Monday, January 5, 2009

Eames Demitrios at NID : Eames Photo Exhibit and Reflections on 50 Years after the Eames Report

Revisiting the Eames Legacy and Design Education in India and at NID

Prof M P Ranjan’s papers

Image 1: Eames Demitrios at the opening of the Eames Photo Exhibit at NID, the book of 100 Eames Quotes and his personal inscription on my copy. The 100 quotes are presented in the following languages: English, Complex Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Eames Demertios visited NID to launch the Eames 100 Photo Exhibition, which he had contributed to select on behalf of the Herman Miller Inc. and the exhibit has traveled across many nations before coming to NID to coincide with the celebration of Eames India Report (download PDF 360 kb) reaching the 50-year landmark. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the Eames legacy in India and the impact of the National Institute of Design on the design needs of India, which is still very large and complex. However the larger series of events that I had proposed for the Eames Report Silver Jubilee celebration was unfortunately truncated due to lack of official fervor to back the event, which were however announced over one year ago. However, for this particular event I was away at a lecture meeting in Pune organized by the Interior Designers Association of India which was also planned to coincide with the Eames India Report celebrations and this meant that I missed being at the NID event since the dates clashed. I was however able to see the student and faculty excitement before the event and later hear about the opening ceremony when I came back to NID a couple of days later. I missed meeting Eames Demetrios this time but I was able to visit the photo exhibit several times and ponder on the Eames vision of India as shown through the pictures that only he could compose and capture with his inimitable sense of vision and purpose. Eames Demetrios was kind enough to leave an inscribed copy of the Eames 100 Quotes book for me as shown above. Charles and Ray Eames had much to say about the world and about design and this book is a handy guide for students from across the world.

Image 2: Eames Demetrios at NID with students and faculty on the occasion of the Eames Photo exhibit opening ceremonies at NID Gallary, an event that I unfortunately missed.

NID has been a Mecca for great world designers and in the 60’s and 70’s we had some of the most distinguished international designers, over a 100 of them, visiting NID in the aftermath of the 1958 Eames India Report, based on which the NID was set up in 1961 by the Government of India. Having his grandson visit NID in 2008, exactly 50 years after that writing of the report was indeed a significant line of continuity for the shaping of design for the Indian cause. The documentation of NID’s contribution is however very sketchy due to some deep seated apathy to documentation and publication from the official and faculty sources at NID which unfortunately continues to this day. The last comprehensive publication of the NID’s professional and education work was prepared by Gira Sarabhai (one of the founders of the NID and the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad) in 1970 titled “NID : Documentation 1964 to 69” which is now fortunately available as a PDF file for download from this link below. (NID Document PDF File 25 MB). Aditi and I started the Young Designers series of publications that documented the work of Diploma Projects of our students from 1989 and this has fortunately been maintained by the Institute as an unbroken tradition since then with one book being produced each year and last year onwards the student diploma work has been showcased on the website at these links below. Young Designers 2007 and Young Designers 2008. However this still leaves out several major areas of work done by students and faculty through education, research and outreach activities and the full range of professional work done be the faculty of the Institute. The tradition at NID has been that faculty have not been permitted to do any personal practice and all the work had to be done through the Institutes professional practice wing or outreach wing. The Institute does have some research publications such as my book on “Bamboo & Cane Crafts of Northeast India” (download PDF 36 MB) and more recently the “Handmade in India” which I have reported about on this blog at these links here. There have been a handful of other publications by faculty colleagues but these however do not cover the vast contributions made by the NID faculty and this represents a huge research opportunity for some young design historian to follow up on in the days ahead.

Image 3: NID students and faculty from the Furniture design discipline in hands-on mode planning the setting up of the Eames Photo Exhibit at NID Gallery. Anuya Naik, Rama Krishna Rao and L C Ujawane in discussion with Furniture Design students on how to mount the Eames Photo Exhibit in the NID Gallary.

Eames, both Charles and Ray, visited NID several times together at first and individually in later years, 1978 and 1988, and they contributed to the building of a work ethic at the institute which thankfully continues to date. This photo exhibit was another such opportunity for NID faculty and students to get together once again in a typically Eames style "hands-on mode" to help set up the exhibit on campus for a wider audience to participate in. This tradition of working together has however been eroded somewhat in recent years but we need to remind ourselves of this great Eames tradition of hands-on design that was practiced in the Eames Office and at NID ever since the great Eames’ Nehru Exhibition was designed and executed at the Institute in the mid 60’s as a project commissioned by the Government of India and this tradition continued for many years through major exhibition projects done by the institute where students and faculty worked together and built a shared understanding of great design action. I have a paper, which I had prepared about exhibition design at NID in 1986, which may give some insights into the learning process that was truly the NID way in those days. (download paper here - PDF 36 kb)

Image 4: NID students and faculty in active mode of setting up the Eames Photo Exhibit and being inspired by the Images of India from an early visit by Eames.

The furniture design programme at NID was inspired by the work of Eames although the formal education programme started in 1969 with design teachers from Germany, the early beginnings of the Eames influence came from the full set of furniture and products that were donated from the Museum of Modern Art’s classic design collection which included many items of Eames furniture in wire, plywood, fibre glass and cast aluminium range besides original products by Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and others too numerous to be named here. These originals in our prototype collection were a source of inspiration and all students of furniture design got an opportunity to study these in detail as part of their education at NID. Further the NID’s wood and metal workshops were constantly producing a number of furniture designs by international masters like George Nakashima and our own present day master, Gajanan Upadhayay, and this production continued till recent times as a live reminder of high quality of workmanship as a living tradition inside the NID workshops. It is not surprising that the students and faculty from that era had a deep understanding of materials and process and a very refined range of furniture did get designed and made at NID till the end of the 90’s. The turn of the century was a bit of a disaster since after the bamboo boards & beyond workshop of 2000 the wood workshop was rudely dismantled to make way for the digital Design Vision Centre (DVC), which all but destroyed the hands-on tradition that had taken deep roots at NID. Somewhere we seemed to loose our way and slogans of “Mind to Market” took on the place of real “Hands-on” action that was the true NID way in the spirit of Eames.

