The Basrai brothers, designer Ayaz and architect Zameer, have designed more than 75 restaurants and they’re creating many new cutting-edge spaces, says Aarti Dua
It’s Calcutta’s first microbrewery and it has already created a stir for more than its heady brews. That’s because the moment diners enter The Grid’s huge cube-like space in Topsia, they usually stop to marvel at its unusual design. It’s called The Grid precisely because its sprawling 10,000sqft space has been carved up, like a Rubik’s cube, into grids of varying sizes across multiple levels, creating a number of varied zones.
There’s the eye-catching Lego bar as you enter, and the popular The Cage on level one with its all-encompassing view of the microbrewery below. Then, there’s a Smoking Zone with hookahs and a Beer Garden. There’s even the Asylum, a conference space with its padded-wall grid of white squares.
The Grid’s the handiwork of Ayaz and Zameer Basrai, who are past masters at offering the right décor for the perfect food and beverage experience. “You can’t do a single design in a 10,000sqft space as people will get sick of it very soon. You need to create vignettes so that when people come back, they should be able to sit at a different table and have a completely different experience,” says Ayaz.
With their The Busride Design Studio in Mumbai, Ayaz and Zameer are the go-to designers of the hippest and most path-breaking restaurants, bars and cafés across India. They’ve designed over 75 such spaces since they first began in 2006. And that includes the most happening brands from Smokehouse Grill, the progressive Smokehouse Room and the psychedelic Shroom in Delhi to Caperberry in Bangalore. If that is not enough, cut to the sunlight-filled Café Zoe, or the nostalgic Bombay Canteen and the candle-lit Masala Bar in Mumbai.
Take a look at their newest creation, the Goregaon Social located in a Mumbai mall. The facade of this outlet of the popular restobar chain resembles a luxury store. But step inside, and you’re faced with a burnt-down cathedral plonked right in the midst of the bustling wooden pews filled with irreverent diners. It’s like the Church of Anti-Consumerism with graffiti like ‘Forgive me for I have shopped’ around.
“The Social brand stands for rebellion. So it was fun to put this mall culture critique here,” says the outgoing Ayaz, who’s an industrial designer from the National Institute of Design (NID) and has wide-ranging interests extending from behavioural science to linguistics and graphic novels.
Zameer, an architect, has similarly expansive interests ranging from the history and criticism of architecture —he did his masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on this subject — to concepts like ‘flexible identities’.
Not surprisingly, then, the brothers have built up a diverse body of work that includes everything from designing movie sets to doing up offices to community-led conservation initiatives and even pop-up restaurants.
Restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, who’s had them design everything from Smokehouse Grill to Social, says: “One of the joys of working with them is the amount of love they have for their craft. They have this need to be creative and also to experiment and go against the system but in a beautiful way. Plus, they’re the nicest guys around.”
Now, the Basrais are moving in ever-new directions. They’ve just set up a new studio in Goa besides expanding their work with projects like a hotel in the Andamans. They’ve also widened their community engagement in Bandra, where they grew up and work from — their office is in an old bungalow in Ranwar, one of the original villages of Bandra. And, they’re continuing to design F&B spaces.
“We didn’t imagine this when we started. But a lot of respect has developed for the business since we began,” says Ayaz.
Adds Zameer: “We think of ourselves as designers first. It just so happens that you get recognised for some kind of work. But, a lot of our other work is beginning now.”
So, Ayaz has just moved to Goa with his wife, who’s also an industrial designer, and young son, and opened The Busride Lab. He won’t just do hospitality projects there. Instead, he’s excited about dedicating the Lab “to futures thinking”. It’s a subject he’s passionate about, inspired by the American futurist Buckminster Fuller. He’s even teaching a course on it at NID.
The idea is to project technological trends and future scenarios. “You’re trying to create a believable story of the future and if that’s worth living in, then you start designing spaces and lifestyles for it. And if you do it well, you can move culture in that direction. That’s the power of futures thinking,” he says.
In Goa, this could entail running some “save-the-world labs” and designing public spaces. “I’m not sure how it’s going to work out. But, we want to transit into a more thinking studio,” says Ayaz, who loves to doodle.
“The lab will be a space where we can incubate ideas,” adds Zameer, who’s juggling between parenting — his architect wife and he have just had a son — and running the Mumbai studio.
