It takes a while for the sawdust to settle. When it does, two statement pieces in contrasting styles emerge.
One, a sculptural sofa with gently rolled arms that reflects English elegance, and the other, a sleek Neoclassical settee perfect for the loggia of a luxurious home. As the carpenters pore over pages of sketches in precise scale, the elevator arrives.
The scene on the ground floor is a teaser to the work at Chestnut Storeys’ multi-level office in Gopalapuram. Its director and chief interior designer, Farah Agarwal, has been redrafting the rules of decor in the city’s luxury home space.
Farah’s office is a reflection of her style — an unusual mix of pared-down charm and decorative flourishes. Light-hued walls and a simple glass-topped table are teamed with a burnt-orange tufted settee and wallpaper depicting a striking unicorn in grey-black jewel tones.
“The visual impact can be stunning when different styles, colours, prints and textures are brought together. Contrasts can create ‘wow’ moments in spaces,” says the interior designer, who was declared ‘The Young Designer of the Year’ at the CMO Asia Design Excellence Awards held in Singapore.
As Farah shows a feature-film-long compilation of slides recapping her work for premium projects, one thing is clear — drama is her forte.
She achieves it with the interplay of disparate sensibilities.
“People tend to mistake contrasts for a quirky sensibility. Contrasts are about carefully mixing and matching styles to create stimulating spaces. So, you’ll find all kinds of marriages in my work — local with global, classic with contemporary, European with Mughal and vintage with avant-garde. Diversity in styling is refreshing and such interiors will instantly engage guests — even before you start talking!”
As someone “interested in all things creative,” design was an essential part of Farah’s growing up years.
“I used to always keep changing the furniture and artefact placements at home and make spontaneous design suggestions to friends. Involvement in creative work gave me a sense of calmness and achievement. Interior design was a natural progression,” says Farah, who did a professional course in Bangalore.
Three years of freelance assignments gave her the confidence to launch her own firm after she moved to Chennai.
As for the unusual name Chestnut Storeys, she says: “I like the feel of wood — particularly chestnut, and storeys got added along the way.”
With a firm belief in the semantics of spaces, Farah went about composing environments with wide-ranging aesthetic goals. “My first project in Chennai was an apartment in Kotturpuram — compact and minimalist. Next was a 10,000 sq. ft. bungalow in Poes Garden — lavish and distinctive in terms of style.” In two years, Chestnut Storeys’ dossier features a long list of luxury homes, besides retail and commercial assignments. “When I sign up on projects, the first thing I ask myself is ‘How am I going to elevate the living experience in this space?’. My next priority is to define the space by giving it a character. I’m not for homogeneity in design. Eclecticism makes interiors more dynamic.”
Though she expects complete creative freedom, Farah says that clients are, in a way, co-creators. So, whether it is a piece of furniture or the overall look for a home, she would like to first assess what they have in mind. For this, they have come up with a detailed questionnaire. “From colours and textures to styles and lighting preferences, this is a comprehensive list where clients can mark out their choices. The next step is showing pictures for reference and creating 3D images that will help them visualise the décor and design. The conversation between the client and designer is a lot easier these days because of 3D images.”
Though completion of a project is “like watching your baby grow up too soon, the frustrating part is to deal with micromanaging the labour force for each site. It’s quite a feat”, she rues. Another challenge is the unavailability of materials and furniture options in Chennai.
“That’s what got me involved in bespoke product design. I prefer making my own furniture at units in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. Recently, I have been using a lot of mother-of-pearl sheets on furniture, and I source them from Delhi. I also use plenty of distressed mirrors, mirror panelling in different styles and etchings to enhance the look of spaces. At a resto bar in Nungambakkam, I got junior artists to paint the walls for an uncommon feel.”
Often, clients push designers to explore new possibilities, she says, giving details of a tuck-in bar created for a residential project in the city. “This client didn’t want to be upfront about having a bar in the house. So, I designed a concealed one below a staircase. On the outside, there are wood panels and two tiny niches for artefacts so it looks like a wall. But, when you pull it out, there is a collapsible table, besides bar stools, refrigerator, wine cooler and bottle stands.”
Though constant updates on the design and fashion fronts engage her mind, Farah says with pragmatism, “The only thing that will never go out of fashion is hard work! I have imbibed a lot from people around me and by reading biographies and books on businesses and multinationals. When I go through rough patches in my career, I find solace from the fact that even big companies had their days of ordeal.”
INTERIOR DESIGN IS A…
Mix of art and science. Aesthetics matter a lot. But, questions relating to natural lighting and ventilation must be addressed if you want the initial ‘Oh, it looks nice’ comment to progress into an ‘Oh, it feels great’ experience.
TO BEAT CLICHES IN DESIGN…
Get out of the comfort of sameness. See what works for you instead of fitting in something simply because it is in fashion. Individual touches give a place a personality and make it stand out.
FOR SMALL SPACES…
Go for lightness in terms of colour and furniture design. Use of mirrors, large windows and smart lighting solutions can create an illusion of space. The height of the ceiling too plays a significant role in opening up small rooms.
THE FUTURE IS ABOUT…
Customisation. Bespoke design will become a big trend even among those with tight budgets. Whether it is a custom-made lampshade, digitally printed fabric and wallpaper or ornate furniture, interiors will be about individualistic expression in the coming years.