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Person of Interest: Manasa Prithvi, Interior Product Designer

Posted on May 01, 2016 by Vyshnavi Doss | 0 Comments

MANASA PRITHVI started Ira studio in 2012 when she sensed that the Indian crafts industry was stagnating with cheap imitations and archaic mediocrity. Adapting and developing antiquated traditions with contemporary minimalist sensibilities, she combines the dichotomy between these two design worlds in her work. 

Manasa and I discovered each other's work on the internet. She interviewed me late 2015 for her own website, a thinking exercise that I thoroughly enjoyed. Naturally I am taken in by her work; I relate deeply to her values of understated elegance, restrained luxury and Indian minimalism.  

PERSON OF INTEREST is a continuing series of informal chats with fellow independent thinkers bound by a common desire to create new meaning. Dvibhumi Lunch Box is my dabba of mental nourishment and I'm sharing it with you. Tuck in! - Vyshnavi


You studied at the University of Arts, London. What prompted you to come to India and set up a craft based design business in India?

Well, to be honest, I had to come back to India- it was very expensive to get a visa to stay back in the UK. But, the other thing is that I didn’t want to anyway. Towards the end of my Masters programme, the idea to start Ira Studio had been seeded in my head, and I was itching to come back to set it up. I had very clearly understood the design space I wanted to be in. I saw ways and reasons to work with the craft industry that had inspired me in the past and was the reason I wanted to get into design in the first place.

Madras Trays combine simplicity with functionality, with strips of brass inlaid in Teak wood to echo the aesthetics of the quintessential Madras checks of the South. Source: Ira Studio

I wanted our crafts to be more functional and relevant to today’s times, and hence the desire to sustain it by re-creating an identity for them through my work. And, ultimately it is the very simple, but fulfilling reason of wanting to design, work with hand processes and create beautiful pieces that fuelled me to set up Ira Studio.


What is the essence of contemporary Indian design and how do you bring it alive in your work? 

I think the idea of what contemporary Indian design is, is constantly evolving. I can’t speak for anybody else, but to me it is a relevance to the times we live in, infused with an essence of our culture and tradition. Aesthetically speaking, it is about a quiet minimalism- not clinically stark, but with warmth and elegance. This minimalism is not new, and it is certainly not Western. We had our Indian idea of minimalism in the past too, in our crafts such as in traditional metal ware, mud houses, some of the simple cotton saris or white dhotis. Yes, there is also an ornate, decorative side, but we often forget the simplicity we found in our own backyard. What we are doing with contemporary Indian design is just Indianising the global (which we are pros at)! 

I make my products functional with a very reductionist approach to the design, retaining the important essence of the craft technique.

 The Tekku stools handcrafted in brass and wood using the Indian sheet metal technique and tarakashi (metal inlay technique). Source: Ira Studio


What is the Ira Studio way of creating something? 

The initial process involves looking at a particular craft technique as design inspiration. I then do a fair bit of research into the craft, its techniques, the design repertoire, the cultural background, and the craftsmen. This involves travelling to places where the craft is popular and interacting directly with the artisans, sometimes documenting the process. I see how best I can expand the products of the craft to a contemporary context, and I try to marry my aesthetics with functional design and tradition.

 Tekku Stool with brass inlay pattern, in the making. Source: Ira Studio


We do a few samples or prototypes and proceed with the final piece. The process is often very organic and usually the final design isn’t set in stone. So, during the process the design often changes with either inputs from the artisan or with a bit of experimentation. It’s often holding back on creating too much and letting things just be. 

For example, our Dokra Lights were inspired by the simple process of construction of typical Dokra moulds with beeswax and their thread like texture. The designs of our Copper Tables were inspired by the way huge copper and brass pots are indigenously and crudely made. We asked the artisans to stop their process half way, to achieve the ridges. The Hand Beaten Brass Lights are an obvious inspiration from nature.

 Dokra lights. Source: Ira Studio


Who are your clients?

Our clients are world over, mainly from Europe and India. I find that there is a real, true appreciation for the handmade. Since we keep our products original and limited in numbers, this adds value to the product. There’s a special appreciation for the unique characters of a handmade product- the sublime marks of the maker, and the fact that no two pieces can ever be alike. They are happy to know the product they keep in their home cannot be found very easily everywhere else. Our products are designed to be global, with subtle reflections to the Indian artistic heritage. Hence, they suit a variety of spaces, despite the geographical boundaries.


Where does traditional handcrafting based design stand in a world of low cost fast fashion, 3D printing? Do you think handcrafted holds commercial promise?

