Q + A with Doshi & Levien


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By Jessica Capolupo

In their own words, their work ‘celebrates the hybrid and the coming together of cultures, technology, industrial design and fine craftsmanship’. From developing shoes with Her Majesty’s bootmaker John Lobb, to producing a furniture collection with Schiavello, the duo are highly sought after by industry leaders and were named ‘Designer of the Year’ at the 2015 Elle Deco International Design Awards. From their London studio, they take turns to talk family holidays, marriage proposals and their upcoming trip to Australia in December.

JC: So, you’ve just returned from India, how was that?

JL: It was fun. Nipa’s family lives in Delhi and our son Rahul absolutely demands that we go there at least once a year so he can see that side of the family. For him, it’s a completely different world to the one we live in London. I think he likes to maintain that duality in his life experiences (Laughs). From the different social norms, food and climate… it’s just a very different environment to which he has taken. He really identifies with India and the culture. I think that’s a great thing. He’s got the best of both worlds.

JC: How old is he?

JL: He’s seven.

JC: And already demanding holidays, I love it!

JL: Exactly! That came before pocket money I think (Laughs). That’s kids today…

JC: And was there any work element to the trip?

JL: No, purely holiday. I more or less left my work at home.

JC: Well you sound very relaxed.

JL: (Laughs)… At the moment!

JC: Your backgrounds — both yours and Nipa’s — are vitally important to your work. How was growing up like for you, compared to your son do you think?

JL: Well, we used to complain we were doing too many holidays in Wales with the sheep! I think there is a lot more diversity nowadays. Children are exposed at a younger age to travel and the world. I think they’re getting a lot of experiences that we waited til we were teenagers to have – they’re having that in their seven’s and eight’s. Generally,

I think children are more exposed now and of course the iPads and so forth add to that, but I don’t think it’s limited to technology; there’s also a broader life experience that is being had at a younger age now as well.

JC: Can you pin your interest in design back to your childhood?

JL:  Yes, definitely for me. My parents were running a business in Scotland. They set up a floor manufacturing business when we lived there and that’s where I was born. There were three of us (children). Our parents were very engaged in making their business work, so we were left to our own devices. But it happened that we were growing up in the environment of a workshop where things were being made, it had a direct influence on the materials and resources that we had available to entertain ourselves. So ‘making’ was something we did a lot of when we were small and we had access to really fantastic materials and cardboard and tape and rolls of fabric…

I think creativity really ran in our family; it spilled over from the business my parents were creating and ‘making’, ‘creating’ stuff, was part of how we grew up. So that idea of engaging with your environment and making things is quite deep.

JC: Now you and Nipa met at the Royal College of Art and you’ve been married for how many years now?

JL: Umm… since 2000. So fifteen years.

JC: I’m about to get married soon; can I ask what the proposal story was? Or do you have any advice for marriage?

JL: I wouldn’t take my advice (Laughs). Nipa and I were both working for different studios in London back in 2000 and I think we had both reached a point where we were ready to do our own thing. My proposal to Nipa was sort of linked to that in order for us to be together and work together and make that commitment. I mean, we had to get married because Nipa had exhausted every visa available to her to stay in the country (Laughs). So we got married and started our business more or less in the same month.

We were fortunate we had an offer from Tom Dixon (who was then creative director of Habitat), to design a range of cutlery for Habitat. A very small, tiny project, but it was enough to give us the confidence to leave our jobs and get started. And it covered our rent essentially for months, so we thought, well, let’s give it a go and if it doesn’t work we can go work for someone else again, so what did we have to lose? So it was very light-hearted in a sense the decision to work together. We didn’t set up with the view to create a studio as such; it was more let’s work together, let’s do something.

JC: About your working relationship, from designing rugs to shoes and furniture…what’s your special ingredient?

JL:  An ability and sensitivity to working with materials. We really have an eye for colour, materiality, a sense of form, and also an acute sense of visual identity and the rightness of things. What sort of thing it needs to be in terms of its identity and personality; the feel of things. But underpinning that is an experience with material and colour and form. It’s just through working with those ingredients over fifteen years that we’ve really developed a high sensibility in that area.

JC: And you do a fair bit of research? Your collaboration with Schiavello began with research into transitional spaces?

JL: Yes.

JC: That was your first Australian collaboration I understand?

JL: Yes, that’s right.

JC: What was the experience like for you?

JL: What I found really interesting was the way Peter (Schiavello) came to us with a very broad starting point; just a subject he was interested to study. In fact, he invited the idea of us doing the research to underpin the project, which not a lot of companies will go for, but I think it showed a real confidence and commitment to the design process. So we started off by rethinking about the nature of work and what a work environment means to people and how that is changing according to technology, different social structures, and different structures of work.  The products really precipitated from that research. It’s very much how we work. We like to set up the parameters, go deep into a subject and let the research reveal the opportunity for design and what the design needs to be.

JC: Well I was in a meeting today, sitting on a couch and used OTM to take notes…

JL: Oh great. Well the other elements of that collection are really looking at how to make different environments for working. Of course, people work on the sofa, they work on a kitchen table, and at a bar…so it really was about broadening the opportunities for places to work. The collection is really a system of different components you could put together; a mobile screen, a table and a sofa that encompass you rather than just a place to sit.