Occupation: Founders and partners of the design studio Doshi Levien
Doshi: There are many. We're working on a range of textiles. We're working on quite a few projects for Galerie Kreo, which is a gallery based in Paris. We're working on new collections for B&B Italia, Moroso, Kvadrat—there are quite a few different projects going on.
Levien: The work is very varied. Which is great, because we hop from one project to another, and they tend to feed each other in terms of ideas—there's a lot of crossover between the different areas.
Doshi: "Mission" sounds a bit too New Age to me. I think that when you work as a designer, your aims and your ambitions develop over time. Considering that we have worked a lot on product and furniture, I see the next step for us as working on space—it could be a public space, a hotel, a gallery.
Levien: As you go into a larger scale, the social aspect becomes a factor in the work, and I think that's really interesting for us. We designed our perfect house not so long ago, for an exhibition called Das Haus at IMM Cologne in Germany. I think that was the beginning of a new way of working for us, a new direction for our studio.
An early sketch for Almora (left) and the first model of the chair
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer?
Levien: I didn't know that design existed as a profession until I had been to cabinetmaking college at 16. Design was not really a focus at that point, more the idea of making things perfectly and learning about wood. I value that experience so much now, as it established a kind of tacit understanding of and feeling for materials, a kind of sensitivity that I now apply to any production process. After making for a couple of years, I realized that what was missing was a design element—considering why things exist, and not just focusing on how things are made. So, in a way, design was a natural step from a making background.
Doshi: When I was growing up in India, design as an organized profession didn't exist. I applied to study architecture, and then one of my tutors told me about this design school which was founded on the manifest of Charles and Ray Eames, the National Institute of Design in India. And it was after having applied there that I really understood what design was. Up until then it was just an idea for me, but I first fell in love with the campus and the whole environment, and I knew I wanted to be creative in that way. It was actually through studying design that I understood I wanted to do design, if that makes sense.
Levien: As I mentioned earlier, I started off studying fine cabinetmaking. Then I went on to study design, getting a B.A. degree in High Wycombe, followed by an M.A. in furniture design at the Royal College of Art. That's where I met Nipa. And I haven't stopped studying since. The real learning, I think, has happened after college.
Doshi: Like I said, I first went to the National Institute of Design in India. While I was there I read this one design magazine called Blueprint, and I remember I started following Jasper Morrison's work in the early '90s. And when I came to London, I met him and he said, "Well, I think you should go to the Royal College of Art." And that's how I decided to apply.
First design job:
Levien: My first design job was working with Ross Lovegrove. I worked with him for three years. That was really quite a liberating experience, because he was designing everything from eyewear to first-class airline interiors—a whole breadth of work that we were doing in the studio, and working very collaboratively. And that kind of blew my mind, because it dispelled the notion of there being these boundaries between different product areas such as furniture and product and so forth. We take that for granted now, but at the time that was really quite new.
Doshi: My first job was working with an industrial designer who designed cameras for Kodak and furniture for Herman Miller. I did my internship with this designer, and then I worked for the design manufacturer SCP and for the architect David Chipperfield. Nobody used to employ women at that time; it was very hard. I was quite lucky.
Who is your design hero?
Levien: I have quite a few design heroes; I don't think I can say that one designer has given me everything. But in a nutshell it's the Italian masters: Gio Ponti, Bruno Mari, Ettore Sottsass, Joe Colombo, Castiglioni, Enzo Mari. For me, there's such an intellectual clarity in their work. I go back to that quite often, just to remind me of what it is to be succinct and conceptually clear in my work.
Doshi: I would say someone like Cristobal Balenciaga. I really love the clothes that he did. Definitely Balenciaga has to be my design hero.
In addition to its interior work, Doshi Levien redesigned Madina's brand logo and product line.
