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Book of the month: Between Chairs at Ulm and NID

In a country at risk of losing touch with its handcrafted roots, a reminder of India’s dialogue with Ulm School of Design is timely and necessary

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (1)

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (1)

In summer 1965, industrial designer Hans Gugelot, who taught at the Ulm School of Design in Germany, visited the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, India, to develop a fan. ‘I have meanwhile made a small armchair. The model will be finished on Monday. Very simple. The seat is fabric fixed only at the front and top, slats inserted (from underneath) ensure that it hangs well … and I want to prove that you can get results from simple things too.’ 

The India Lounge – or 24/42 Chair, named after the standard German timber section – was co-designed with the Indian designer Gajanan Upadhyaya: a transcultural exchange made manifest in beautifully crafted teak and textile.

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (2)

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (2)

Hans Gugelot’s design for the India Lounge chair is described in a letter from 1965

The India Lounge is the touchstone for Between Chairs: Design Pedagogies in Transcultural Dialogue, the result of research conducted by last year’s Bauhaus Lab. The publication of design conversations in the mid-’60s between the Bauhaus inheritors at Ulm and ‘Third World’ pioneers of design education at the NID is a significant event. India today needs this reminder of the values that informed its unique experiment in design education, positioned within a democratic transition that was the first of its kind. Within a non-violent struggle against colonial rule that had demanded extraordinary resilience and sacrifice, the design process had played a critical role. 

‘Partnership of the “trained” designer and the hereditary “designer-artisan” could deliver the mission of design the Eameses found in the lota: “service, dignity and love”’

During its quest for a confident new identity, the nation turned to design. Yet the term ‘design’ was seldom used by the visionaries who took India to freedom. With perhaps the oldest unbroken design culture in the world, it had no word in any of its myriad languages that could translate as the practice advocated by the Bauhaus and its successors. The English word ‘design’ was applied to art or to engineering, never to problem-solving. The commitment to a cherished past became a resource for transition that could avoid mimicry of Western Modernism while remaining open to all knowledge and to experimentation. 

Concepts of Modernism and nationalism had been debated relentlessly during the struggle for freedom. These were dissected, redefined and rearticulated by Rabindranath Tagore and by a galaxy of political, literary and artistic talent. As the struggle accelerated, many took inspiration from contact with the West’s most creative spirits. Tagore’s fascination with the Bauhaus was rooted in its respect for craftsmanship and Indian tradition (Walter Gropius exclaimed in 1919: ‘Building! Design! Gothic! India!’). By 1922 he had hosted a watershed Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta. 

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (4)

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (4)

Co-founder of the Ulm School of Design, Otl Aicher, photographed Indian street scenes in 1960

Global attention was on Mahatma Gandhi turning hand-spun, hand-woven cotton into a livery of freedom and self-reliance. Gandhi famously observed that he wanted India’s windows to be open to ‘the winds of the world, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them’. This was the foundation for what Marlene Oeken describes in the book as a new India’s ‘self-confident view of its own heritage’, manifest at the Textiles and Ornamental Arts in India exhibition at MoMA in 1955. 

‘Walter Gropius exclaimed in 1919: “Building! Design! Gothic! India!”’

Between Chairs traces with sensitivity the catalytic impact of this exhibition on visionary Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to apply the Bauhaus/Ulm pedagogy as a force for change as a rural society emerged from colonial rule to seek its own modernity. As the exhibition unfolded, seeds for the NID experiment were sown: was this magnificent display of India’s design genius a tribute to a past that would now be set aside as memory, or was it a promise of a future rich in creativity and innovation? 

In the search for answers, design education was identified as a key tool. Through design, India could draw with confidence on both the riches of heritage as well as on every contemporary discipline – without the risk of ‘being blown off its feet’. Gwendolyn Kulick draws attention to Nehru’s resolve for a modernity built on Indian terms with global knowledge. The Eames’ India Report – invited following the exhibition in New York three years earlier – included an influential essay on the traditional lota pot, inspiring the foundation of NID which then incorporated the Bauhaus/Ulm philosophy of learning design by doing – hands-on apprenticeships in workshops geared to real-life clients representing the many ‘Indias’ in need of design service. 

