In 2017, we conducted an interview with then 25-year-old Akanksha Sharma who was in the news for being appointed as the youngest designer at the IKEA headquarters in Sweden. She was approached by Swedish designer Martin Bergström for a collaboration between IKEA and NIFT — where she was studying — post which Creative Leader Karin Gustavsson extended an invitation to work for them. Last August, when IKEA opened its first store in Hyderabad, news channels ran stories of there being stampede-like situations with the store trying to accommodate an impossibly large number of eager patrons. It’s clear that IKEA is a favourite with Indians and at some point, all of us have been privy to stories about our friends or relatives visiting one of their stores during an international trip and spending hours in its dreamy design labyrinth.
It is also evident that IKEA also recognises the potential and opportunity India presents as a growing market, which would explain why there have been talks of the multinational furniture retailer opening a second store in Mumbai sometime soon. In order to bolster this Indian connection, they’ve launch their latest collection which boasts a collaboration with India-born-London-based designer Kangan Arora. The colour, pattern and textile-enthusiast — as her Instagram bio says — runs an eponymous creative studio out of South London. Specialising in print and pattern design, Kangan Arora Studio works across interiors, textiles, branding and packaging with a philosophy that is driven by the founder’s love for colour, geometry and visual storytelling. Ranging from home textiles to tableware and serveware, her collection for IKEA features more than 20 items including bedding, rugs, soft furnishings, dinnerware, trays, napkins and even fabric by the metre. One only has to glance at the playful stripes, dots, squiggles and grids to know that IKEA decided to take a definite detour from its trademark minimalist aesthetic and venture into vibrant territory. Arora claims that the collection came to life in a subconscious and intuitive way by combining bold Indian colours and shapes with clean and simple Scandinavian lines and aims to spread vitality, optimism and good vibes in the houses of its buyers.
We spoke to the designer in a bid to understand her general design aesthetic, her Indian influences and how the items in the Kangan Arora X IKEA collection have quintessentially Swedish names…
Is design something you were always interested in or was it something that was cultivated in your youth?
“I grew up in the plains of Punjab in North India, an area that has a rich history of textiles. In fact, the business of textiles has been in my family for four generations, so it wasn’t really surprising that I gravitated towards it from a very young age. I spent my childhood in a Wes Anderson-esque boarding school in Mussoorie, following which I made my way to the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Ahmedabad, Gujarat to study design. That is where I fell in love with traditional Indian textiles and craft.
I established my own design practice in 2011 after studying textile design at Central Saint Martins in London. Kangara Arora Studio was built with a focus to explore and celebrate my Indian heritage. I’m constantly striving to bring an Indian sensibility to pattern design and exploring the interaction of colour and process along the way.”
What is your design aesthetic like?
“I’m very lucky that I have the best of both worlds. While I can always look to India for inspiration, being in the UK and having exposure to the European design industry has no doubt influenced my work. It’s progressed from initially being quite illustrative and narrative to more abstract and bolder with a focus on colour. But I have to say that even though my work has become more abstract over the years, I’m drawn to the kitsch and minimalist alike, and both these aesthetics provide plenty of inspiration for my projects.”
What role does design play in society, according to you?
“Design improves lives, both functional and aesthetic. It documents our lives through the history of objects, which I find fascinating. Designing surface and print is a lot like storytelling through colour and pattern, so in a way, it can be seen as a form of literature or poetry.”
How different is India’s design aesthetic from that of Sweden’s?
“I think it’s impossible to define a particular Indian aesthetic as it is so varied across different states. Although at the outset, it may seem that Sweden and India’s design ideologies are worlds apart, there are also similarities in the celebration of colour and materiality. If I absolutely had to pick one differentiating factor, I’d suppose the maximalist aesthetic in India is probably not for the Swedes.”
What was your inspiration for the Kangan Arora X IKEA collection?
“The element of ‘play’ was an integral part right from the beginning. I explored pattern through geometry, layering and overlapping using screen-printing, which is my primary tool for designing. I also looked to minimalist artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Carmen Herrera and Donald Judd whose primary focus is colour.”
Framkalla, Krokuslilja, Svallerup… the items from this collection have some pretty unusual names. How did that happen?
“They are names of plants, Danish towns and Swedish women! I wasn’t involved in naming the products but I wish I’d been in the room when they were deciding these — what fun!”
Have your Indian roots influenced the aesthetic of the collection in any way?
“Absolutely! I believe that a place and its culture has a defining bearing on one’s design narrative. Although I’ve been living in London for 13 years now and absorb a lot of energy from the city’s clashing cultures, my story is intrinsically linked to India and that’s where my design intuition and confidence with colour stems from.”
Can you name a few designers and their works that you look up to?
“So many, but I’ll try naming a few. Sonia Delaunay, Doshi Levien, Ettore Sottsass, Muller Van Severen, Assemble and Studio Mumbai.”
What are you currently working on, now that this collaboration with IKEA has come to an end?
I’m working on a new collection to show at London Design Festival later in the year and a couple of smaller interior projects alongside teaching at Central Saint Martins, where I’m an Associate Lecturer. And this hasn’t happened yet, but I would love to work with someone on ceramics and furniture as well as large-scale textiles like wall coverings and upholstery.