The Official Publication of the Indian Institute of Interior Designers

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Sunita Kohli
20 Oct 2023

Embarking on a Five-Decade-Long Journey Through Spaces

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Timeless Wisdom through the Life and Works of Sunita Kohli (Padma Shri)

A conversation between Sunita Kohli (SK), Founder K2-India and Jabeen Zacharias (JZ), Editor - IIID Inscape

The works of Sunita Kohli, a Padma Shri Awardee, are known by many; her journey is seldom discussed.

Join us in this enthralling expedition to unveil the symphony of spaces curated by a master and her thoughts that shaped those ideas. Ms Kohli has left an indelible mark as a pioneer in various realms. In the year 1992, she was the first interior designer to receive the esteemed Padma Shri, a recognition of her contribution to the field of design. This interview captures the essence of Kohli’s works through her self-devised design methodology as she allowed literature, travel, music and arts to mould her. Kohli shares her valuable insights on a range of topics – the role of designers in shaping lives, empowering artisans and communities, and the harmonious integration of sensorial dimensions of spatial experiences. Ms Kohli’s words and wisdom take us through her adventurous design expedition.

JZ: We all know that the essence of our spaces and surroundings shapes and moulds us profoundly. My initial inquiry diverges from designers, focusing instead on users and society. In our vast nation of 1.42 billion souls, notably within rural India, design awareness remains nascent. How might we introduce sound design principles to the masses effectively?

SK: I don't think there's any need to introduce design to rural India. They are inherently and intuitively attuned to its presence in a very natural and holistic way, even if they may not consciously recognise it. A prime example is the "lota," a traditional Indian water vessel. Its design has been perfected over generations. Rural communities possess an intuitive understanding of building structures that suit their environment, blending colours and shaping cooking vessels better than any designer or architect. Can we do better? Even Charles and Ray Eames said that the lota was the most perfectly made vessel, evolving and taking shape over time.

In fact, we need to learn a lot from vernacular design!

But I understand the concern behind your question. Yes, regrettably, India's present architecture and interior design have not progressed in many regions as much as they should have, resulting in poorly designed homes for the middle and lower-middle- classes. We can try to address this with design education and awareness which needs to be introduced in both rural and urban schools, regardless of whether they are private or public institutions. It should encompass discussions not only on our design histories but also on the diverse lifestyle needs to showcase our abundant design values and heritage. Maybe an introspection of what one innately possesses and how one can be empowered to further enrich one's spatial experiences is needed more than just a design introduction. It could be a process of (un)learning for us ‘Designers’ too; that will make our practices rewarding.

JZ: Very true. Indubitably, gleaning insights from traditions, ancestral knowledge, and craftsmanship is imperative. India’s design heritage brims with traditional arts and crafts. Do we truly draw wisdom from this reservoir? What are your perspectives on our present approach to design?

SK: India boasts an estimated 200 million craftsmen and women, and carries a rich tradition of craftsmanship spanning over 3,000 years. Designers can play a crucial role in uplifting these communities by giving patronage to diverse craft disciplines through their projects. Design in India today is at an exciting crossroads . We are delving deeper into our vast design heritage, becoming more conscious of our traditions, and appreciating the best of Eastern, Oriental and Western influences. In this globally connected world, designers could integrate multiple streams and create designs that are uniquely their own.

I have always strongly believed and advocated that craft is the instrument that allows the vision of design to be completed.

JZ: In stark contrast to history, an array of diverse design disciplines has emerged today. How do you see these varied fields intertwine, especially in the realms of spatial, interior, product, accessory, lighting, and furniture design where they leave distinct and indelible signatures on space, the theatre of space, where life’s dramas unfold? How can these disciplines conjoin harmoniously?

SK: I believe boundaries should blur. Viewing design holistically is essential because it reflects the way design truly exists. As Antoni Gaudí said, “Anything created by human beings is already in the great book of nature.” Just like nature, design intertwines various elements and dimensions. Whether it is a contemporary project merging architecture, design, products or lighting, they all come together to form the essence of pure, holistic design.

Ashoka Hall Conservation, Rashtrapati
Bhawan, New Delhi

A prime example is the "lota," a traditional Indian water vessel. Its design has been perfected over generations. Rural communities possess an intuitive understanding of building structures that suit their environment, blending colours and shaping cooking vessels better than any designer or architect. Can we do better? Even Charles and Ray Eames said that the lota was the most perfectly made vessel, evolving and taking shape over time.