Image 5: Anuya Naik with NID students setting up the Eames Photo Exhibit and the 100 images poster that captures the whole exhibit at a glance.

I am indeed happy to see the return of faculty and student involvement in hands-on activities of exhibition design and fabrication and I do hope that this will be continued to other such opportunities in the days ahead. The students who pass through these experiences develop a deep sense of collaborative spirit and are less prone to ego trips when deciding the form and quality of their design offerings. Design is indeed changing but we do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater and we will need to deeply examine the role of the digital in our design processes and preserve those values that are durable from the hands-on tradition which may indeed turn out to be the very heart of design thinking and action in the days ahead. The furniture design activity at NID has retained the deep respect for prototype building and learning by doing is alive and well in this discipline while a body of theory has also been introduced into the programme along with a considerable amount of exposure to digital tools and processes in information processing, drawing, image management and presentation documentation etc.

Image 6: An article in an Interiors magazine featuring great Indian product designers. It is gratifying to see that all six designers were NID graduates and all of them have been my students at different times. Sandeep Mukherjee, Reboni Saha, Vibhor Sogani, Neil Foley, Mukul Goyel, and Alex Davis: clockwise from top left.

Last year, in late November, as the Eames Exhibit was being assembled at NID we came across this article in a national Interior Design magazine that celebrated the work of some of the finest product designers of India. It is not surprising that all the designers featured here were products of the NID workshops “hands-on” tradition and these were the same people who found value in pottering in our workshops with materials and concepts that has now been recognized as valuable contributions by that design media in India. There is value in the hands-on approach and we must cherish this as a way forward even in the digital era. There are many other design groups who have set up entrepreneurial ventures across India in the areas of textiles, furniture and ceramic design and these enterprises have grown over the years to be recognized as a design led industry from India. However the designers in India have failed to organize themselves into associations at a professional level and due to this their influence on National policy is still rather limited. The SIDI (Society of Industrial Designers of India) that flourished during the 70’s to 90’s became defunct due to apathy from members and the self-interest of the office bearers. Some recent initiatives in the form of the AIDI (Association of Industrial Designers of India) started by the Bangalore designers and the informal online efforts of the DesignIndia group are some fledgling initiatives in the making. The Pune Design Foundation is yet another recent initiative and we hope these shape up and take root to lead the design movement in India in the days ahead.

Image 07: Exhibition of Furniture made from Bamboo Boards at the UNDP Lawns on 17 February 2001, which made a huge impact in New Delhi, and on National Policy that led to the creation of the National Bamboo Mission, which is still in progress. I got my 5 minutes of fame since I was invited to the NDTV studio that night to be interviewed live on the 9 o’clock news just after Dr Anil Agarwal of Down to Earth fame had completed his interview on the subject of environment. Awareness about global warming was still a long way off in the minds of people at large.

In the late 90’s and early years of this century we have had a growing interest in bamboo as a furniture design material and NID and its Centre for Bamboo Initiatives has been at the heart of this development. As many a 40 students from furniture and product design and over a dozen faculty colleagues were involved with me to explore this material and as a result we have a well documented body of work that is perhaps a significant contribution to world knowledge of building with bamboo and this is well acknowledged as a result of the publication of our, books, CD ROMs and web based publications that can be seen at these links here on this blog as well as on my website at this link below. (web link to Bamboo Initiatives) (links to other blog posts).

Image 08: Sandeep Mukherjee and Sarita Fernandez set up Quetzel in Bangalore, which makes fine furniture in the Eames tradition of design and build.

In my presentation last month at the Design Cities Debate at the Design Museum in London I shared several case studies from design groups in Bangalore. Quetzel and Dovetail are two such cases of innovative companies set up by NID graduates who set out to make furniture of their own design and these have now grown into substantial business groups in their own right.

Image 09: S Sunder and John Mathews have set up Dovetail which also designs and produces fine furniture which is made available through their retail as well as direct supply to large clients.

In the Bangalore presentation at the Design Cities Debate it was clear to me that design would need to scale from being a play of materials and aesthetics to be able to move up the growing vortex of design concerns to include social, ecological and ethical levels of exchange and contribute at that level. Dovetail. IDIOM, Trapeeze, Ray + Kesavan and all the other design initiatives including the IT sector that is growing to cope with the higher offerings of knowledge economy and raising to the level of offering products would all be part of the next design revolution in the making, I hope.

Bangalore had all the ingredients in place to move up the political ladder and to try and influence decision makers about the role of design in our evolving society and through this find a place for it which was I believe envisaged in the Eames India Report of 50 years ago. We need to re-read the Eames Report as well as his 100 Quotes and find our own way forward in this complex milieu if the next 50 years is to bring design closer to the hearts and minds of people who need to be served by this wonderful resource but they may not yet know that they do. The Jaanagraha’s feeble attempt to influence the participation of people (see my blog post below) in the local and national democracy is a good sign and designers need to back these initiatives and join them to make them work for all of us in the days ahead.

Prof M P Ranjan’s papers

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