Some two-and-a-half years years ago, in a mere five months, based on a very clear brief from Ahalya S, who was looking to create a home for her two brands – Kanakavalli and Ahalya (jewellery), Gayathri Selvan restored an old bungalow called Kingsley on Chennai’s Spur Tank Road. “Kingsley is elegant with a quiet, serene and imposing quality about it,” says Gayathri, as she chats with Akhila Krishnamurthy, over coffee, in her Hawker & West office in Chennai’s Kotturpuram, letting us into her mind and her approach and treatment of design. “Every person is different; as a result, you craft a new story with every building; and that process and practice has taught me to be non-judgmental of people and the importance of humility,” she says, breezing through kanakavalli online and hand-picking her favourites, with clarity and conviction.
Is your office reflective of your design aesthetic?
My office honestly is still a work-in-progress but yes, it is an expression of my aesthetic in design. I believe firmly in the beauty of simplicity and almost all my projects are a reflection of that. I like elegant, clean lines with relevant detailing for warmth to create a look that is contemporary.
There’s also a sense of minimalism that is very characteristic of the space? Tell us about your own relationship with minimalism…
That’s true. Personally speaking, I’m not a hoarder of things. Once every three months, I like to take stuff out, evaluate their very need in my life and if they don’t mean anything, without batting an eyelid, I give it away to whoever may need or like it. But don’t think of minimalism as bare. Bare has a quality of cold about it; minimalism to me is really about a creating spaces where everything you have means something to you.
Is this round table where we are sitting – with six chairs around it – the spot where all your ideas begin?
Yes; it’s here that we share and discuss ideas; this round table is also an articulation of the very premise of our organization where we believe and respect dignity of labour and celebrate the often unspoken value of collaboration. Every once in a while, we attempt to meet with all the people who are involved and in some sense connected with the creation of a space – the contractors, the carpenters, the electrical engineers, the lighting experts, the plumbers, et al – to appreciate how each and every one is integral to the process.
In your own world, what is usually the starting point when it comes to design?
Before we begin work on a project, I usually ask myself three questions – who am I building for; where am I building it, and what the building is really meant to do.
The ‘who’ allows me an insight into the mind of a customer, her/his aesthetics, quirks and eccentricities, etc. The ‘where’ is a question of the very context of the space, the elements on the site, the surroundings of a space, etc. The ‘what’ is really a question of the functionality of the space itself, what it is and what is its inherent purpose. And even though I’ve summed it up as three core words, this is often a long-ish process that comes with listening – and intently – over and over again to a client and gaining a deep insight into their needs.
You’ve been practicing as an architect for eight years now; personally, what kind of projects excite you?
Honestly, everything excites me; I’m equally excited with the prospect of designing a chair or a bed as much as I am of creating an entire township. Each has its own challenges depending on scale and I think the excitement comes from the process that actually goes into envisioning an idea or a design and actually translating it into a real thing, an item, a product, a space that has a distinct identity of its own.
Do you remember your first-ever project in design?
Very vividly. It was for a gym called Score which is on TTK Road in Chennai. My cousin, Ahalya, insisted I design it even though until then I hadn’t actually put my architectural training into use. After my graduation I moved to the US with my husband and based on the nature of our life, which involved a great amount of travel, I decided to study software engineering and I landed myself a job at Sony PlayStation as a game designer. When my son turned 9, we decided to move back to Chennai and it was around that time that the Score project came my way. I truly thought she was out of her mind and I remember that even though I said yes, after much coaxing, I realized I had to start from scratch. It was like going back to first year at architecture school. But Ahalya introduced me to a very able team and I got a very clear brief from Ajit Shetty, the founder of the gym, and I created it in a way that it is minimalist in its appeal and very inclusive at the same time, creating an atmosphere that motivates people to look good and feel good about their bodies, and themselves.
Your project repertoire is very exciting, Gayathri; you’ve designed a gym, a township, an institution, several residences, a couple of office spaces, and then of course, there’s Kingsley. We are keen to hear your Kingsley story…
I remember that day, very clearly actually. I was in London hanging out with my husband and son. Suddenly, my phone beeped with a ton of photographs of an old, rundown but astonishingly stunning bungalow and a message from Ahalya that read, “Just look at this house on Spur Tank Road. I’m leasing it. When can you finish the renovation?” My instant response to her was, “You must be mad.”
Kingsley - Then. An undeniably beautiful property, that needed much TLC. And vision.
Two weeks later, I was on site, with a team of contractors, ogling at the perfection of this home, full of nervous excitement, wondering how I was going to – for the first time in my life – attempt a restoration project that didn’t take away its delicate balance of grandeur, elegance, beauty and perfect proportions, and created for Ahalya a studio that was reflective of the aesthetics of her brands – Kanakavalli and Ahalya (jewellery).
And you did that in five months! How?
I don’t know but I did know that there would be no builder that could meet her timelines and therefore decided to be not only the designer and the architect but also the contractor and the project manager. I spent almost all of my waking hours either on site, or thinking and working on it. In addition to retaining the elegant grandeur of that home, the challenge was also to see how to restore its sagging roofs and badly cracked walls, and to ensure the old building flowed into the new in a way that was seamless and beautiful. We built Kanakavalli around a beautiful tree that is the central motif in the courtyard. We also worked a good deal on using technology effectively – the entire property had to have security cameras, WiFi, air-conditioning, appropriate lighting - the use of lights and lighting was also integral in a way that it was subtle but also there was a sense of drama to the lights and the feeling they evoked. A great amount of thought went into detailing ideas and motifs that were reflective of a past but very relevant to the now. Because after all, a space has got to be an expression of the very story it is.
Kingsley - Now. Kanakavalli's flagship store in Chennai , Kingsley celebrated its second anniversary on July 31st this year. It seemed fitting therefore that we feature Gayathri, whose attention to detail drove the restoration of this property.
By virtue of crafting so many design stories, what have been the key takeaways?
I’ve learnt to appreciate people of all kinds; that every person is different and there is no such thing as right or wrong. Design and the practice of it, has also taught me humility; I’ve learnt along the way that in the space that I am, the challenges are aplenty, and you can go wrong very easily. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learnt to appreciate the range of people who I work with – people who spend a lakh of rupees on a square foot of marble and those who work hard all day to earn Rs300 and therefore to be respectful of the entire chain that goes into the very process of creation – from start to finish.
- Gayathri Selvan, in conversation with Akhila Krishnamurthy
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