Via Kerala interprets the ethos of God's Own Country in their range of products

Malayalam alphabet and the Malayali’s personality have some things in common. Just as the rounded letters, we, as a people, are not aggressive and have rounded personalities. We are a bit complicated, too. Theresa J. George uses Malayalam typography as a metaphor for our culture and the very essence of being Malayali.

Her company Via Kerala uses Malayalam as a motif to bridge the gap between the traditional and the contemporary. “We are proud of our roots, yet there is a slight disconnect between it and the younger generation,” she says.

Through quirky interpretations of things Malayali, it forms connections between the old and the new. “See, it is like this. On the one hand you have Kairali handicrafts and on the other, there is a brand like Fabindia, which is not unique to Kerala. What is there in between which is Keralite, yet something young people can relate to?” Theresa asks.

Though it started as a typography experiment, Via Kerala grew into a concept and soon, a company. Today, it is a full-fledged design shop with signature products, which reflect the ethos of the State.

So, everything the company is about has to do with Kerala. Hand-sculpted magnets in the shape of elephants, T-shirts sporting dialogues from Malayalam cinema, hand-made toy tigers and elephants, bags with Malayalam lettering or fashioned out of a lungi, and board games (based on the Western Ghats) to start with.

It has picked out things that are unique to Kerala and represented them in facets they have never been seen in before. Street typography, for instance, has been adapted on canvas bags. “Street typography and graffiti, especially during the elections, is a common sight through the length and breadth of the State. It is ingrained in our visual culture,” says Theresa.

Theresa, who has been running a design firm Thought Factory in the city for the past 12 years, says the idea for Via Kerala emerged from her interactions with artists, illustrators and graphic designers over the years. “This sense of ‘Malayaliness’ used to be a routine topic of conversation and gradually, we started thinking along the lines of elevating this ‘Malayaliness’ to a lifestyle symbol,” she says.

Though it was registered as a company in 2010, it took a year to formally launch a store. In January 2012, Via Kerala opened its first outlet in Thekkady. Associating itself with a local cause is an important part of the company’s vision, says Theresa. In keeping with the spirit of the region, it brought out a playing cards series, which has hand-rendered pencil colour illustrations on the fauna of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Each card carries the name of the species in English and Malayalam. The idea is to create awareness. The Wild 5 series of posters and post cards features five species endemic to the region—Asian elephant, Bengal tiger, Nilgiri tahr, lion-tailed macaque, and the great Indian pied hornbill.

The company makes use of local talent. Theresa and her team identify women’s self-help groups, who are trained and employed to make the hand-made products. All of Via Kerala’s products are locally made, except the T-shirts, which are imported. The printing is done here. The newest on the racks is a range of blue and green tees for children with ‘Kerala kutty’ printed in Malayalam text.

A typography expert, Theresa says the font used to print ‘Via Kerala’, was developed by her team and has been fondly named ‘Malayalee.’ It is a clever mix of the English alphabet with the curves, loops and squiggles of Malayalam. “English cohabits on a page with Malayalam and echoes Malayalam alphabet aesthetics,” Theresa explains.

The possibilities of the Malayalam alphabet have been further explored. Each letter, crafted in wood becomes a show piece on its own, which can be used as a paper-weight, an artefact, or just to remind you of your ‘Malayaliness’. “They are the simplest memoir of a complex Kerala,” she says.

Via Kerala’s store at Jew Town had a rare visitor in 2013. Prince Charles, on his visit to Fort Kochi, stepped into the store. “Of course, he was surrounded by rings of security and I did not even meet him. But the team bought quite a lot of our stuff,” Theresa says.

A self-taught typographer with a background in Fine Arts, Theresa is a member of the International Society for Typographic Design. She says being a young entrepreneur had lent its share of troubles, but made her richer in terms of experience and enterprise. (‘Thought Factory’ specialises in identity designing—creating an identity for a brand).

Via Kerala, which now has a young team of about 25 designers, artists and visualisers, has had collaborations with graphic designers, artists, photographers, illustrators from international names such as Rhode Island School of Design, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Central St. Martins London.

It has also collaborated with the National Institute of Design, National Institute of Fashion Technology and the Government Colleges of Arts in Kerala. Via Kerala was also the subject of a business programme last year at Richard Ivey Business School, Canada.

Via Kerala’s design studio on Canal Road, Giri Nagar, also showcases a few of its products. It has an FB page and plans to start online sales soon.