For Doshi Levien, Mass-Produced Goods Should Feel Custom-Made

Mixing influences from East and West, the vernacular and the modern, Doshi Levien creates precision-tooled products with the look and feel of the handmade.

“My parents started a business in Scotland designing and making soft-toy kits,” says Jonathan Levien, one half of the London-based husband-and-wife design team Doshi Levien. “There were all kinds of animals. Mum designed them, Dad made them. They shipped them all over the world. They made a success of it. The factory was at the back of the house, so I was brought up with the idea of designing, making, and selling things from home. I’ve liked the idea, ever since, of a closeness—an intimacy—between life and work.”

When I suggest that Doshi Levien should adopt this idea literally, setting up shop in the couple’s London home, they are quick to agree. After all, they already live next door to their studio, and above the fashionable Brawn restaurant, on an East London street famous for its colorful and gloriously scented weekly flower market as well as for the sheer number of artists, architects, and designers who live in the area.

“I think this is the direction we’re heading in,” Nipa Doshi says. “We’re discovering new ways of designing and working all the time. There are many different ways designers can operate today, and because we know what we’d like to design and how we’d like to present and sell things, why not do it ourselves?”

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“Our work is not about trying to keep control over things,” Levien says. “We’re open to different directions, and because we’re affected by materials we come across, people we meet, and places and situations we encounter, we can move across a whole range of ideas. Perhaps we would be good shopkeepers. We’d have lots of different things on show.”

In January, it was possible to catch a glimpse of what a Doshi Levien studio-home-factory-shop might look like. For visitors to the IMM Cologne furniture fair, the designers’ show home, entitled Das Haus—Interiors on Stage, offered a brightly colored domestic interior from a future where dazzling displays of forward-looking technologies are very definitely not the order of the day.

Instead, here was a house, intended for an urban neighborhood, composed of layers of transparent screens that were gathered around a courtyard. It was part home, part spa, and part shop, and yet all of a piece—a place, or a set of interlocking spaces, in which to live a creative family life in the round, with rooms blurring one into the other, bedrooms opening up to living rooms, and the bathroom and kitchen merging both physically and in terms of purpose and spirit.

“In India,” says Doshi, who was born in Bombay and brought up in Delhi, “ingredients used in the kitchen, like turmeric and chickpea flour, are also used in the bathroom for exfoliation and as disinfectants. Our whole work is about creating hybrids, juxtapositions—about loving things and helping people create their own rituals. Most of all, it’s about values and not style.”

The IMM house was not just a display of Doshi Levien’s thinking about how a home can be a place where work, play, commerce, culture, rituals, and cooking merge happily, but a showcase of work that has inspired the designers, or that they simply love. George Nelson’s 1956 Marshmallow Sofa found an unlikely home alongside Achille Castiglioni’s 1962 Arco floor lamp, Jasper Morrison’s 1986 Thinking Man’s Chair, and Stefan Wewerka’s 1979 Tecta chair.

“We wanted to put objects we’ve designed and those by others we admire in a context that was about reality as well as being a little visionary,” Levien says. “So the house is not an abstract space, but somewhere you could imagine living, a residential factory that’s creative, social, and home.”

It was Morrison who encouraged Doshi, who had newly arrived in London, to apply to the Royal College of Art’s furniture design program in 1994. There, she met Levien. Doshi had previously studied design at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, while Levien had come to the school via his background, from the age of 16, in cabinetmaking. And it was Tom Dixon, then the design director of Habitat, who gave the young designers their first break with a commission to create tableware for the British chain.

“I employed Nipa at my shop Space when she first came to the UK and then was in contact with her when she was a student,” Dixon says. “She worked for me as a designer on a couple of projects at Habitat. I asked Johnny to design several cutlery collections at Habitat too. I’ve always appreciated their unique outlook and their love of the exotic in all of its amazing culture and craft.”

Doshi and Levien’s distinctive approach to design gelled when the couple traveled to India in 2000. Concerned with the way in which major Western manufacturers were trying to sell cooking equipment to Indian families still keen on their traditional kitchenware, they approached Tefal, the French manufacturer and inventor of the nonstick frying pan, and offered to design modern interpretations of Indian karahi cooking pots, along with Moroccan tagines, Chinese woks, and Mexican fajita pans that could be placed safely on gas and electric burners. The result, in 2001, was the Mosaic range, an inspired fusion of the latest in French materials-technology and venerable Asian, American, and Arab cookware. At the bottom of these pots, the legend “Made in France” is set in patterns adopted from India, Morocco, Mexico, and China. “We want mass-produced goods to feel as if they’re custom-made,” Doshi says, repeating a favorite mantra.

“They manage to fuse that ethnic chic with a steely determination to succeed and a knowledge of precision industrial design,” Dixon says. “It’s a completely unique and recognizable aesthetic, with a charm and quirkiness in its communication, which is super endearing.”

