How Bengaluru is undergoing a quiet design revolution

India’s software capital is now building a new identity — as an emerging design hub. Banking on its history of woodcrafting, homegrown brands are establishing themselves, encouraged by an expanding clientele and design philanthropists 

February 10, 2023 11:56 am | Updated February 11, 2023 12:55 pm IST

Phantom Hands’ highly-researched and enunciated wood products inspired by the Chandigarh era

Phantom Hands’ highly-researched and enunciated wood products inspired by the Chandigarh era | Photo Credit: Phantom Hands

Middle of last year, I decided to set up a pied-à-terre in Bengaluru. One of the challenges I set myself was to decorate the space — as far as possible — with what is available close by. I was looking for just furniture, so the task wasn’t monumental.

Indian craftsmanship has always ploughed its craft with whatever local material was available, and the Bengaluru-Mysuru region’s proximity to forested areas has meant it was a haven for different types of wood, such as sal, rosewood, mahogany, even teak. As a result, this region has for long had several schools of woodworking, including Channapatna. Bengaluru has also been a business centre. “Kempe Gowda established the Bangalore pete [Kannada for town] in the 1530s specifically for artisans and tradesmen to come and establish businesses here, and then he built a fort around it,” says Sriram Aravamudan, a writer who regularly conducts heritage walks around the city. “And areas were designated for specific artisans — woodworkers, jewellery makers, tin workers, etc, so it has always been geared for artisanal manufacturing processes.”

At Woodlabs’ workshop

At Woodlabs’ workshop | Photo Credit: Woodlabs

City for the India Modern

In India, context is everything, even in interior design. And in the southern region, wood, particularly custom-made pieces, are still highly appreciated. So, Bengaluru, with its combination of manufacturing and artisanal capabilities, has plenty of options for the premium, design-conscious consumer, who wants the solidity of factory-manufacturing, high-quality materials and sensible pricing. The city’s ecosystem has given rise to several homegrown star brands such as Phantom Hands, Magari, Tusker Katha, Woodlabs, and others.

Phantom Hands’ armless dining chair

Phantom Hands’ armless dining chair | Photo Credit: Phantom Hands

And, that’s not even the half of it. Bengaluru is filled with a range of options for everything from upholstery houses to mass decor stores like Ikea, plus galleries for international brands and exclusive lighting design companies. For collectible design or just discovery, one can explore new institutions that are focused on presenting craft and design. This part of the design ecosystem is supported by a new crop of philanthropists, such as you would only find in this entrepreneurial technology-fuelled city. So, if you’re in the process of designing a home anywhere in India then you must plan to spend a few days here. As Bengaluru-based interior designer Farah Ahmed, of award-winning FADD Studio, who’s been practising in the city for more than 10 years, says, “I don’t feel like I have to get out of Bangalore to source the essentials for my clients.”

Luxury of location

Aesthetically speaking, I quickly realised, Bengaluru suited me. I am a modernist at heart, greatly influenced by the clean lines of Keralan furniture of my grandfather’s home in the 70s and 80s. Its volume and scale are suitable for apartment living, and it offers a subtle nod to heritage without the decadence of Art Deco. About two months before I relocated, I contacted Phantom Hands.

Bengaluru natives Deepak Srinath, a former investment banker, and his wife Aparna Rao, an artist, started the brand in 2014 as a platform for antique furniture, but since then it has become renowned for making highly-researched and enunciated wood products inspired by the designs of Pierre Jeanneret and his contemporaries in the Chandigarh era. “Bengaluru has a well-developed ecosystem for raw material, reclaimed timber, and sources for new timber,” says Srinath. “We’re in the Peenya ecosystem where there are hundreds of workshops doing many kinds of metalwork, and all this knowledge in the local ecosystem was relevant and useful for us when we set up.”

Deepak Srinath of Phantom Hands

Deepak Srinath of Phantom Hands | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Phantom Hands conveys its manufacturing and design capabilities so effectively via its informative website and social media that a majority of its clients, like me, buy products online without ever experiencing it first-hand. While the brand retails in around 30 countries, in India you can find a tiny selection of its products at Le Mill, Mumbai, and Room Therapy, Hyderabad. So, over the years, Srinath says several clients have been making trips to visit their Abbigere factory.

Could there be anything more indulgent than being able to visit the factory floor to experience a brand’s raison d’etre? What potential clients find, as I did, are some of the 100-person set-up working on various aspects of the wooden furniture making process. The brand has trained several people from the area in the art of cane weaving, for example, which is a key feature of many of the Chandigarh era furniture.

Cane weaving at Phantom Hands

Cane weaving at Phantom Hands | Photo Credit: Phantom Hands

Another example of Indian minimalist design and great-quality execution made possible by this city and circumstance, is Woodlabs. Their philosophy is to create “silent furniture” that sits quietly in a space. “We don’t want to make a statement,” says Deeptashree Saha.

Deeptashree Saha and Abhirup Dutta of Woodlabs

Deeptashree Saha and Abhirup Dutta of Woodlabs | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The eight-year-old, award-winning brand run by Abhirup Dutta and Saha sits atop a little mound overlooking a lake in Rampura. The Woodlabs’ factory is positioned just so to make the best of the lake view and breeze. The day I visited, they were working on perfecting the Japanese burnt wood blackening technique and creating a new product called the Punkha, a motorised rope-pulled grassmat panelled fan. It is based on a mat craft from the Sunderbans called madur.

