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Glass Half Full | Sandeep Sangaru, Sangaru Design Studio

Sandeep Sangaru is the founder of Sangaru Design Studio, a multidisciplinary design studio that has the talent to manipulate materials, appreciates technology and combines engineering with craft to deliver unique solutions. His philosophy is a broad intuitive method to define problems and understand the client’s needs. He has been actively involved with the Craft Sector, working with local people and local material to create global products. They have a simple yet flexible methodology that guides all their projects; ‘understand’, ‘discover & define’, ‘create’ and ‘evolve & execute’. His key focus areas include furniture, industrial and craft design, design education and research along with photography, documentary filmmaking, special effects production design as expertise.

We interviewed Sandeep Sangaru, to know the inside story of his journey, the ideology behind his projects and to understand how his contribution makes the glass half full.

How did you get this idea? How did you start?

I studied Industrial Design (furniture design) at the National Institute of Design (NID) and graduated in 1999. Here, I learned about the industrial process of designing products. But, I always wanted to work hands-on and create things. As I have a background in mechanical engineering, a lot of people suggested I should pursue product design. I wanted to be hands-on, I chose furniture as it allowed me to have that space. Back then, we did not have a design industry. So after graduation, I decided to do special effects and film productions, something that I picked up when I was a student. I wanted to explore photography and cinematography. Hence, I started a company in Hyderabad along with my friends, where we explore these fields apart from hands-on design projects.

I wanted to travel and wander off and did not want to stay in one place and do a job.

When I was working as an assistant cinematographer, to understand the trade of cinematography, I realised that the film industry was not my cup of tea. Soon after I got a call from NID asking me to come back and join as a faculty for a two-year contract. I had graduated three and a half years back and joining back as a faculty was a great responsibility. But, I always wanted to go back to NID and spend more time there as it allowed me to explore and find myself. As a faculty, I was exposed to craft.

I went to Tripura, to teach artisans how design works and how artisans can contribute to the process of designers. It was an eye-opening experience.

I also happened to work on a book called ‘Handmade in India’ at NID where I documented parts of villages in Andhra Pradesh. Seeing this process, right from people making crochet, and toys to intricate brass items, everything in a small region of the entire country. That’s when I decided I wanted to explore the craft sector as it will allow me to travel, work with craftsmen and artisans, make hands-on things, practice photography, cinematography and document their ways of life, all of it at once.

Sandeep Sangaru © Sangaru Design Studio

Hence, I began exploring and experimenting with a vision to bring out something interesting, through the process. I realised how craftsmen have been used, all these years, as only a source of skill and not as a source of knowledge. They have knowledge to work with simple tools and techniques, to create wonderful objects. And, it has reached a point of refinement, where one cannot do anything beyond.

I observed that they made two kinds of products, one for the market and one for themselves. The ones they make for themselves and their everyday life are extremely refined objects, simple and functional. You will observe this as a common thread between all the regions. Also, it is never a 9 to 6 job for them. Neither, do they work throughout the year. Hence, I had to think of ways to make the collaborations work.

Crafts is a decentralised sector.

So, I had to get involved in the entire process, right from where the raw material came to how the products were developed. A craft is not a product of a single person, but a community working together. So, for eight years I was travelling, I was working on projects, I was designing products and I was understanding their system. The products, we collaborated to make, were meant to be a source of livelihood for the craftsmen. But, these products never saw the face of the market. Although I was enjoying the entire process, nothing was reaching the market. There had to be a loophole in the system. Hence, I thought of starting my own company that connects the dots, from the farmer to the market. In 2010, I started my own company and I collaborated with artisans and craftsmen.

Tell us about your projects and your journey.

The first independent craft project after I left NID as a faculty was in Kashmir. I had to work with walnut woodcarvers. It was very new to me. I did not know how or what to do because it was my first professional project. They introduced me to the artisans as a ‘designer’, who will design products that will eventually change the market for them.

Pinjra Bookshelf Range, Kashmir © Sangaru Design Studio

I have worked in three different cultures and contexts and it has been a great journey so far. In the north-east, craft is their way of life. On the other hand, Kashmir has a rich craft culture. The craft came to Kashmir and evolved. In Channapatna, they make traditional beads and toys, as in not for kids but idols. Channapatna, close to Bangalore has a tourist market and many people are now working with the craft and helping to revive it. It has now become popular as a toy town.

Initially, when I started to work with them, I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think out of the box. But, the process had some other plans. In Tripura, I thought I should take something as a memory, and ended up making the ‘Truss me’ stool which looked like a triangle. Soon, I realised it was meant to be in a different shape. And, I reduced the object to a triangular component, which could translate into various interesting products.

