Homes and gardens

The woodcrafters of Pondy

Courtesy: The Grid  

At The Grid — artist and cultural producer Justine de Penning’s Chennai-based co-working space — a glass-topped wooden table with a jagged inlay of dark and light wood is one of the highlights. Created by Puducherry-based furniture designer, Vincent Roy, it was conceptualised after de Penning remarked on the beauty of some waste wood at his atelier. Similarly, colourful plastic cane procured from Parry’s Market is woven into the upholstery of a sofa he designed for her. “It is a good balance of mid-century inspired and contemporary aesthetics,” she says.

Since starting his label, Wood’n Design, in 2013, Roy has become one of India’s most sought-after designers. At his studio, when I visit, over a dozen men in matching red T-shirts are adding the finishing touches to a large order from the local French consulate. His workshop is minutes away from Auroville, but he does not belong to the 50-year-old spiritual community. However, he says, he has “a lot of friends who are Aurovillean”.

This dynamic is an important part of his story, and of the other designers here. Like Samvit Blass, whose bottle chandelier hangs at the Sheraton Grand Chennai Resort and Spa. And Anil Sharma, whose antique furniture (and reproductions) are on display at CGH hotels across the country, and whose joinery (made with recycled timber) are widely exported to Europe.

What is it about Puducherry that convinced Roy, a young, itinerant French man from Cognac (where his parents make the famous brandy) to return to India after spending a year here in 2008? How has the region become such a welcoming home to his fellow woodworkers and craftspeople?

Colonial bent of mind

Auroville is a big part of that answer, not purely because of its spiritual nature, or at least not directly because of it. Early settlers of the experimental community founded by Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa — called “The Mother” by her devotees — remember the bioregion as a barren land, with just a handful of trees. “There were frequent dust storms, and you could see the ocean from here,” says designer Luk Gastmans, standing in front of the 16-acre forest that his father, a botanist from Antwerp, planted over the course of 30 years.

Before 1968, the local furniture industry was mostly fuelled by French influence. Even today, the region remains a favourite for people looking for colonial reproductions. I take a drive with Sharma down the East Coast Road, heading North from the French Quarter. We pass rows of roadside stores with piles of wooden doors and planks of reclaimed wood. We are headed to his workshop, a maze of antique furniture, where, in the back, his carpenters work on replicas, “always in recycled timber” he tells me.

Later that evening, back in the French Quarter, we visit the Palais Mahe, a CGH hotel furnished by him. He points out the Bombay bed with its slitted head frame, a reproduction, and original colonial chairs with cane weaving. “After a point you can make out what’s old and what's new — there’s a patina that speaks,” he explains.

Craft and the community

Even with a native woodworking history, Auroville created a creative explosion in the region when it was founded, bringing with it the community’s sense of determined focus. They were, after all, eschewing organic growth to create a more deliberate society, based on a specific set of values. Wild Wild Country, that terrifying Netflix documentary which shows archival footage of Osho’s devotees literally building the city of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon with their hands, is a good example of the single-minded focus that pioneer settlers bring with them (notwithstanding the problematic aspects of that particular example).

In Auroville, early settlers like Gastman’s parents, and other devotees of Sri Aurobindo — including the late Japanese-American architect and woodworker George Nakashima (who was part of the team that built Golconde, the ashram’s dormitory building) — brought with them a set of skills and the intent to build a community from the ground up. The ’70s and early ’80s saw an artistic revolution of sorts, especially in architecture, as the community constructed a commune that reflected its core value: aspiration towards human unity. Other creative disciplines benefited as well, thanks to a spillover of artistic and design-based ideals.

“The first settlers were the hippies, and there was a strong movement towards craft,” says Puneet Brar, founder of Windglaze Ceramics, who moved from Delhi to Puducherry in 1998. “Because of Auroville, I think craft has played a significant role in the region. And that craft is not just traditional Indian craft — it is handwork. It brought with it a sense of quality.”

By the hand

The community’s emphasis on sustainability, and its history of reforestation, is deeply entrenched. And the legacy of artists like Nakashima lives on, not just in the ashram but also in the work of local designers like Tejaswini Mistri-Kapoor (Nagpur), Torkil Dantzer (Denmark) and Kenji Matsumoto (Japan).

“Our style — Kenji’s, Torkil’s and mine — is similar,” says Mistri-Kapoor, an architect who was drawn to furniture making after the 2011 cyclone Thane struck down many trees across the region. “We maintain the organic shape of the wood as much as possible,” she explains, adding that they draw inspiration from the Japanese style of woodworking championed by Nakashima. In an interview with LIFE magazine, the legendary architect had said, “To leave a piece of wood alone, simply for its own value, is rather Japanese.”