“We don’t look at how many designs we can make in a year, instead it’s the details we’re trying to perfect,” says Saha. She says Bengaluru is in a sweet spot for design entrepreneurs. “This is still not a very crowded city, and to be here in our 30s at a time when the city is also still growing, is great timing.” The city is also an assembly point for carpenters from talented communities in Rajasthan, like the Suthars, and southern masters from Kerala. At Phantom Hands, many of the carpenters are from Kerala while at Woodlabs, the eight-member team is from a village in Rajasthan called Bakawas.

Woodworking at the Woodlabs workshop

Woodworking at the Woodlabs workshop | Photo Credit: Woodlabs

A new update

If you’re wondering now why you’d never considered Bengaluru as a key design destination, I could venture two possibilities. One is the absence of design media. Much of the country’s design media, both digital and print, are based in Mumbai, and the big design shows, such as the Architectural Digest Design Show and India Design ID, are also in Mumbai and New Delhi. With the editors and writers there always on the lookout, those practices are more likely to be amplified. It has also to do with our understanding of what luxury stands for — contemporary high-finish, an aesthetic that requires scale and a bit of an opulent mindset, what the brilliant architecture author Gautam Bhatia referred to as the Punjabi Baroque aesthetic — rather than the quiet luxury of handmade wooden products.

Ananth Ramaswamy of Chester’s, and (right) American designer Peter D’sAscoli selecting fabric for his collaboration with Chester’s 

Ananth Ramaswamy of Chester’s, and (right) American designer Peter D’sAscoli selecting fabric for his collaboration with Chester’s  | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A large part of my enthusiasm for the Bengaluru design market comes from the opportunity to see and touch products in a store. Spaces like the new Chester’s store on Infantry Road, which is one of the city’s main decor shopping areas. Started in the 1980s by M.V. Ramaswamy when his textiles business took a downturn, Chester’s recollects the English classic Chesterfield design. The company’s signature design is produced with the traditional deep-buttoning process that gives the piece its iconic dimpled look. Ananth Ramaswamy, the new creative director of the brand and the founder’s son, is taking this quiet hero brand in a new direction.

The Vionnet chair

The Vionnet chair | Photo Credit: Chester’s

The London-based architect has just launched a special collection of fabric upholstered seating with the Delhi-based American designer Peter D’sAscoli. His co-branded collection is a simple, refreshing update, with items like the Vionnet chair, an Art Deco armchair upholstered in old-world chintz with a bit of ikat detailing. The classic shape is zhuzhed up for a new generation of clientele.

Prashanth Prakash

Prashanth Prakash | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Creating a retail showcase
One of the unique aspects of Bengaluru’s focus on design is the support it gets from the city’s most successful entrepreneurs. This was true once of places like Mumbai, which has institutions built by city-based philanthropists like the Tatas. In Bengaluru, one such contemporary design philanthropist of note is Prashanth Prakash, partner at venture capital firm Accel. A trustee at both KAASH and MAP, and the force behind Bangalore Design Week, he’s invested in design retail landmarks, Go Native and The Purple Turtles. Prakash’s broader philosophy is bringing design into the urban environment, but he’s also focused on showcasing Bengaluru to the world. When this city embraced technology companies, it changed course, now it’s time for art and design, he says. “In Bangalore, we already have access to global corridors; now we need to shift channels and leverage it for design. Make Bangalore the retail showcase, a reimagined Indian aesthetic will emanate from here.”

Design philanthropy

Bengaluru is also in the midst of a philanthropic renaissance when it comes to design and art. Last December the city held Bangalore Design Week, a programme of “all things design and its growing relevance in the future” of the city, catalysing collaborations with designers, institutions, industries and government initiatives. An endowment of ₹4-₹5 crore was mobilised within a week to make it happen. Most of the programming was focused on improving city life and it wasn’t akin to the art/design fairs that take place around the country.

Abhishek Poddar, founder of the Museum of Art and Photography

Abhishek Poddar, founder of the Museum of Art and Photography | Photo Credit: Prarthana Shetty

The initiative came at a time when the city has also become the home of the country’s newest private museum, the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP). Abhishek Poddar, the founder, brought together Bengaluru’s most culturally oriented philanthropists and storied technology companies for support. “Bangalore is an exception among Indian cities today,” says Abhishek. “People like Kiran Mazumdar, Ajit Isaac, Prashanth Prakash and so many more are giving a large percentage of their time and money towards making the city better.”

A space that Prakash is supporting is KAASH, founded by design entrepreneur Sridhar Poddar. Begun in mid-2021, it presents exhibitions at the intersection of craft and design. Its last exhibition, Kaimurai, was a show of indigo-on-khadi artworks by Bengaluru-artist Abishek Ganesh. It sold out completely, mainly going to buyers in Bengaluru, and internationally, including Singapore and Portugal. Sridhar says two things played a huge part in its success: the reach of social media, and the transformation within the city. “Bangalore didn’t have a design market when I was growing up. Now it is comparable to Mumbai and Delhi because, as its real estate economy grows, people buy new homes and the economy of design and aesthetic awareness increases, there is more engagement with design.”

Sridhar Poddar of KAASH and (right) an exhibit from Kaimurai

Sridhar Poddar of KAASH and (right) an exhibit from Kaimurai | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The city certainly has the audience for it: an itinerant expatriate community, a large population of students and young working professionals. And plenty of design practitioners, thanks to the presence of three design institutions, including the Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, the French initiative called the Strate School of Design, and a campus of the National Institute of Design. Srinath of Phantom Hands says that their largest Indian consumer base is now sitting within their home city, something they’d never expected. And that, of course, now also includes me.

The writer is a lifestyle and arts editor, who launched the Indian edition of Architectural Digest.

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