The blue-windows-on-white-building premises of his company Designwise India in Gurgaon have been there since 2004. Reaching the place in one of the lanes off NH-8, just before one reaches the Manesar toll gate, is a task if it isn't for the step-by-step location guide that his wife Shalini (who's also the company director) has composed for anyone trying to get there. (It's something both take pride in.) Studding the stairs and the floor in the entire building are condemned brass screws that reflect light once in a while. Brass also happens to be Mukul's favourite medium. “In 90 per cent of what we do, we work on brass,” he tells us later.
An engineering student from IIT-Kanpur, Mukul had a stint in the “regular corporate sector” for a year, quit and joined National Institute of Design (NID), where he studied product design. After graduating from NID in 1992, stints in crafts, leather and jewellery design followed, after which he went off to Domus Academy in Milan. In 1998, after his return, Mukul set up Designwise.
It was with curtain hardware that the Tattva brand started. It was a tricky situation, he recalls. “People would buy very expensive fabric for curtains. They'll buy a curtain fabric for a thousand rupees a metre. In one window they're using eight to 10 metres of fabric or more, but they're stingy with the hardware. They won't put two thousand rupees' hardware and spend 10 thousand on the curtains! This is a very normal human reaction, because they aren't probably exposed to it. They'll put plastic rods.”
Tattva was considered one of the more expensive ranges in the market then, he says. “What we did was we introduced a couple of ranges which were more expensive than what we were already selling. What happened was what we were selling already was suddenly considered cheap. It was an experiment that worked. I also introduced a cheaper line for people who wanted the same experience but were not able to afford all the paraphernalia associated with it. Then we introduced door handles, bathroom fittings, lights… It became a kind of home improvement segment of products. If you're setting up home and if you need curtain hardware you're also going to need door handles, bath fittings, lights. Since we were operating in all these segments, slowly we've been able to refine the offering of Tattva to complete art hardware as we call it today,” Mukul explains.
Besides its own brands, Designwise has also been taking up design projects, an important part of the portfolio being the Rajiv Gandhi Bharat Khel Ratna medal they designed. Plus, there have been commissions from brands like Happily Unmarried (like their popular ‘Sandass' ashtray).
It, however, took time to figure out what had to be done and, more importantly, what chaff had to be eliminated.
“We started by doing projects for other people,” recalls Mukul. “People I knew would give me a project. Or we'd just do production for other people.” So while the initial years provided ample time for understanding the materials they'd be working with, Mukul realised they became a third-party manufacturer of sorts. Says Mukul, “It was coupled with design too, because we would also get tough projects from international companies coming through buying agents in Delhi. We learnt a lot, but we never got any credit for that. We had our brands but we never concentrated on them.”
Around three years ago a conscious decision was made to cut down outside projects to concentrate on the in-house brands. “It was a big risk again; we just produced designs for ourselves. It worked. It could also not have worked. It made us concentrate on making our own products, it made us concentrate on selling our own products, it made us put the whole brand together.”
Brass, with a large chunk of it being sand-cast, was the medium of choice. “The reason we started working in sand-cast brass was because when we started it was easier to work with; it was easier, cheaper, easily accessible, you didn't need to go to a fancy factory to get a design made,” says Mukul. “We've not reached the end of the road, saying, ‘Bore ho gayein'. Or that we have run out of ideas to work in this material. We haven't, honestly. It's a fascinating field and it has so much potential that you keep exploring, because it doesn't reach the end of the road.” While aluminium, stainless steel, glass or stone are added, they are more in terms of accents.
The space for innovative product design has obviously expanded. “There are lots of people doing work, so suddenly there's a collective. And people are enjoying it. There's Happily Unmarried, Play Clan… There's a lot of energy in this space. I think the customers are also enjoying the new products that come out,” Mukul says.
Does it occasionally rankle, the relatively small degree of worth that's assigned to the creative aspect of product design?
“From a general public point of view, I think we've improved a lot. They less underestimate you now than they did before. But, yes, to some extent, there is an underestimation of the creativity needed to produce these objects. Not just creativity but even the technical skills and otherwise needed to produce any object,” says Mukul.
“Product design probably does not get its due credit as much as the work of an architect, a fashion designer or an interior designer. It takes as much energy to make one object as it takes to do the whole interiors of the house, I can tell you that — you can do the interiors of the whole house and you can do one product. If you do it the right way, it takes you as much energy… to produce it with the right material. There are a lot of things that go into a product, including the packaging, putting it together… The pricing has to be right. You need to be seeing production problems and sorting out production issues. You can't just say ‘I've created this, you make it however you want to make it.' You have to make sure it's produced well with the right quality.”
With time, he says, the gaps in terms of product portfolio have been filled and the time's come to experiment further. “It gets tougher by the day, because while creating a brand you're also getting branded.” Some product lines may become more popular than the others, like the ‘man' series. “So it becomes very challenging to replace it. We did some interesting work a couple of years back; it was far more clean-line and simple. They were great products but they didn't sell because people didn't associate that with us. People box you up.”
He compares his work with that of a chef, that of perfectly reproducing the same thing no matter how big the numbers. “I envy musicians; technology is reproducing things for them.”