Architect and interior designer Canna Patel talks about how the lockdown changed her attitude to design and that the basics haven’t changed
Much like the tumultuous advent of Covid-19 changed trajectories across the world 2020, life did alter for well-known architect-interior designer Canna Patel, too — allowing her to take an extra moment from her remarkably busy schedule to simply take in some sunlight in her meticulously planned garden.
But work as always remained ever-demanding for a designer of her caliber. Except now, the paradigm had shifted to wholly digital communication. “For one, the commute — two hours a day — came down to zero. One gets some calm time at home and I enjoy that! Having gone to office in all these decades, six days a week, from morning to evening, even when I had my son… work from home (WFH) was a unique experience,” she told Abir Pothi, in its first Samwad session. “Technologically, it certainly changed some of my habits. I had to become much more prompt in reacting to design decisions or questions raised by my team, who were also all WFH. Response time has become tighter for everyone, and work efficiency has gone up hugely,” she added.
But aside from the logistics of it, Canna was firm that her perspective on art and design has not changed — only its navigation has. “Post-Covid, perhaps only my way of working as a designer has altered. Personally, I have become a lot more articulate, as all my reactions need to be given as written remarks, sent digitally to colleagues,” she explained.
This same articulation, she strongly feels, is an important aspect of what all young designers need to inculcate into their professional growth. Asked what wisdom she would share with contemporary artists, drawing from her own prolific journey as a young designer into a well-established one, Canna said, “Just art is not enough. You need to understand other angles of the profession. Besides persistent work, you have to be able to articulate it, and put in some sort of description well. You need to learn how to set up for a show, how and who to invite, how you plan the show, its sales, etc. There is a lot to learn. Besides, there is a lot of marketing needed, and nothing wrong with it! This could mean interviews, getting your name into newspapers, parti
cipating in exhibitions, putting on a solo show, and inviting the right crowd… as an artist, all these activities need to either be learnt or have to be arranged for as you go along your journey. This is what I would tell anyone in the creative field, who is hoping to rise up.”
Expanding on such encouragement of younger artists, Canna also shared, “When you take fresher artists, you get more for sure — when the creative mind is that young, the quality of work that comes out… I would not say innocent, but I personally feel it is more unaffected. There is purity. If you can see that, you support young artists, and that is what I see.”
This is where Abir India also comes onto the canvas. Working with artists who are unfortunately either geographically not positioned to acquire all this expertise, or maybe lack support, Abir creates a digital space that could well be a new reality for art. Asked what Canna’s vision and understanding of e-platforms is, she opined, “Why anyone from a smaller location should put their work on an e-platform is because they get to reach more people. Besides increasing the range of viewing, it also gives them the chance to personally explain certain elements, making the viewer focus on aspects of the art. You can showcase some techniques, or explain the historic placement of your art and where it stands; you can also elaborate on why it is meaningful to you personally. To be able to express the meaning of your art to a prospective buyer is the most powerful thing. That personalized contact through an e-platform would be fantastic. One of the things I have seen with very creative people — and more so with artists than architects — is that very often the innate creativity is so strong that their articulation is in visual form, not in words and sentences. Sometimes, artists feel: ‘I have made it, now it is up to you to see and buy my art.’ But it doesn’t work that way.”
She also asserted that maintaining the sanctity of art is possible on e-platforms — when done right. “Just because one uses technology doesn’t mean it turns something into a commodity right away,” said Canna, adding, “But it also depends on who or how you reach with this e-platform, and how the art will be presented. Can I just swipe my finger and look at pieces? Or am I going to get deeper knowledge? If it is going to be an online platform, art needs to communicated beautifully. It can be successful if you are sensitive and can communicate at myriad levels, even in multiple languages.”
Canna further mulled, “E-commerce also has written policies. If I have bought something and paid for it, I need time with it. If I return it in a specified duration, you should take it back. This should apply to art just like it does to a piece of clothing. E-commerce will have to make room for this. To see art is important — one cannot just connect with it wholly online.”
This, it turns out, is an important aspect of art appreciation for the distinguished architect. “To enjoy art and to like it, one thing I have realized is that it needs to be in your home for a longer period of time. You need to see it. Sometimes I wonder that when we ask clients to look at something, take a decision and finalize it — maybe this is a difficult process. They should be able to take art and keep it for a few days — then, the clients can really look at it and take a call. Personally, I like work that I can look at every day and yet find an interesting thought going through my mind as I gaze at it.”
