Born in Mumbai, renowned designer Nipa Doshi grew up in Delhi, fascinated with the beauty of local customs, seasonality and craft. “I think that from very early on, I really had an eye for beauty, even though I didn’t know it yet,” she says. Doshi’s memory of her early life in India flows as a string of beautiful vignettes: her grandparents’ Art Deco house in Bombay, the dusty pink family house in Delhi, the workshops where craftsmen fixed bicycles and cut large reams of paper, the tailor and milk vendor who shared a shop with a buffalo casually living in the space. “It was a real mix of modernity, ancient rituals and a very interconnected way of life,” she recalls. “That plurality of influences is something that is really part of me.”
She credits much of her distinctive creative approach
to those early years, a time that has come to shape her
understanding of design as gestures, rather than objects.
“You don’t realise how much your family and the things you
grew up with influence you. I used to just love the way the
bed was made every day. The way my grandmother would
bathe before she entered the kitchen. Design was little
Doshi’s London studio is a former 19th-century furniture workshop she shares with her husband and creative partner Jonathan Levien. Facing a park, the light in the room is softly modulated by the trees outside; its calm punctuated by the buzzing east London streets below. Everywhere in the bright room are signs of the studio’s diverse creative output: lamps from their Earth to Sky collection, defined by expertly crafted organic forms, elegantly rest in the space. On one wall is a tapestry representing icons of Chandigarh, from their Object of Devotion Daybed for Paris’ Galerie Kreo; on another hang life-sized wood and cardboard chair prototypes, also doubling as a resting spot for papers.
A corner is dedicated to a workshop, with models in paper, wood and clay occupying a table, mid-creation. A yellow Capo armchair, a design they created for Cappellini, sits next to a series of bookcases that are heavy under the weight of books that cover all aspects of design, from monographs on design giants like Ettore Sottsass and Gino Sarfatti, to art books and tomes on Indian interiors.
The sense of creative freedom here is palpable, the shared cultures of its occupants evident in every object, from Doshi Levien’s own pieces to the found objects and sketches with which they’ve populated their workspace.
Since it was founded in 2000, Doshi Levien has successfully combined cultural influences and creative attitudes into collaborations with some of Europe’s most illustrious furniture companies, from Moroso to B&B Italia and Hay. “Our friendship is very much rooted in us working together,” Doshi says of her and Levien’s partnership. The two hit it off immediately after meeting at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the 1990s, graduating during a time of optimism for young creatives.
The relevance of Doshi’s diverse background wasn’t
immediately clear to her during her study at the National
Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, in western India, in the
1980s, but it emerged as she learned about European design
as the dominant canon. “There was a dissonance in how
we were being taught design, and what was the design at
our doorstep, and I became aware of that.” This awareness
erupted once she left India for London, as she looked back to
those traditions, customs and craft to realise their richness.
It’s become a bigger creative force that still drives her work, and is at the centre of the work of Doshi Levien. In London, she dreamed of working with Jasper Morrison, who became her friend and a mentor and helped her set the course of her design career, first recommending her to the RCA, and later putting her forward for a job designing furniture at David Chipperfield’s office. The kindness of the design community in those early years has remained with Doshi, and sharing that kindness is something she believes strongly in. “Jonathan and I believe that design is good for design, it’s good for our industry that people are trained well and have the skills,” she says. “You should pass on your own learning and knowledge.”
A few distinctive, overarching features are present throughout Doshi Levien’s work; a certain curve in the lines, a sinuosity of forms, a particular attention to colour composition and the way subtle cultural references are woven into each design’s aesthetic. “[Our work] is plural, varied,” Doshi offers, when asked if she feels there is a distinctive trait in the studio’s work. “Because we never start a design on the computer, it’s the presence of the hand in the making that defines our works.” The creation of each piece is a fluid process. Function is intuitive (“we just know that what we do is going to work”), so the pair focuses on the feeling of an object, an artwork, sometimes even a dream.