The people I was working with said that we have never used bamboo like this before. That was my eureka moment. I made something that they had not made before.

L to R: Truss-me Basic module, Round Seat Chair, Square Seat Chair © Sangaru Design Studio

So, I came back with the triangle and started exploring and figuring out what can be done with the technique. That’s how the whole collection of ‘Truss me’ evolved. One of my interns from NID saw all these things and said why don’t you send it away to Red Dot Design Awards. And, we won an award in the ‘Best of the Best’ category in 2009. Our collection went world over and people started noticing our work. I started getting inquiries about the products. I would give them a contact of the artisans that I worked with because my role was to just go, design, and come back.

But it didn’t work out because it is not so simple for the artisan to make something and ship somewhere else.

That is when I thought I should jump into it and I collaborated with them. Every product we make takes a while because we don’t want to bring out another product just for the sake of it. The process is spontaneous. I don’t know what I am going to do tomorrow, it has been like this for the past ten years. But if I look back at the journey I realise we have devised a unique process of working with craftsmen.

Truss-me Dining Table © Sangaru Design Studio

How has your design philosophy evolved with time?

Nothing was planned. If you’re going to ask me, what I’m going to do tomorrow, I have no answer. The basic philosophy was ‘always wanting to explore.’ I was not looking at the final goal or a task that I had to do in a certain period.

Breaking the ice with the artisans was my first learning. When you’re working with an artisan, he is the designer because they are the ones who are solving all the problems of making things. I realised I cannot work with craftsmen like an outsider but I need to be part of them and understand how they practice, how they think, what is their culture, and their way of life. I travelled, experienced their pace of life, learned their stories, and made things with hand. Me being an outsider, allowed me to see their craft from a different perspective.

So the philosophy is NOT to design just another chair, for the sake of it.

Yak in Bamboo © Sangaru Design Studio

Sometimes the material allows in a certain way. And, then you explore and end up creating something different. I like the idea of having no constraints. You see, the craftsman knows the material very well. If I show them a sketch or drawing, they will sit and tell me, “Sandeep, ye mushkil hoga. Iske liye vo lana padega. Iske liye uske paas jana padega.” I realised that they use a certain kind of skill to create a certain object, and then there is a whole network of things in how the entire sector works. This allowed me to enjoy the entire process. So, when the craftsmen and I came together and worked for one and a half years, we had a set of products in the end, which was unique, people liked them. Some said they never thought of crafts in that way. As I was exploring this sector, I also documented their culture, heard their stories, and read about the history of those places.

Flame Back Chair © Sangaru Design Studio

How do you strive for a glass half full in your work?

The younger generation of craftsmen is not very keen to work because they have been seeing and doing this. The current practice doesn’t give them enough aspirations to look forward to practicing their craft.

When they see that their products have reached the world over, people are talking about and writing about their product, they see hope in practicing their traditional crafts.

When I started they said ‘Abhi hum busy hain’, because they felt like if they stop that work and do our work, at the end of the day they will not benefit anything. But now they are willing to put in that time and effort as they are involved in the process. Now every time I go, they are like ‘Sandeep, kuch naya banana hai kya?’. When that comes from the other side you are excited to experiment something new. So, they now work with me and have access to a new upcoming market. Their skills have a larger market now, with my help.

I have become part of the families now.

L to R: Walnut Mukarna Chair, Chinar Chudi Chair © Sangaru Design Studio

This is the kind of environment that I have outside my studio. We don’t have any set deadlines, except for when someone has placed a special order. But as far as design is concerned, if someone comes to me I tell them it is going to take a while. If you have the patience to invest then I am willing to take the project. From the last three years, we have been taking these slow projects with people, who like how I work with the craftsmen and love to be the patrons of it. One can make one object, as quantity is not the question. But, people are willing to pay more for that one object.

The process evolved because of this inherent patience in me. At the end of the day what we make is a very fine product which people see, appreciate, and are willing to own, rather than just buying it. So for me, I always see the glass half full because there is so much that we can explore, it's infinite actually.

Wallscape, Book Shelf © Sangaru Design Studio

What message would you like to share for our readers?

Keep exploring. When you explore, it opens up a lot of doors. Do not shut yourself in one box. Exploring is a way of thinking. In the process you will create something exciting always. An open approach will lead you to a new perspective of seeing things.

When you are experiencing new things without any baggage, you look at that experience with a new perspective. Try to find yourself through this process.


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