The veteran of National Institute of Design, Kumar Vyas, recounts how the path of difficulty became his passion.

Design in India is a hot topic — the proliferation of magazines, conferences and specialty stores all point to burgeoning interest in the field. However, barely 50 years ago, the subject of “Indian Design” was so under-the-radar that it was virtually non-existent, except in the minds of a few innovative pioneers who changed this topography. One of them is Kumar Vyas, who joined India’s first design school, National Institute of Design, in Ahmedabad, to help formulate the incipient school’s curriculum, to train its first faculty members and head the industrial design department. Vyas, who was born in 1929, remained at NID for three decades, and continues to work from his office on the campus he helped create. His numerous articles and books were essential to establishing India’s current design-rich environment and, two years ago, he received the prestigious Sir Misha Black Medal for Excellence in Design Education. Excerpts from an interview:

Is it true that your becoming an industrial engineer was a fluke?

Yes, it’s a bit of a strange journey. I was born in Uganda, attended secondary school in a Gujarat village, and returned to Kampala in 1947, unsure of what, or even where, to study. Engineering seemed like the right direction and I was accepted by Faraday House College of Electrical Engineering in London, but “deferred” due to the influx of demobilised soldiers post-WWII. So I had to bide time in Kampala for a few years, becoming an apprentice with the Uganda Electricity Board where I moved through different departments. My favourite was Repair & Maintenance, working on small appliances like ovens, blenders, and lamps — they were so basic, plain as could be. I wondered how they could be improved upon, but the word “design” wasn’t even on the horizon.

So you had no concept of industrial design as a career?

None at all. I was a…curious observer.

But I eventually studied electrical engineering in London, across the street from the Central School of Art (now the Central St. Martins School). Students from Faraday ate lunch in Central’s cafeteria since it was cheaper, and met some students studying industrial design. They showed me around their workshops and that’s when I realised, “This is what I wanted to do”. I studied there for three years and then went to work for one of my professors, the industrial designer Douglas Scott.

Living in London, how did you become involved with NID?

I heard that there would be a design institute opening in Ahmedabad, established by the Sarabhai family, and I just sent a letter. The timing was fortunate since they were looking for someone like me. The school’s founding chairman, Gautam Sarabhai, met me in London in 1962. After a long discussion at my office, he asked me to head the Industrial Design programme.

What was the state of design in India then?

There were no designers and no design profession as recognised today, separate from the glorious tradition of master craftsmen and handwork production. And of course there were no other design schools in the country. These were just some of the obstacles we confronted in creating NID, but it was a very exciting time.

Describe the process of designing a design school.

When I arrived in Ahmedabad in 1962, a small group of us met almost daily to brainstorm in the attic of Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra museum, across the street from what became the NID campus. Gautam Sarabhai presided over the meetings and was an extremely effective leader, telling us to start with a blank slate, with nothing on paper. Then he’d direct the discussions with questions like “what do we mean by education?” or “what is design?” and “can design be taught?”  It was through this outside-the-box process that our ideas gradually formed, and became the foundation of NID education.

But it was extremely difficult, since we had no pattern of education to follow. What we were attempting was completely unheard of in India, starting with the core concept of “learning-by-doing”, similar to the Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design, two of the world’s most influential design programmes whose systems we examined. We decided from the start that NID students would have continual contact with the industrial world outside, including the crafts industry, and that they’d participate in designing objects, messages, and spaces of everyday use. That was an entirely new concept. Now it prevails everywhere.

Who else was in that attic with you?

The regulars included Gautam’s sister Gira, who had trained as an architect and was very involved in the meetings. Dashrath Patel was the only other “working” designer besides me, who established NID’s ceramic and photography programmes, and later, one for exhibition design. And There was also James Prestini, a renowned professor at Berkeley, and Gautam’s brother Vikram, who pioneered space research in India. There were several faculty members from the Indian Institute of Management, which had just opened.

How big a role did the famous 1958 India Report, by American designers Charles and Ray Eames, play?

The India Report was itself very stimulating. While it became a guide for us, we didn’t depend on it. It was more a way to articulate what design meant for India rather than a blueprint for education.

How did you find faculty for such a revolutionary programme?

That was a problem. We actively sought them out but, in India, our only resources were graduates of colleges of Applied Arts or Arts and Crafts schools that were British colonial holdovers, or the colleges of Engineering and Architecture. Whoever came on board would have to be open to these new, somewhat radical, ideas. If we accepted graduates from these other disciplines, we had to train them further in the hope that some would emerge as teachers for NID. We put them through various programmes; essentially “trained the trainers,” paying a stipend while they learned. Several went to Europe for further education, and by the end of 1969 we’d graduated over 60 faculty trainees, of which 25 were absorbed as teachers. The rest worked as India’s first generation of design professionals or educators. It wasn’t until 1969 that we solicited our first “real” students.

How many in that first class?

Only 30, with five disciplines: product design, ceramics, furniture, textiles, and graphic design. More disciplines were added later, but even after the student population grew we kept the teacher/student ratio at 1:15 per discipline.

And the teaching style?

It was a departure from the traditional format — no teacher at the top, feeding information and knowledge down to the students. Gautam specifically encouraged a form of partnership, with faculty sharing their experience while also learning alongside the students. Through Gautam’s international contacts, we targeted top design professionals to teach or create workshops for a few months or a year, which also helped formulate the programme. Early on, we had some major design projects to work on, like the furniture and tableware for the New York World’s Fair Indian restaurant, and the large Nehru exhibition that opened in London. For that, the whole school worked beside Charles and Ray Eames. It was fantastic.

Does the footprint of those early days still exist?

It’s grown into a much bigger institution and gone through many changes. Some I can appreciate, others I feel could be corrected. There’s such concern for the number of students applying and attending, but I have always felt that playing a numbers game isn’t in anyone’s best interests. Having the right faculty was essential to us then, and should continue to be essential now.