With this deep respect for art, Canna’s experience of communicating the same to its prospective patrons, in the course of her many projects, is an enlightening narrative in itself. “It is a very slow process — one needs patience and must understand where clients are coming from. There is also the step of trying to find art that will suit where they are in their life. If some work is very philosophical and someone may not see meaning in it, I try to not thrust it on them. I try to find artwork that they will understand, and only assume that the following generation will delve into more serious work. But at least they will have started with something! Over the years, even my methods have changed. But, I have been persistent about it, since I was 21 years old,” said Canna, adding, “The presence of art in a project, in my case, begins right from the time I market to a prospective client. Whenever I show my past work or am explaining something, I will bring to their notice how a space looks powerful because it has some art in it, whether a painting, sculpture or an installation. When it comes to designing, our concept indicates how many artworks would come into the house from day 1. We also do these 3D whitewash views, where art is always indicated. There are around four stages of estimates taken through a project. At each juncture, we ensure a portion of the interior budget has been designated to art. Then we clarify whether this is a painting, or sculpture, or craft, and what quantity is to be incorporated. We build up on this line of communication and once it comes to the right stage, we start introducing the client to the actual art. This is often where the real hard work comes in — convincing, explaining, educating the buyer and pushing the art through.”
She elaborated, “To convince anyone else, you must like that thing deeply — which I do. I love art and I am passionate about it. I feel it brings a lot of value to an interior environment. When I deeply subscribe to this notion, I communicate it with conviction. Everyone can have standard materialistic things like furniture, colors, lights, etc. It is only art that will distinguish your space from others. This convinces people. If they want their space to look unusual and different, having something powerful will go hand-in-hand with that. I show them a lot of images from my past projects, to show them how a space is powerful with art, and not so much without it. Most of the time, my clients see where I am coming from. But, in many cases, I do need to explain it more to them. I am faced with innocent statements, like “What do I see in this?”; “I only like happy things”; “I don’t like faces in my work”; “I don’t like animals in my art”. It is in such moments that our dialogue begins, and from here I see to what extent I can convince them to engage with art, and what kind of the latter suits the situation best. Most often, clients say, ‘I don’t understand this art.’ I always tell them that if you enjoy looking at it, you must have it. You may not gain a lot, but your second generation or the children at home will gain for it, and you will only see the fruits of this when they grow up. That is one primary way in which I encourage art.”
The lack of inter-generational connect when it comes to art cannot be denied. But is it a failure of how we are as a society? How do we incorporate art in our day-to-day life so that we can no longer ignore it, or it doesn’t remain an elitist idea and becomes a part of the rudimentary or grassroots level? Canna was clear, “Money and affordability have nothing to do with liking art. It is just that exposure to art needs to happen at a young age. Any city should ideally have some museums. As a child, one can be taken on a Sunday outing to a museum, get treated to a snack outside. Perhaps schools can plan trips, wherein a teacher explains art to students. Museums could also conduct art or craft workshops for children. The pity is that our country does not have enough well-kept museums. So, where can the kids go see art? Where can the parents take them? It is also a failure of parenting, for which we cannot really blame anyone. For one, how many sensibly written books have we seen on parenting, and in regional languages? There may be a lot of exposure on the Internet, but it is all in English. It may have nothing to do with poverty or lack of income, but a simple lack of ideas. If you want to entertain a child, you would typically, say, go to a mall or fun fair. Not exactly places to get exposure to art. You should have these excursions as a child, but not so frequently and it shouldn’t be all there is. What we need are good tips to parenting. Some exercises on how they can create that art awareness for their offspring. How often do you hear of a mother and child doing rangoli together these days? How often do you find that when travelling, parents will insist on going to see traditional craft? These are tips to be given to parents and if we begin at this level, awareness will grow.”
She summed up, “I never see art as just investment. I see it as pure joy, like going out to buy mithai to eat. You know you’re spending on something that may not be so nutritious, but you consume it and enjoy it thoroughly. Similarly, with art, I see it as spending on something that is unalloyed joy.”