I think it’s unfair to compare the two. Mass production and hand production are two very different kinds of processes. However, it is unfortunate when designers mass manufacture utilising skilled artisans, as cheap labourers. The essence of handcrafted products is entirely different. And, I am confident there is a market for it. People do appreciate and value handmade. There is a certain quality and aesthetic that is achieved by handcrafted products, the labour intensive techniques, and the attention and love given to each piece makes the product soulful; a machine made, mass manufactured product lacks this quality.


 Making lights using the Indian sheet metal technique. Source: Ira Studio

We use technology to promote our work, and bridge the gap between designers and consumers. Not everything can be handmade nor should everything be driven by technology. There is a space for slow design and one for fast production. We require both, so there shouldn’t be a competition between the two types of production. I believe both kinds can co-exist in harmony in today’s market.


What learning can you share with those starting out an independent craft-based design business?

Be patient. Working with crafts, that are hand-driven and not machine driven can be unpredictable. Artisans sometimes can be unpredictable; the design outcome can be unpredictable. Making a product takes time. Embrace slow design in all its glory. And, I cannot stress this enough- be original, be authentic. Your designs and your business should be your unique voice. 


What are your ambitions for Ira Studio?

Explore more crafts and make bespoke products for beautiful spaces. And perhaps, someday, open a quaint little retail space.






Posted in Architecture, crafts, Decor, India, Interior design, Person of Interest

Curiosity: Chettinad's connection with The Straits

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Vyshnavi Doss | 1 Comment


No, that isn't a picture of a Chettinad mansion, but it just might be a close relative.

I spent Saturday afternoon looking at Karaikudi architecture on the internet. Chettinad vignettes have found their way into my consciousness quite incidentally: through the mainstream of cinema, grand wedding halls, homes of affluent family-friends and restaurants. I haven't actually visited the heritage towns of Karaikudi. My most intimate interaction with the Chettiar legacy has, interestingly, been here in Singapore: through the streets named after them, temples they built, the restaurants they started and the Thaipusam festivals they championed.

{ Perspectives of an enthusiast, not an expert. I'd like to hear from you if you have something to add or clarify. Leave a comment! }

There are some fascinating stories on the internet about the community if you so wish to read (a few links at the end of this post). The Nattukkottai Chettiars were the venture capitalists of their time; they sailed to trading hubs in Southeast Asia and Africa and established themselves as trusted financiers with a structured money lending practice.  They were a wealthy, progressive lot, with a fondness for risk taking that extended to design and decor.

Chettiars in Singapore conducted their business on Chulia Street and Market Street, in shop houses which combined European and vernacular architecture. Source

While browsing pictures of the mansions, I instantly recognized the ceramic tiles. And you would too, if you’ve ever visited Singapore, Malacca, Penang or KL.

 Periya Veedu in Chettinad with Majolica art nouveau tiles and European style floor tiles Source

They're known as Peranakan tiles in parts of Southeast Asia, but they’re actually Majolica art nouveau tiles from Europe (there were varieties imported from Japan too). The Peranakans – another fascinating community born of immigrant-local marriages and transformative cultural cross-pollination – espoused them in this part of the world.

 Shop house on Petain Road with Majolica art nouveau tiles, Singapore

Their shop houses are a playful composite of European and vernacular styles. Full length windows co-exist with local wood carving; the stucco features local themes; and European floor and wall tiles and pilasters populate the basic vernacular construction. There are several variants of shop house ornamentation, making it nearly impossible to present a single one that typifies the style.

 Straits Eclectic Style with ornate stucco, Lorong Bachok, Singapore Source

The Chettinad mansions follow a similar syncretism it seems: with eye-popping colours, stained glass and heavy stucco ornamentation, possibly emulating the Straits Eclectic style of Southeast Asia. 

 Inner hall of Periya Veedu with paintings, ceramic tiles and stucco Source

Art nouveau railings stand alongside local style balustrades; and some bungalows use both European and Athangudi floor tiles.

 Eye-popping colours and art nouveau inspired balustrades seen in the courtyard of the Chettinad Mansion Source

Clearly, imported ornamentation was a status symbol, as in the case of the Straits Eclectic houses. And according to some sources, the Chettiars employed local artisans who expertly reproduced some of the European accents used in their mansions.

 Vivid colours and art nouveau balustrades of the Pinang Peranakan Museum Source

Now I haven’t really managed to find material on the origin of Athangudi tiles. Could it be, then, that the tiles that Karaikudi is now famous for, is a cultural import from Europe via Southeast Asia?

Further reading/viewing:

Asia One: Singapore’s First Venture Capitalists

Chettiar’s Temple Society, Singapore: About Nattukkottai Chettiars

Charukesi Ramadurai: Film Trail in Chettinad

WSJ: The End of Punjabi Baroque

Thukral and Tagra: Punjabi Baroque


Posted in Architecture, Decor, Interior design, Singapore, Southeast Asia