TOWITHFROM combines artisanal heritage with modern aesthetics to design products that match the urban consumers’ sensibilities.
With a bevy of product designers entering the Indian market, it’s become extremely crucial to uphold not just factors like function and aesthetics in design, but also the profession should now focus on instrumentality as designers in becoming agents of social and economic growth.
While keeping their eyes on the larger picture, Lavanya Asthana and Harpreet Padam, founders at Unlike Design Co., a New Delhi based design studio, have set off on a path of resurrecting the dying crafts of India and putting them on a global platform. Their brand TOWITHFROM collaborates with the Indian crafts community to design and curate high-quality products and accessories that celebrate our rich craft heritage.
Recently, The Inside Track interviewed this designer duo to discuss the scope and the body of work at TOWITHFROM.
Tell us about your brand TOWITHFROM- the intention and ideology behind its conception.
In 2012, we were researching on the fringe crafts of Banaras – the everyday crafts that didn’t really get any attention from the ministries or the NGOs. One of these was the work of the local rickshaw decorators – the people who make a cycle rickshaw aesthetically and ergonomically roadworthy after the owner has purchased a raw cycle rickshaw.
They would upholster seats in bright contrasting patterns and decorate the protective tin cladding on the back of the rickshaw with debossed insignia. We produced a small range of accessories with this community and decided to retail it through our own online store.
This is how TOWITHFROM came into being. Later, we decided to apply the same methodology of working in crafts with other clusters. The desired outcome was interesting objects and accessories that would make meaningful gifts. The name itself came from the three words mentioned on most gifts – TO, WITH and FROM. The ‘with’ is probably the best way to explain our ideology.
What’s a design constant when you conceptualise any product?
A TOWITHFROM product must find its way into a contemporary setting, even while working with traditional craft forms. It must induce a desire to possess, to use and to gift. It must be of the best quality in its making.
Under the brand you present three lines – Originals, Made of India and Picks. Tell us something about the lines.
‘Made of India’ is our core range where we collaborate with craftspeople of different regions of India. Some of these are centuries old crafts. We devote a lot of time on this line, working on location where the crafts are practiced. The work relationship that forms is strong and mutually beneficial.
‘Originals’ are products that are made by people who are not conventional craftspeople in the textbook sense, yet make exceptional quality products. These are usually small suppliers and workshops within the Delhi region, where we are based.
Picks is the range where we select already made goods selected directly from the source. This line is linked to our travels across India. We don’t currently stock these online and have larger plans for this line. It deserves its very own attention.
What crafts and techniques are you currently exploring? Any particular craft you look forward to working on?
We are currently working with a group of papier-mâché artisans in Srinagar, Kashmir. It has been the result of a larger project that we have now been a part of for two years – called Commitment to Kashmir.
We are also exploring a range of products with wood carvers in coastal Andhra Pradesh. We would really like to work with textiles in the near future. It is not our strength at the moment, but we’d like to bridge this divide of textile and non-textile with a design methodology that goes beyond material.
Your work reflects the local cultures and ethnicities (of different places), yet they are globally relevant and timeless. Are there any challenges faced when you merge global aesthetics with the traditional techniques?
As far as the makers and the markets are concerned, it has been all smooth. Much appreciated by the people who buy and use the products and very enjoyable as a process for ourselves. Sometimes we get questioned on drifting too far from the traditional aspects of the crafts we work with. That’s a long debate though, and an interesting one at that.
You have collaborated with craftsmen on several projects; how has the experience been working with the artisans?
Very enlightening. We feel it subtly alters the way we work or see things even in the non-craft sector – in the way we define ‘work’ or in the way we talk to or deal with people. It brings about a certain respect, honesty, an upfront-ness of dealing with issues head on. Conversations become more meaningful. One begins to enjoy process and product. We feel this is the traditional part of craft that needs the most nurturing and safeguarding – the part about human values.
Knowing about a craft’s modalities and knowing about it through the artisans must be a very different experience. How does that factor influence your designs?
This is a very important question. So very often, we don’t approach artisans with proposals that are totally thought-through or with precise specifications. We’d say about half of the process takes place at the maker’s workshop. Sometimes the transformations are minute, sometimes they end up opening absolutely new directions. This other half is the artisan’s perspective – one that leaves room for surprise, for innovation and fruitful collaboration.
Owing to lack of appreciation, the legacy of crafts and arts is gradually declining. As a result the artisans’ community of India is dramatically shrinking. You are doing a commendable job of supporting this legacy; however, what collective efforts should be made to make sure this treasure is not completely lost to us?
We’re too small to make the difference this needs. But we believe we’re doing our part. We see the designer as one of the major agents of change if this decline has to be reversed.
And for that, we need more trained and sensitised designers working in craft. Sadly, despite volumes of design students graduating each year, few choose to work with craft. It is not that they wouldn’t want to, but our design education at present does not focus enough on ‘tradition’. The design student of today needs to be inspired and motivated to a level of seeing potential in themselves and their careers to make a change to craft.
And by change, we don’t mean product design only. A good craft designer sees the whole picture – the social, the commercial, and the environmental.
What are the future goals at Towithfrom? Any plans to expand the portfolio and go beyond accessories?
Working with more communities is always a goal. Collaborations that merge industrial production with craft are also on our mind. We also see ourselves doing more of what we’re doing already. There is much to do and very little time. Furniture complements and textiles should be next, in addition to accessories.