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (5)

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (5)

The NID’s metal workshop in the 1960s

All this is brilliantly summarised in this little book. Yet in its concise description of Ulm-inspired NID pedagogy, the essays by Kulick and Marleen Grasse miss two critical decisions. One was to position NID outside India’s hidebound ministry of education and place it instead under the care of the ministry then managing industry and trade, where it could, hopefully, be left alone to experiment. This in itself was a revolution, leading to the NID Diploma remaining officially ‘unrecognised’ until market acceptance made bureaucratic approval a dispensable luxury. The second decision was to experiment: in a society in which to this day education is evaluated in percentage points, at NID there would be no formal exams, no marks or grades. Instead, design students would be assessed through client acceptance of their solutions, emerging from NID not merely as graduates, but as young professionals with a body of work as evidence of market worthiness. At the time, all this was sheer heresy. 

The book’s leitmotif – Gugelot and Upadhyaya’s India Lounge – needs understanding in a context of an entrenched system. Gugelot and other masters came to NID to promote teachers with stamina to serve in such a radical institution. The standard was set by Upadhyaya, H Kumar Vyas, and a handful of others chosen by Gautam Sarabhai and his sister Gira as trainers for the vanguard of a new profession. Like their students to come, they would serve as professionals, learn as apprentices, and collaborate with master artisans toward a respect for traditional wisdom and an understanding of materials, processes and cutting-edge technologies. The workshops funded by the Ford Foundation became hot-houses for experiments in design, inspired by studios at Bauhaus and Ulm where artisans and designers had functioned together as co-creators. 

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (6)

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (6)

The 24/42 Chair was part of a suite, crafted from teak, fabric and marble

The India Lounge is thus symbolic of NID’s deep engagement with India’s hereditary crafts. Mention is needed of one of its principal protagonists: Haribhai Suthar, NID’s master-craftsman. His genius was a deep influence on both Gugelot and Upadhyaya, as well as on Vyas and generations of NID teachers and learners, giving them an unparalleled understanding of quality as a very Indian embrace of skill, heritage and instinct.

A handcrafted masterpiece, the India Lounge returns us to the MoMA exhibition, at which the notion of an Indian design institution was originally conceived. Handcraft – immortalised by Gandhi’s spinning wheel and advocacy of hand-spun, hand-woven cotton as self-reliant resistance to imports from Lancashire – fired India’s struggle for freedom and self-sufficiency.

‘In a world and nation consumed with anxiety and division, Between Chairs offers a space for hope, and for the revival of memory’

Nehru’s vision of an industrialised India that integrated new spaces and opportunities for tradition had turned crafts at NID into a wellspring, nurturing tomorrow’s designers with past wisdom and encouraging them to encounter new challenges with a confidence drawn from the turbulence of freedom and its aftermath. Partnership of the ‘trained’ designer and the hereditary ‘designer-artisan’ could deliver the mission of design the Eameses found in the lota: ‘service, dignity and love’. 

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (3)

Bhtb22 betweenchairs [en] (3)

The Eameses encouraged Indian designers to design ‘the lotas of their time’

It is this that gives particular urgency to this book. The dialogue remembered on its pages resonates in a context of unprecedented design demand obsessed with style and immediate market success, leaving service to those most in need as a footnote. While a handful of old-timers may still regard the lota as ‘the paradigmatic object of an Indian design culture’ identified by the Eameses, the vast majority of design aspirants are glued to their laptops with little interest in the object that catalysed the movement they have inherited.  

The significance of this document is its timely reminder to a new generation of a transcultural sharing more relevant today perhaps than all those years ago. There could not be a better time to recall how two institutions in two disparate cultures came together to explore the potential of design to pursue a more humane society, casting aside clichés of East and West and of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, sharing instead concerns and aspirations as well as the experience and wisdom of all humanity. In a world and nation consumed with anxiety and division, Between Chairs offers a space for hope, and for the revival of memory.

Between Chairs: Design Pedagogies in Transcultural Dialogue

Bauhaus Lab 2017

Spector Books, Leipzig, €9.90

ISBN: 9783959051965

All images: Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

 This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today