Gastmans was also drawn to woodwork after cyclone Thane. At the urging of his wife, he had converted some of the fallen trees into blocks and toys. “Today we make homeware and kitchenware, like cutting boards,” he shares, speaking about Worktree, his local enterprise that has built a reputation for its elegant products.

Gastmans continues, “Acacia, a hard, solid wood, is excellent for these. Auroville’s success story, and something we can be proud of, is our afforestation.” The woodworking, with its emphasis on sustainability, is one offshoot of that.

Like Gastmans, Blass, who runs LiGHT-FiSH, the design company located inside the Aurelec compound in Auroville, comes from a family committed to sustainable creativity. His brother, Rishi, runs the Kamataru forest — 14 acres of reforested land — whose fallen trees provide Blass with a majority of the wood for his furniture making. Stacked on a shelf inside his workshop are samples. “Acacia, of course, which grows very fast,” he says, holding up a plank. “This is jackfruit here, some round bamboo, and kalimadu — harder than teak and has a dark coffee colour when it’s finished. Here’s some vengai, which has a lot of texture.”

Positive exchange

Fifty years ago, Auroville was a pioneer community. But with its approximately 2,800 members, can it continue to be a hub for creativity? While that depends on the future of the community itself, its influence has given the wider region a more creative life. “Auroville initiates something, and then the bioregion starts duplicating,” says Mistri-Kapoor. “I’m saying this positively — they are spreading the knowledge in a good way. The region looks to Auroville not just for lifestyle inspiration, but also for product making.”

The exchange is undeniable, each borrowing from the other, making it a favourite place for aspiring designers. Gagan Saxena, a 27-year-old architect, relocated from Pune to Puducherry after discovering, on a college trip, an “energy” that he felt was missing in other cities. Today, he works with Roy, and believes that the region offers an unparalleled education. Crediting Auroville with the vibrant artistic exchange in the region, Saxena believes it combines the best of Indian craft with ideas and philosophies from other parts of the world. From Roy, he has also learned the value of historical study and categorisation of furniture history. “Each French king — each Louis — had a different style of furniture. A similar pattern in India will really help us understand our own techniques and crafts,” he says.

What makes Puducherry’s woodworking so special is just how unusual it is. As de Penning, who divides her time between the town and Chennai, points out, “There is something very unique about the energy Puducherry evokes. A haven for furniture connoisseurs, it is not a place where things are laid out; one requires a knack for collecting and identifying, to find the gems. Which, of course, is half the fun of it.”

Drawing attention

Puducherry is emerging as a hub for thoughtfully-crafted, sustainable furniture, and these are the eight designers to know

Kenji Matsumoto

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

In 1991, after deciding to move to Auroville with his wife and daughter, Matsumoto first spent 10 years working in a Japanese woodworking laboratory. He is known for his silent demeanour, his precision at work, and his custom-made, one-off designs inspired by natural elements. His signature low-top coffee tables and shelves highlight the irregularities of the wood, doing little to conceal the naturally-occuring breaks in symmetry. He employs kigumi, the Japanese form of joinery that does not use any metal inserts. “I mainly like the Japanese style, especially the simple kind,” the 70-year-old shares. Details: japaneseartfurniture.com

Luk Gastmans, Worktree

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

As a child, Gastmans spent a lot of time in the 16-acre forest his father helped plant in Auroville. In 2011, when cyclone Thane felled some of these trees, the 49-year-old taught himself woodworking and started making blocks for his wife’s kindergarten class. Today, his company, Worktree, makes practical items for everyday use, including pizza boards for restaurants (“pizza is the new chapati in India”, says Gastmans). He is also working on harvesting the tung tree, whose oil is used widely as a drying agent on the wood. Details: worktree.in

Tejaswini Mistri-Kapoor, Woodscapes

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

“Working with cyclone-fallen trees is a long involvement,” shares the architect, 38, who moved to Auroville from Nagpur 16 years ago. “I start designing when I look at the tree,” she says, letting its contours direct her. At her studio, a long dining table made from a jamun tree has cracks filled with resin and then coated with melamine, highlighting the inconsistencies of the wood. “The philosophy of connecting with a tree before designing is very inspiring,” she adds. For a preview of her work, head to online retailer Jaypore’, where her handcrafted clocks made with neem and acacia are popular.