Projects often start as a colourful illustration in one of Doshi’s many sketchbooks (multidimensional creative exercises that include drawings, painting, writing, collaging and paper cutting, created on vintage notebooks she sources from Hong Kong), or as a handmade model, made with paper, clay or wire by Levien (whose background is in cabinetmaking). They then often swap, interpreting each other’s compositions using different media, scales and dimensions, developing the design together from there. “And then of course, there’s a cultural reference,” Doshi says. “I feel that there is another world in our pieces.”
Combining worlds has been the Doshi Levien modus operandi from the start, thanks to Doshi’s early influences and Levien’s natural curiosity for global cultures. Doshi recalls the duo’s first project together, which originated from a proposal they sent to kitchenware brand Tefal after a trip to India, as they were just beginning their collaboration. “Cookware is so culturally focused, but we realised that a lot of European brands were selling products [in Asia and South America] without understanding the culinary culture of those places.”
Their idea: to create products based on the existing materials and technology (such as non-stick coating), tailored to local food traditions. The range included a Tagine for Morocco, an Indian Karahi, a Wok, and a Fajita pan, the company’s distinctive patterns subtly translated to reflect each culture’s motifs. That moment, Doshi recalls, “was when I realised that cultural knowledge, and not just technical skills, is relevant and necessary to do design. And that it could have commercial value to a company.” One day around that time, one of the two answered the phone with an inadvertent “Doshi Levien”. That casual greeting officially marked the formation of the studio.
Their first Italian commission came in 2007 from Moroso, a company with which they felt an affinity thanks to creative director Patrizia Moroso’s eclectic stance and diverse, open-minded approach to furniture design. The first of what would become many projects with Moroso was the Charpoy series of daybeds. A fitting example of bringing cultural references into their designs, it was inspired by the ubiquitous, multifunctional Indian daybed and its embroidered textile upholstery (created in collaboration with women in the state of Gujarat) was a nod to the dice game of Chaupar. “This collection was key because it introduced us into the world of design in Italy, and there’s no escaping that you need to be in the Italian design world [as a designer], it has so much power.” Other pieces for Moroso have since included the My Beautiful Backside sofa and the Paper Plane chair, the latter’s shape simply originating from a folded piece of paper.
More Italian brands followed, as they designed furniture for Cappellini and B&B Italia. Working with Italians in particular feels right to Doshi, with these companies prioritising craftsmanship and human connection, and favouring low-tech methods such as sketching and model- making.
Beyond Italy, their portfolio covers a design spectrum that encompasses different media and distribution that ranges from the mainstream to the limited edition. Their output includes armchairs for Kettal (for which they also curate the colour and textile palettes), a series of textiles for Danish company Kvadrat, rugs for Nanimarquina and furniture designs for Hay, for which they recently created a sartorially inspired sofa design.
Design seems to be present in every facet of Doshi’s life, from her care and curiosity for everyday objects, to the environment of her family home, an apartment in London’s legendary brutalist Barbican complex, where they have lived for the past 14 years. “When you live in the Barbican, you feel like the whole complex belongs to you,” she says, referencing the 40-acre estate conceived in the 1960s by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and comprising restaurants, theatres, cinemas and private gardens that generate a strong sense of community. “Buying our apartment in the Barbican felt like we were buying design,” she says. “For us, design is not limited to what we do but also where we live. And the Barbican is a design classic: everywhere you look is a composition, everything is perfectly framed.”
It’s easy to feel that Doshi’s unique impact on the world of objects is but a glimpse into a larger vision, formed over four decades of design education and experience, but also from observing with fascination the world around her.
“Objects are witness to existence. I love the idea that design can embody human civilisation and the human ability to make things, the skill and the creativity. I suppose that’s what I want to do: I want to create pieces that embody something beyond design, and to reveal a secret world of gestures made of ritual history, memory and architecture.”
“Our work is plural, varied, ... Because we never start a design on the computer, it’s the presence of the hand in the making that defines our works.”