly working on things? Do you have multiple such projects going on at the same time? Are there a bunch of ideas stacked away, that you pull out once in a while? Or is it one thing that you concentrate on or go back to whenever you have time?

AS : Again, I think there are a few ideas that have been in the pipeline for far too long. I've been looking at these ideas over years now, and I think just the way this chair happened, it'll be very similar to that - there will be some part prototypes, some sketches, some drawings that have all been somewhat explored at one point in time, but haven’t whose full potential hasn’t been realized. So I don't particularly like working on one thing for very long, I like working on one thing, and then letting it be for a while and then coming back to it. That's how I prefer to work. 


VS : In the same way you are currently fascinated by the material you're working on right now, which is metal, is there something else that you want to explore. Because I know you've worked with fiberglass extensively in the past...

AS : I mean my dream project would be to do something in injection plastic moulding, but in our context of manufacturing it's probably not viable because there isn’t a manufacturer in our country who will want to invest in this kind of an exercise. It's a very expensive exercise, because it needs a fair amount of investment towards the moulds, but beside that, I would love to work on some kind of an injected mould piece. Years ago, I created a unique product called the Bone Lamp. When I say years ago, I'm talking about 25 years ago, and we’d even gone to the extent of creating this lamp using aluminium casting. It's been on my mind that I want to go back and revisit that design. 25 years ago, it was extremely futuristic. And I think even now, it would be. It's a very forward thinking lamp. Probably something that I haven't seen yet. And now I feel a little more confident because the light source technologies have evolved technologically. Now with light changing capabilities, smaller dimmers, smaller drivers and adapters, even smaller light sources and the kind of light they offer... I'd like to revisit the Bone Lamp.


VS : Coming back to the chair, you’d mentioned that you wanted the chair to be antithetical to the material it's made of. So what do you think you like the most about the chair?

AS : The overall proportion and compactness of the chair gives me the feeling that if I was to think of this chair as a person I would imagine it to be someone gentle. There's something very unusual happening over there and I like the fact that the way the material and the other two parts of the chair connect with each other, complete the interaction. Those are the two of my favorite details. Also, wherever there are connections in the material, I've deliberately looked at it like a paper fold. So the detail gets exposed and that itself again becomes a part of the design language.


VS : We briefly touched on this, but did you have any major production challenges in making the chair, besides the fact that it went from it being a single piece of folded metal to two parts?

AS : So for this particular chair, we did something interesting. Beside the full scale drawings, we made small parts of it before starting to make the chair. There are important folding details that had to be tested out to see if they worked. So if you notice the front part of the leg where you see the corner junction, that was prototyped, 3-4 times before we could get it right. Similarly, the junction where the chair seat meets the backrest. And another detail where the cutting and folding happens, was a detail that got replicated and part prototyped several times. So those are the two main primary concerns but besides that, we there weren’t too many issues because it was so resolved on paper. We made paper models, metal models, and eventually some dies for the folding. We were quite happy that the second prototype itself gave me a certain final finished product because something like this would normally go to three levels of development before we actually hit the final prototype. I think in this case, the first piece itself was made in mild steel, because we wanted to see how it looks in material and the thickness of the mild steel that we used was 1.2 mm in thickness. And since we knew we wanted the final aluminum chair to be 4 mm thick we knew that if the thinner version works, then we'd be able to extend it to the aluminum version. So it was systematic and process driven from the very start of the development.


VS : So this is a very open ended question. But do you think your design says about you as a person? And I don't mean this chair, necessarily. 

AS : I think people have told me this. And I also feel this, to some extent, is that I'm probably not the kind of person who's happy doing simple, straightforward things. So that's what it says a little about me. It also probably says that I'm not commercially savvy, because I probably make pieces that are slightly more on the experimental side. So I think there's a certain part of my nature that thinks if it's too straightforward, I find it to be a little boring. I need a challenge. The moment I start putting pen to paper, I’m immediately drawn towards wanting to do something different. I just cannot imagine making something in my mind, even if it’s a simple table, I am driven in finding out if there's a detail that I can make in an interesting way. So if you see the Flash table, the only interesting thing for me was the leg and how the leg connects to the tabletop. But if I look at the Gap table, then I'm looking at the 45 degree chamfer that cut goes all the way through. I've got an industrial design approach to my work and will always be curious to find a better way to make it. Which is why I haven't succeeded too much with wood furniture. And I find that the dependency of carpenters in our country is very high. And then you're not able to get the precision that you want. With this everything is precise. If you don't cut the sheet in a perfect manner, the folding of metal won't happen. Also the chair doesn't have any material sense, it's just a form. Because it's not a chair that reflects a particular material. And that's something that’s across all my furniture, even if you look at the fiberglass pieces or the metal pieces, you eventually just don't think of it as a material.


VS : So colour is obviously very important to you, which is that? And why orange?

AS : Colour is definitely very important to me. Even though in my personal life, I don't have too many things around me that are very colourful, and my dress sense has become far more subdued, but when it comes down to furniture, I just can't help myself. I mean, you ask me to make a chair and I'm automatically drawn to wanting to apply colour to it. And orange is my favourite by far, it's a colour that I enjoy a lot. It's unexpected, you don't expect to see an orange chair often. That's another part of my nature, when it's unexpected, I want to be the first to try it. I also want to work within a given process - this is all done with an epoxy polyester powder coating. So there are certain limitations that I work with at the moment. But I've been thinking very hard that if I could go back and create more versions of this chair, I will definitely want to see how it looks when I leave it exposed in aluminum or when I try anodized aluminum finish.


VS : Also, why the name, It Looks Better in Orange?

AS : The name has been recommended by my son, I think he has this ability of coming up with very, very unusual names. The Table that Almost Wasn’t was also a name that he came up with, in a very simple, very direct way. I love that. And I think when he proposed this name for this chair, it was so unusual and so fresh, in the way that furniture is named. And I just took to it. I mean, if somebody tells me something that's a little different sounding, and it's got a certain amount of freshness, and it's breaking away from the whole pattern of way things are supposed to be, I'm the first one to go for it.


VS : What do you see as the major use case of this chair?

AS : I see this chair working very well, for projects like cafes, restaurants, small creative offices, I also see the chair going into small homes, a young in mind kind of a home. In whichever environment this chair gets placed, I think it'll create a certain sense of presence. So I think it will be at home in any environment that has a certain different aesthetic, or maybe in putting this chair a space will get a certain inclusion of a modern element.


VS : Okay great. I think we’re done. Thank you for your time.

AS : Thank you

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