Phone: 9442255007

Anil Sharma, Renaissance Antiques

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

A Bihar native who moved to Puducherry as a seven-year-old to study at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram School, Sharma , 57, stayed on when he realised the region had become a destination for seekers of colonial-style furniture. Working with a team of carpenters and designers, his list of clients includes the CGH Hotel Group. For luxury real estate developers, he creates custom-made windows and doors in timber, largely sourced from the Karaikudi, Cuddalore and Villipuram regions of Tamil Nadu. Phone: 413 2225205

Vincent Roy, Wood’n Design

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

With a focus on hand-assembled, traditional, middle-of-century Scandinavian furniture, Roy uses reclaimed wood (most of it Burma teak and kalimadu from old beams). Even as he stays true to tradition, the 30-year-old, who apprenticed with the late furniture maker Patrick Lafourcade in 2008, incorporates local influences. His Corbusier-influenced chair, made with zero metal joinery, features cane weaves in a signature southern Indian style. The designer is currently working with architect Gagan Saxena on Synergy, a collaborative design collection slated for launch in January 2019. The line will feature both famous and aspiring designers from across mediums (including leather-making, and carpentry). Details: woodndesign.in

Samvit Blass, LiGHT FiSH

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

At his workshop in Auroville, Blass, 39, talks over the hum of the wood milling machine that is carving out a table leg behind us. With an eye on sustainability (that he credits his mother Simone for), he believes in using machines to do the work that humans cannot. “There is a lot of handwork that comes after, but with a machine, you can go back to the programme, tweak it and it gets better,” he points out. In collaboration with Surat-based Keri studios, Blass developed an acacia wood lamp last year, which can be activated using home control systems like Alexa. The team is also promising a similar, ‘non-smart’ version soon. Details: light-fish.com

Aurochana

Coco and Clemens

Aurochana, founded by German-born Aurovillians Coco and Clemens, specialises in the restoration and supply of colonial furniture, and the reproduction of antiques. With a national network of furniture “hunters”, the company works with clients to find rare artifacts. Details: aurochana.com

Prakrit

Another design and furniture company that was born as a result of Cyclone Thane (2011), Prakrit is known for its nature-inspired, Scandinavian designs. Pick up a centre table made with upright logs or a lamp sculpted from wood. Details: prakrit.org.in

Elsewhere in India

Puducherry’s wood designers reference the French, Japanese, Scandinavian and Indian aesthetic, unlike the rest of the country. From Kashmir’s walnut wood jaalis to contrasting layers of mango and sheesham (rose) timber in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, traditional woodworking in India has a rich, artisanal history. Bengaluru-based furniture designer, Sandeep Sanguru, points out that in addition to traditional centres like Gujarat’s Sankheda region, which specialises in teak wood furniture, there are also export-oriented hubs, particularly in Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur), making high-volume and mostly low-cost furniture. “The coming of the British influenced furniture making in India,” he says. “Before that, little furniture was used in homes.”

For Pankaj Narain, Delhi-based designer whose work and research is focussed on “exploring the less known varieties of Indian wood”, the rich diversity of techniques in the country results in a rich furniture culture. He has partnered with regional craftspeople including the makers of Mysore’s lacquered wooden toys and eucalyptus-based lathe workers in Varanasi.

(Map curated by Pankaj Narain, furniture designer and NID graduate who runs The Beehive India, a Delhi-based design studio. Details: thebeehiveindia.com. The map is not an exhaustive list. If you know of other communities that can be added to the map, please mail to weekend@thehindu.co.in.)

Beyond land

The maker of India’s fastest sailboat is also from Pondy

Ultramarine Ltd: Head South towards the Puducherry Harbour, and you will find Nathaniel Mallard, who took over his father’s boatmaking company five years ago. When we meet, he is putting the finishing touches to the Ultra 40.2, India’s fastest sailing boat (clocking in over 15 knots), and among the first offshore sail training boats in the country. The 5.5 tonne creation, which took over 10 months to complete and cost over ₹1.5 crore, was handed over to its client, the Indian navy, in a ceremony at the Chennai Harbour last month.

The woodcrafters of Pondy
 

Mallard, who hails from the French region of Bretagne, spent his childhood travelling the world in a sailboat with his parents and brother. The family eventually docked in Puducherry, settling here in 1996. After taking over the reins of the business, he opted to shift the focus to local customers. “It used to be 100% international, but now it’s only 10%,” he says, going on to explain that congested marinas in Europe and a burgeoning interest in coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai (with a Marina project underway) has helped him market to a local clientèle.

Nathaniel Mallard

Nathaniel Mallard  

 

Outfitted with three cabins, a technical compartment, a bathroom and a kitchen, the Ultra 40 belongs to the World Sailing class, and has been made largely with locally-sourced material, including fibre from Gujarat and red cedar wood from the Western Ghats. The rigging, Mallard admits, was sourced from all across Europe and Australia. “There are no local manufacturers for some parts, but we’re hoping to find that will change as there is more interest,” he says.

Details: ultramarine-yachts.com

 

 

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 4:41:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/the-woodcrafters-of-pondy/article24593871.ece

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