He’s also working on his own architectural concepts like ‘soupy spaces’. These are spaces that are flexible, ambiguous and transformative, spaces “that have various particles, much like in a manchow soup, which interact with each other temporarily and then make an exit”, explains Zameer, who teaches a design course at a Mumbai architecture college.
So, he recently designed a film production office that turns into a fashion events space at night. Or take his much-acclaimed Folly House in Pune.
The unusual home unfurls like a mystery. For, Zameer has designed it around “a bunch of disparate objects rather than as a bunch of rooms”. “The objects are fold-out and multi-functional, and as they open up, you realise the house’s logic,” he says.
So, the vast living room has just two objects, a wooden fold-out cube or study folly, and a large wooden curvy surface or living folly. The room seems bare till the cube opens up to reveal a television unit, study tables, library and curio shelves. The living folly too has several elements like a couch, daybed and a children’s slide. “It’s an unassuming room but it allows unpredictable things to happen,” says Zameer.
In many ways, the brothers complement each other. “I like to see logic and method in things while Ayaz is usually shooting all over the place. It’s a fun process in the studio because he’s always tangential and I’m always looking for explanations,” says Zameer, who loves to write and sketch.
They’re also constantly vetting each other’s ideas and “posing counterpoints”. They design projects together, but divide them up for execution.
And, they’re both passionate about heritage — especially in Bandra. A few years ago, they initiated the Bandra Project to conserve Ranwar and its lifestyle. They then extended it to map out every street and building in Bandra. And now, they’ve joined five other architectural firms to form The Bandra Collective to improve public spaces, starting with a public park.
“We’re committed to upgrading Bandra for life,” says Ayaz. That means preserving the architecture and “the lifestyle”. That’s why, Ayaz along with chef Gresham Fernandes started Gypsy Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant, where they get Ranwar’s residents to cook a meal, thus creating an income stream to help preserve their homes.
Of course, they’re continuing to design restaurants. Coming up next is Toit, the popular Bangalore brewpub that will make a splashy entry into Mumbai in December. It’s opening in the erstwhile Blue Frog’s space. Says Ayaz: “We’re doing something really interesting here.”
The Basrais don’t follow any design philosophy and ensure that every restaurant they design is distinct. “We don’t want to be slotted into any one look,” says Ayaz. And it’s not just about the lighting or the furniture either. “It’s about how chefs and owners want to change the food culture in a city,” says Ayaz.
At Bombay Canteen, for instance, chef Floyd Cardoz wanted to revive his childhood memories of food. So, the Basrais gave it a nostalgic Bombay bungalow feel. And, the Smokehouse Delis are like museums capturing the local history in drawings on the walls — Ayaz spent 35 days drawing on the first outlet’s walls himself.
More recently, at Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Bar in Mumbai, they respon-ded purely to the sea view by standing in front of each window and using textured glass to cut out the ugly street below. They then put a mirrored wall to reflect the view inside. And they lit it with candles like a sheeshmahal.
Of course, the Basrais didn’t start out as restaurant designers. After gra-duating from NID, Ayaz worked in Dubai for three years before returning home in 2006 “to do my own thing” and also work with his architect father.
Zameer graduated as an architect from CEPT the same year and the two freelanced initially. So, Ayaz designed for Dhoom 2 and Zameer did the master-planning for a design school, for which Ayaz did the curriculum. They enjoyed working together and so set up Busride.
The break came when Ayaz met Amlani and designed Smokehouse Grill, drawing upon Dave McKean’s graphic novels and Amlani’s ‘acid jazz playlist’. “It was an eye-opener. I’m interested in graphic novels, music and food and I felt F&B can marry all these disciplines,” he says. It soon became their calling.
Now, the brothers have their hands full. Apart from Toit, they’re designing a resto-pub at Taj Land’s End in Mumbai, and also Khyber restaurant in Dubai. Then, Zameer’s designing a hotel in the Andamans and a 110-acre township near Mumbai. Ayaz is also doing a boutique backpackers’ hotel and homes in Goa. And, they’re doing an art gallery for Saffronart in Mumbai.
Through all this, they’re continuing to draw inspiration from their varied interests — and to have fun. As Zameer says: “Both Ayaz and I have started taking our fun seriously.”