Describe your workspace:
Doshi: Our studio is in the East End of London, on Columbia Road. It's an old furniture factory overlooking a park, and it's definitely more of a workshop-like space. Whenever you come to our studio there are always lots of mockups, lots of material samples. We have a very hands-on approach. I paint things, and Jonathan works very much in the medium of making models. We see very quickly whether an idea has traction by making it in humble materials like cardboard or wire or paper.
Levien: I find that clients spend so much time walking around looking at stuff when they first come into the studio. It's a great thing, they come in and just absorb the space and our world and all the stuff that we've got here.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool?
Levien: For me, it's the scalpel. As Nipa mentioned, I make a lot, as a way of working out ideas. The material is my medium of sketching, if you like. I work very much in a three-dimensional way, in a very sculptural way. And the scalpel is an essential tool for slicing up card and materials, creating the prototypes for almost everything.
Doshi: The computer is not my most important tool at all. I would say it's my sketchbooks and my colored pencils. My paints and my colors and my material samples.
What is the best part of your job?
Doshi: Being paid for it. [Laughs] I'm kidding.
Levien: You can say that.
Doshi: You know how it is when you're creating—people think you should just do it because you love it. But the best part of the job, in fact, is seeing the actual thing. That's just amazing. And also when you're working with other people, and you have that synergy and you're going back and forth with ideas. I like it when things happen quickly; I don't have patience for long, drawn-out projects. There has to be a momentum for me; in that sense, I want to see things. Because we are very prolific in the way we work, I like to work with prolific people.
Levien: We just returned from Stockholm, having given a lecture at Beckmans College of Design. I love the people we meet on these trips and the places we stay in (Ett Hem is amazing). But I think, for me, the best part of our job is the moment we recognize the right idea for a project. This is a powerful moment—but, of course, there is a lot of hard work ahead, guiding the idea to completion.
What is the worst part of your job?
Levien: Knowing that you could improve something after it's finished. But there is a positive side to that.
Doshi: I find the conceptual process quite pleasurable. I think the worst part of our job is just how long it takes for projects to come to fruition. I find that part frustrating, because I think that if you're very efficient and you do things quickly—I would prefer that everybody also worked faster. The time it takes to get something out there is, for me, the worst part of the job.
Levien: On a good day, it's 5:30 a.m. I do one hour of yoga in the morning and that sets me up for the day. It clears my head and I like to have some time to myself before everyone gets up. And bed at around 10:30, so that I can wake up at 5:30 the next day.
Doshi: For me, it's 7:00 in the morning. We have a child as well, so there's the whole thing of breakfast and school and all that. And I normally go to bed at 1:00 in the morning. I like to stay up late. That's the time that I get to myself. And I like my day to be long; I feel I waste time sleeping.
How do you procrastinate?
Doshi: I procrastinate by constantly arranging things or making compositions of things. It's a complete waste of time, but I like doing that; I find it quite relaxing. How else do I procrastinate? Drinking lots of tea, I guess.
Levien: I don't like to think of it as procrastination; I like to think of it as preparation. Yes, it takes some time to sit down and get to work. But I think we're actually working before then. When we're making that tea or that coffee or circling the studio—doing all those so-called unimportant things, I think that's when we're really getting into it. I think it's a really important part of the process.
Levien: Just getting down to it. Don't think too much.
Doshi: I think that working on lots of projects really makes you efficient. If you have many things going on, that's the best way to be prolific. I find that I'm the most efficient when I actually have a lot of things to do. And I like that—I can get down to it and start sketching and having ideas and pulling things out.
Levien: I would also say: Walk away from the computer and find a different space to work in. I think it's about making time for yourself to focus.
What is the most important quality in a designer?
Doshi: Sensitivity to what? Emotion, color, everything?
Levien: Just generally. Sensitivity. To care.
Doshi: Yeah, to care. What's the most important quality in a designer? I would say the ability to look. To observe. To find beauty in unexpected places. I think visual intelligence is very important for a designer. And also to look beyond design. I think designers have a tendency to be almost too obsessed with design itself. Perhaps to not take design too seriously is a really important quality, and to not think it's everything in the world.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers?
