Its the eternal challenge of the product designer: how do you blend aesthetics and utility and still create pieces that are unusual and stand apart from the run-of-the-mill fare lining up home store shelves across the country?
Neelima Rao, the 38-year-old National Institute of Design (NID) graduate who heads the design team at the Delhi-based Devi Design Studio, seems to have found the answer. For she has managed to weld her modern design aesthetic with the Indian crafts tradition to create striking interior accessories. Made largely in metal, wood and stone, these include everyday pieces from mirrors, candlestands and tea-lights to vases, bowls and platters. But theyre a far cry from the ordinary.
Rao, whos trying to create a distinctly modern Indian identity at Devi Design Studio, began her career as a graphics designer. Fresh out of NID, she took up a job with Oxford University Press, designing book covers. Later, when her daughter came along, she began freelancing as a graphic designer, working on brochures and book covers.
Then came a stint as a consultant with Maspar, a home furnishing company. Over the next seven years, she designed Maspars export catalogues, website, exhibition invitations and corporate identity. Around the same time, she made her mark in retail design, creating graphics for Nike Indias pos-ters, packaging and gym interiors.
However, it was Raos third job as graphic designer with the Devi Group of Companies that proved to be a turning point. I started out by designing letter-heads and brochures for the Devigarh boutique hotel since the Devi Group was in charge of the hotels business development unit in New Delhi. Anupam Poddar, its owner, suggested that I try my hand at product design and I got pulled into the aesthetic world of the Devi Design Studio, explains Rao.
Her design approach can be traced to her early training at NID. I realised that design is all about applying aesthetics to everyday objects. The ergonomics, aesthetics, form and function of objects appeal to me, says Rao, who loves to use traditional metal-work techniques like hand-hammering.
Nature is the leitmotif in Raos objets dart, and its what she believes appeals most to consumers too. So twigs, leaves and flowers are recurring motifs and marine life features prominently. The latter, she says, fascinates Devi Design Studios international buyers with motifs like coral reefs and shells being the top draw.
Metal accessories are also emerging as a strong trend, feels Rao. Metal goes well with modern design sensibilities, she believes. Accordingly, Rao has used brass and aluminium with a contemporary twist. Metal accessories are a small niche but the demand for them is growing, she says.
She also believes that the line between art and design has blurred in recent years; hence, one-of-a-kind sculptural or quirkily designed pieces will always command a premium.
In keeping with Devi Design Studios signature style, Raos products are largely inspired by nature. She also favours clean and simple lines.
Take her gorgeous brass mirror, inspired by the sun, which costs Rs 5,500. Another abstract mirror made from brass with a stone-hammered texture comes for a cool Rs 4,200. There are pretty wall hooks shaped like a butterfly or a dragonfly for Rs 290, and a large platter that looks like a bunch of twigs (metal twigs welded together) priced at Rs 3,850. Rao has used oak leaf and twig motifs in her salad servers and theres even one shaped like a flamingo. Made with bell metal, these cost Rs 1,450.
Rao has given steel, a common metal for tableware in India, a contemporary twist. She has made hand-hammered stainless steel platters in geometric patterns, costing Rs 1,750 apiece. Bowls in the same series cost Rs 1,500.
Another hammered hexagon series, with an antique finish, is equally striking. This includes large bins for Rs 2,990, vases for Rs 600, tea-light holders, for Rs 430 each and platters at Rs 1,700.
Rao also has a whole range of jade leaf-inspired products such as a candelabra (Rs 320) and trivet (Rs 790). Her exquisite glass candle-holder with an etched peepal leaf costs Rs 1,050, while those who prefer bold lines can pick up pieces from her Peel-off collection. This includes a horizontal vase (Rs 1,990) and an odds-and-ends box in sheet metal priced at Rs 1,450. And her most remarkable piece of furniture is a brass water lily leaf table, priced at Rs 9,800.