Life & Style

Akanksha Deo Sharma: IKEA girl with the rice straw project

Akanksha Deo Sharma, IKEA’s only Indian designer, on her creative process and being a part of the Swedish giant’s new project to combat air pollution

At 27, it is impressive how much Akanksha Deo Sharma lives up to her multi-hyphenate tag. An industrial designer, a textile innovator and a visual artist, she remains IKEA’s first, and only, Indian hire and the youngest designer at the Swedish furniture and home accessories giant. She juggles it all by dividing her time between Delhi, Malmö (Sweden), and Shanghai (China).

Though her work with IKEA has made headlines, Sharma’s found several other tools for self-expression through the years. Whether it’s starring in artists Thukral & Tagra’s short film, or mounting her own audio-visual project, Talk is Cheap, with her former boyfriend, poet-novelist Jeet Thayil — “where I was doing film and he was doing spoken word poetry”. Then, as homegrown brands such as Raw Mango, Nimai and Ikai become more representative and started going beyond traditional models, she also landed their campaigns. “Mostly, the shoots I’ve been part of have involved ‘real’ people,” she says, as we both agree the word ‘modelling’ doesn’t quite sum up the experience accurately.

Akanksha Deo Sharma: IKEA girl with the rice straw project

The NIFT graduate’s fashion innings — and possibly her obsession with textiles — began with an internship at Cell DSGN, the parent company of innovative fashion label 11.11 / eleven eleven. “I learned so much there; about bandhani and natural indigo dyeing, and even block printing,” she shares. Eventually, she consulted with Love Birds on their knitwear. Her most recent collaboration involved teaming up with Levi’s to customise a pair of denims, with kantha embroidery and indigo dye.

Even her art is often textile driven. In 2017, she was part of a group show in Norway, titled AOTANOTA (All of the Above, None of the Above). In an installation about memory and the idea of home, she used her grandmother’s blue sweater as a starting point, and supplemented it with red Mohali wool torsos in various stages of distress. “I haven’t done a lot of it, but it’s nice to dip in and out,” she says, about her creative offshoots. “It’s essential for me to express myself through different mediums. Though IKEA, of course, is the biggest project I have on hand, these [cultural] projects are all extensions of my personality.”

Which brings us to her latest IKEA collection (with designer Iina Vuorivirta), made in response to the alarming situation in North India, where nine of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are located. Her work with rice straws is part of a bigger initiative by the company to battle air pollution. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about Förändring?

Förändring means change in Swedish. It’s part of a bigger IKEA initiative, Better Air Now [launched in 2018], to tackle air pollution. We work with rice straws that farmers are left with, post-harvest — which are burned, contributing to the dense smog. There are many people working behind the scenes, dealing with policy makers, talking to NGOs, to the UN. They came to me with the raw material, to show customers something tangible that can be made with it. The collection featuring vessels, lamp shapes and mats, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The good harvest
  • IKEA’s ‘Better Air Now’ initiative comes at a time when, according to think tank NITI Ayog, roughly 39 million tonnes of rice straw are being burnt annually in Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The Swedish company will collect the raw material to convert into home accessories. The Förändring collection — vessels and lampshades using 60% straw pulp and 40% fabric waste, and rugs made from straw twisted into cords — will be in stores later this year.

What were the challenges?

Once you get the material, you understand the qualities of it. Then, at our factory, we determine its capabilities, and the techniques it lends itself to. Here, we learned we could mould this material by turning it into pulp, and we could combine it with fabric waste to make yarn or rope. We also learned we could use it to make textiles. A lot of it was a first for us. The moulding process was the most fascinating for me. You can really play around with how coarse, or thick, or smooth you want the material to be. I’ve worked with papier-mâché before but not on an industrialised scale; it was almost like working with sculpture.

Boutique brands or a behemoth like IKEA — who can pivot more easily towards sustainable design?

It’s a tricky question. Smaller companies can easily put it into practice. That’s why you see a lot of entrepreneurs moving in that direction. It’s more difficult when a huge corporation like IKEA makes that decision. In terms of impact, a corporation will have a far bigger one. But they also take a long time to pivot.

How do you keep up with the dialogue around responsible design?

I don’t think I am up to date with everything. But within IKEA we talk a lot about things that matter to us as a company. Sustainability and circularity are what we’re headed towards in a big way. We want to be 100% circular by 2030. Otherwise, I just try to keep my eyes open. I maximise my trips by seeing as much art as possible.

Recently, I was in Milan and I caught Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, an exhibition curated by Italian author-editor Paola Antonelli. It deals with technology, science, and our future. Adidas and Lego were part of this as well, showcasing their efforts with ocean-retrieved plastic. Scientists were talking about other materials we should be looking at in the future. I learnt a lot from it.

Akanksha Deo Sharma: IKEA girl with the rice straw project

You’ve been with IKEA for three years. How would you describe your process?

For me, the creative process changes with every project. It’s never fixed, never rigid. The knowledge database, the suppliers, the materials are all variables. Änglatårar was about bringing two cultures together. With Förändring, we started with the material first. With Tänkvärd, which released in April, we again worked with sustainable materials, but it was more about evoking an emotion. I’ve really tried to experiment with textiles in Tänkvärd — jute, cotton, linen. It’s easily one of my favourites so far.

Networking right
  • The girl who once studied commerce at Gargi College has come far. While Sharma may not collaborate as much with other brands anymore, her time at IKEA has offered her other opportunities. “It’s interesting to meet with people who IKEA is collaborating with. They come from different walks of life and bring something new to the table. One such person I met recently [at the Democratic Design Days] was artist Olafur Eliasson. It’s fascinating to understand their design process.”

Your understanding of people and cultures was really put to the test with Änglatårar.

We were opening in India at the time. Our creative leader, Mia Lundström, knew we should do a special collection to mark the launch. There was a traditional collection, and another that was meant to be young and contemporary. I worked with Paulin Machado, who is Swedish but had lived in India for four years, on that one.

We found obscure connections between our cultures. She told me about how she took kaju katli home and people thought it resembled a silver fish they have at midsummer. Language played a big part, too. I’d inadvertently start learning Swedish when I was with her. There were similarities in phonetics, with Hindi, which we drew out through the patterns in the collection. We abstracted the languages such that you can look at it and it feels familiar, but it’s not any particular language. It’s just forms and symbols.

Akanksha Deo Sharma: IKEA girl with the rice straw project

What patterns have emerged in work so far?

I really like to work with textiles and textures. I’ve been able to push boundaries when it comes to textiles within IKEA — not just through patterns, but working from the construction level, right from the loom and yarn stage. The goal is to develop something that has more character to it. I like a sense of imperfection. I’m drawn towards objects that make you want to touch and feel; something raw and not quite ‘industrialised’.

What’s next?

I’m collaborating with artists within IKEA. There’s a group of Thai designers and a Jordanian artist.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:32:53 AM |

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