Doshi: I would say there's a real myth that designers are not thinkers, or that they're not necessarily strategic. I always think of myself as a thinker, and I feel that you can apply your intelligence and your way of looking at the world to many different areas. It doesn't just have to be design—it could be town planning, it could be so many other different things. I feel that, as a designer, you can also be good at business. People think that designers don't think about the commercial aspects of things. But I think that design is a very broad profession. Because you are not an artist; you are working in the space in between. And I wish that the way architects have been able to create a space for themselves where they really influence what a city is—I think that designers need to get to that point where they're taken more seriously by other professions. And I think that's a role that designers need to create for themselves.
Levien: I think Nipa's answered that one. I have no further points to add.
Drawings for Doshi Levien's Das Haus installation at the IMM Cologne trade fair in 2012
The Das Haus kitchen
Above and below: Inside the completed Das Haus installation
What is your most prized design possession?
Doshi: I would say it's our apartment, which is in the Barbican. It's a prime example of '60s Brutalist architecture. Right from the light switch to the door handle, the railings, the space—everything in the Barbican complex is considered design. And although architecturally it's Brutalist, it's very human in the way that it's designed and the way it's considered how people use their domestic space.
Levien: We have to have only one? What about my scooter—can I choose my scooter?
Doshi: It's really . . . tacky. Well, not tacky, but I remember when everybody was buying vintage Vespas, Jonathan had this Piaggio Gilera, which looks like a giant insect. We've had it for more than 14 years now—and now, of course, everyone's stealing these scooters because they're so desirable. But I remember thinking, Why can't we have just a good-looking Vespa? Why do we have to have this Italian anthropomorphic-design scootchie? But now I love it.
Levien: Nipa is the most unlikely and loyal pillion you could ever wish for. Rain and snow? No problem.
What is exciting you in design right now?
Levien: The new collection that we're working on for Galerie Kreo. It's going to be a seven-piece collection based on the city of Chandigarh. I can't say too much more than that. But it's just going to be amazing. The materials that we've been using, the typologies of pieces that were created, the whole ensemble of objects that we've put together—I just feel it's great work.
Doshi: I think what's really exciting in design in general at the moment is—in some ways there is a real explosion of design, but also the fact that I think we've come to a point where there's a greater understanding for design. There's a real sense that design is the core for most companies that are making physical things, which wasn't the case ten years ago. If you see advertising, you see visual culture, you look at even the promotion around design—it's becoming really sophisticated now. You also have new players, companies like HAY, that are really changing the game. Because also up to now, design has been unaffordable for people who really love design. And I think companies like HAY are saying it can be really good design but it can also be affordable and young and colorful. So I think there are a lot of exciting things in design at the moment.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose?
Levien: The home. I think the home is a really exciting sphere at the moment. It's partly to do with social changes, technological influence—I think there's a lot of opportunity there to redefine the way we do activities in the home and the way we come together in the home. And there's a growing demand, of course, for housing. So I think because of the demand, the social changes, the technological influence, that's a really exciting area to work in at the moment.
Doshi: If I could redesign something, it would be public transport or airlines. I travel a lot, and when you actually travel business or first class, I always find that the image of the experience is so glamorous, but the actual physical experience of the space is so disappointing. That's something that I would like to be involved in. There's definitely room for making things more sensual and creating real luxury—you know, what does that mean in terms of materiality and the experience of the space?
What do you hope to be doing in ten years?
Levien: Still breathing.
Doshi: I want to be the Minister of Aesthetics. There's so much scope, you know? I would even just look at the way our leaders dress, look at our public government institutions. Or perhaps I would be the Minister of Beauty instead—how about that? It's a tongue-in-cheek answer, but I also believe in that.
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers or graphic designers?
Doshi: All of the above, and I would also add some fashion designers.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.