After marrying and setting up shop in London, Doshi and Levien adapted their developing philosophy of hybrid design to furniture, beginning with the Charpoy range of daybeds, which were commissioned by Patrizia Moroso for the Italian furniture company her father founded in 1952. Launched at the 2007 Milan Furniture Fair, the daybeds were composed of lacquered-wood frames, with legs surmounted by and adorned with fabrics made in Gujarat, India. Later that year, in New York, the Cooper-Hewitt included the designers in their Quicktake exhibition series.

As Moroso had already commissioned Ron Arad, Konstantin Grcic, Patricia Urquiola, and Mark Newson, Doshi Levien was in intelligent and forward-looking company. The following year, ideas underpinning the Charpoy range were taken a stage further in Milan with the unveiling of Principessa, a beguiling daybed, also for Moroso, featuring multicolored layers of decorative Indian mattresses arranged in a playful homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s much-loved fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” The top mattress was covered with a specially designed Jacquard fabric with images of the objects a latter-day princess might need, such as a handbag or a hairdryer.

Paper Planes, a set of reading chairs for Moroso, appeared in 2010. The concept behind the design is as odd as it is alluring. After it was approached by Swarovski to create a fabric that incorporated crystals, Doshi Levien worked with Moroso to design a textile inspired by graph paper, combining silk-screen printing and crystals with Kvadrat’s Remix fabric. The result was a rational and geometric family of chairs—but when the light caught these Paper Planes at certain angles, they glittered and gleamed with aplomb, as do the interiors of a maharaja’s palaces, or folded, glittering saris.

Doshi and Levien are among the most playful of designers. Both are big admirers of the late Achille Castiglioni, the legendary Milanese designer and creator of Snoopy lamps, who just happened to look like a slapstick comic from the days of silent movies, and who was, indeed, often very funny. Once, when I asked him to name his all-time favorite design, Castiglioni lifted a curious-looking wood-and-leather object from the wall of his cabinet-of-curiosities studio. It was a traditional Swiss milking stool that milkmaids buckled around their waists. When they went to sit alongside a cow, a single, free-floating leg dropped to the ground beneath the comfortably sculpted seat, and swayed naturally as the milkmaid shifted position; as a result, the stool never fell over.

Castiglioni showed this same stool to many visitors—he used it as a prop in design lectures, too—yet its appearance was always entrancing because it demonstrated how purposeful, as well as delightful and even playful, everyday design can be. Doshi and Levien’s own home and studio are filled with a heady mix of modern design, found objects, and images that happened to catch their eyes. One day, some of these things will work their way into the duo’s designs.

Charles and Ray Eames were also great collectors of traditional designs and folk art. They recognized that there was a place for both vernacular and industrial design, and that the two had equal value. When Levien told me about his parents’ toy factory, I couldn’t help thinking of the Eameses’ charming film Toccata for Toy Trains, done in collaboration with the composer Elmer Bernstein in 1957. It celebrated the unselfconscious designs of old-fashioned toy trains over the perfection of exquisitely self-conscious scale models. The look and feel of the film conjures an ambience with which Indian street traders and their customers would feel happily familiar.

“I hate the idea of everywhere becoming the same,” Doshi says. “There is a danger that India could go down the glossy international path, where everything becomes gray and banal, rather than colorful and full of life. But we’re not nostalgic. Our aim is to see traditions developing hand in hand with modern methods and new technologies. Designers can play their role in ensuring that color, craft, and beautiful fabrics do more than survive. These should excite new generations.”

Doshi thought about these things acutely when she was a student in Ahmedabad. “I struggled with the Bauhaus notions we were taught at design college, all the form-follows-function philosophy, design as a way of rational problem solving. I could see a rationale, too, in everyday design on the streets outside, in Indian clothes, rituals, and ways of life. These were all about celebration and joy.”

As are Doshi Levien’s latest designs: the Kali bathroom cabinet and range of accessories, for Authentics, includes wall-mounted glass shelves that sprout like the many arms of the complex and rather terrifying eponymous Hindu goddess. And what about the armchair for Moroso that made its debut last year? At first glance, Impossible Wood appears to be an elegantly sculpted bentwood chair. Close-up, it proves to be made of injection-molded plastic. The name of the piece derives from the fact that it would have been impossible to make this particular chair from wood, given how far it is bent. Instead of being finished smoothly, as you might expect an injection-molded plastic chair to be, Impossible Wood enjoys a layered texture that makes it appear as if it might truly be made from overlaid strips of wood. Purists steeped in the strictures of Bauhaus design might find this use of materials “dishonest.” It is, instead, a way of exploring materials and production processes, a game of intelligent and playful illusion.

Doshi Levien is proof that the perceived dangers of global design—ubiquity, the abandonment of local color, craft, and culture—are not an inevitable threat to variety and beauty in the modern world. Design can be at once local and global, employing age-old customs, patterns, and ways of working along with the latest in materials, technology, manufacturing, and marketing. “What we do is not about rebellion,” Levien says. “It’s about being true to who we are, and, I think, about showing how the market, the global market, can coincide happily with different and overlapping worlds.” Doshi adds, “It’s not about playing with the exotic. It’s about love, and loving the beauty of things.” Whether it’s shaped by the Castiglionis, the Eameses, and the Doshis and Leviens of this world, or the textile makers of Gujarat.

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