The Good Life

Powering the Idea

Two decades ago, Rajiv Saini challenged the norm with Devigarh, a luxury resort in Udaipur. This, is something that is core to his design sensibility. Reimagining luxury is what he does best, as part of his daily work

Published 2 years ago on Nov 14, 2018 Read

Nostalgia is not good for creativity, yet to think about it, how did a computer science graduate end up in the world of design? Chance, fortune, fate, whatever it may be but it’s a universe which I have inhabited for the last two decades and, obviously, love a lot. 

To come to the elephant in the room — so yes, Devigarh project was where my journey began and ironically, when I look back, it can be encapsulated exactly into the theme which we are writing on today — reimagining luxury. The end result, much applauded and awarded, worked because central to the idea was, to change the norm. 

We were sure that just because it was a luxury palace hotel, we didn’t have to adhere to the obvious expectations — so the usual embellishments, carvings and traditional ideas of furniture were the first things to be dropped from the scheme. There was a constant drive to innovate, to dynamically re-think our approach and not get restricted by the thought that it was a heritage property and a palace. Central to this idea was the notion of infusing a contemporary flavour, based on the local art and craft techniques, into the beautiful stone and marble building, built in 1760. Rather than fill up spaces with an excess of patterns and ornamentation, our approach was to pick a single craft technique for each of the areas, contemporise it, and off set it in a minimalist manner against the backdrop of the impressive building.

The assignment of private spaces for the suites was also less focused on the grandness or size necessarily, but more focussed on providing a unique and varied experience in each of the suites.

Those who chose to holiday in Devigarh, found an echo of their design sensibilities, many of whom went on to become long-term clients and today, also close friends. Devigarh was a huge learning curve as well, with some invaluable lessons learnt along the way. 

Moving away from computer sciences engineering into the world of design, especially related to spaces, allowed me to engage more seriously with my interest in art. Right from the beginning, art was an integral aspect of the homes one worked on, conceived at the onset (rather than an afterthought), for its ability to transform the experience of space, when used appropriately. I recall one of our early architectural projects in 2000, where a projected glass cube was created on the facade of the house with the intention to hold a suspended sculpture. Internally, it formed part of the spatial experience of the circulation through the staircase, connecting two floors. After much deliberation (as the work needed to be free of colour pigment to withstand the constant beating down of sunlight) we commissioned Subodh Gupta, who had just had his first exhibition of the now famous Bartan (utensil) sculptures. The final work consisted of this fantastic drop shaped blob of glistening stainless steel utensils that shimmered beautifully in the light , accompanied by a sound piece (which we played on a loop in the staircase) of the utensils coming crashing down. The sight of these commonplace bartans hung unexpectedly in the staircase along with the accompanying sound, triggered varied emotions of surprise, amusement and shock, as people made their way through the house.

Over the years, one’s passion for art has only grown and honed into an important part of my design sensibility, looking for newer and more challenging forms of art that can be integrated into living and domestic environments. With the audience’s increased exposure to these new art forms, one finds clients ready to lap up these new media artworks and bring them into their private homes. 

Like I said, nostalgia is no good for creativity, so here I am now, two decades later, older and wiser. Over the years, me and my firm have evolved from strictly interiors, to include contemporary architectural projects. Times change, new projects join the old, but one factor remains constant — reimagining things to break the norm, in every single project. Be it a small apartment in London or a lavish farmhouse in Delhi.

It’s important to note that these significant changes and new trends in design have been possible due to a change in mind sets — the acceptance of an idea is greater today, than ever before. The intrinsic value or materiality is no longer the yardstick for assessing the worth of an object, instead what matters is its overriding idea.

In this age of mass-produced machine-made products there’s a clear shift back towards the man-made and hand-finished goods. Inconsistencies and variations arising out of handmade processes are no longer looked down on as imperfection, but instead valued for their individuality and reflection of the skill sets of the craftsmen behind the work.

This transparent approach finds reflection in the way people now choose to live — gone are the days of grand formal living rooms — the walls have literally and figuratively gone down!

‘Natural’ is the key word, and this is finding reflection in people’s choice of materials for building homes — indigenous stones, terrazzo, cement and concrete are hugely popular today, fast replacing the traditional polished marble.

Floor coverings made of hemp, straw, sea grass take precedence over traditional carpets and silk is increasingly being replaced by linens as the choice for furnishings.

The focus is on an environmentally-conscious lifestyle with an emphasis on connection with nature. Landscape design has moved away from the formal manicured floral gardens, to a more informal organic, almost wild natural growth (much like in the food and organic produce sector), and spearheading this philosophy is the influential Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. 

Finding universal acceptance is ‘Wabi-Sabi’, the traditional Japanese aesthetics centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection — the idea that beauty is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Piggy backing on this is the huge popularity of collecting vintage — whether in couture or in furniture and lighting design. Mid-century modernist pieces of good provenance are hugely sought after by collectors and setting record prices at auctions.

What next now? The past is done, the present is here, but the future demands that we challenge ourselves and break norms constantly — re-think keeping all we have learnt in mind. If we manage to conserve our finite natural resources and continue to inhabit the planet for the next 50 years, it will be interesting to see what luxury will mean then!