JZ: A celebrated and acknowledged designer, your creations have inspired many by the magic you crafted through your spaces. Can you regale us with your most cherished design odysseys?

SK: I have always been on a quest to explore and discover, whether it’s through travel, reading or research. Let me tell you about a magical experience during my first unforgettable visit to Tutankhamun's Tomb in Upper Egypt. I was enthralled by the painted celestial ceiling of the tomb. This left an indelible impression on me. Painted in a captivating indigo-blue hue and adorned with golden stars, it ignited a spark of inspiration within me—a vision of an extraordinary ceiling.

So when I was invited to design a nightclub aboard the Oberoi Philae Cruiser, I couldn’t help but be driven by the desire to recreate the ethereal beauty of that ceiling. I meticulously selected tiny pinhead lights from London. These delicate lights were then carefully centred within each radiant golden star, bringing the enchanting night sky to life on the indigo-blue expanse above, creating a mesmerising ambience. From Pharaonic hieroglyphics to exquisite jewellery and craftsmanship, I immersed myself in exploring various materials like porphyry, faience, and alabaster. Those were different times, we would draw and draft by hand. Let me show you one of the blueprints of the Oberoi Stern Wheeler in Cairo.

Nostalgia from over 50 years ago, a time resplendent with handmade drawings, renders, and blueprints.

Blueprints are technical drawings detailing buildings, structures or objects. Historically, they were created through cyanotype, a process involving light-sensitive paper coated with chemicals. The original design was placed on transparent material atop the paper and exposed to light. Chemical reactions turned exposed areas blue and covered parts white. Rinsing fixed the image. While digital methods now prevail the word "blueprint" now metaphorically represents detailed plans.


Handpainted Rendition of the Bar Lounge & Nightclub, Oberoi Philae Cruiser, Egypt. (1972)
The Blueprints of the Oberoi Stern Wheeler In Cairo, Egypt.
Hand-Painted Rendition of the Lobby Lounge, The Oberoi Stern Wheeler, Egypt.
Completed Lobby Lounge, The Oberoi Stern Wheeler, Egypt.

JZ: Your international projects, almost all of them, garnered extensive recognition for effectively presenting Indian design sensibilities to a global audience. It would have been very exciting, particularly being a woman designer in the 70s and 80s. Can we take a peep into your creative process in crafting these narratives and your sentiments?

SK: Let me take you to the memory of my first project in Egypt—a splendid hotel nestled in El-Arish, a picturesque village from Biblical times, perched along the azure shores of the Mediterranean Sea, also known for its date palm groves. Delving deeper into Egypt’s artistic heritage, I uncovered the captivating tradition of Baladi glass, a craft dating back to the 8th century CE. Fascinated by its intricacy and beauty, I eagerly sought to incorporate this ancient art form in the centre of the hotel’s Brasserie. I conceived a magnificent centrepiece that would truly encapsulate the essence of El-Arish—a grand date palm tree.

The palm trunk was delicately die- moulded in brass, with every intricate detail captured. The lush fronds were fashioned using exquisite Baladi glass, breaking new ground in Egypt's creative landscape. Marrying the strength of brass with the delicate brilliance of Baladi glass resulted in a breathtaking masterpiece—an embodiment of artistic fusion and craftsmanship. The hotel's grand inauguration became a prideful occasion, with esteemed guests, including the then-late Vice President of Egypt, Mr Hosni Mubarak, warmly appreciating the captivating designs celebrating Egypt's cultural heritage. It was not just a milestone for my practice but was a moment for Indian design’s international presence. And yes, being a woman designer added further charm and was much talked about!

The success of this hotel marked the beginning of my long design journey in Egypt. Over sixty sojourns, I found inspiration and embarked on a quest of exploration, discovery, and immersion in Egyptian culture, materials, and age-old craftsmanship. I was telling ‘their’ story through my designs.

Oberoi Mena House Hotel & Casino, Overlooking the Great Pyramids of Giza
Charisma from the Past: Brasserie in Oberoi El-Arish, Sinai Peninsula Egypt with a Massive Central Palm Cast in Brass


JZ: Genuine eminence in any setting engages the senses. How do you ensure your designs transcend the visual and aesthetic to become that wholesome experience? What is your way; How do you weave sensory components, conjuring enchanting and charismatic spaces?

SK: I have always believed in empirical experiences. Since space is three-dimensional, all five senses come into play. Incorporating the senses judiciously and intentionally is crucial because it is through the stimulation of these senses that spaces develop their unique aura. Our cultural heritage and ancient texts often emphasise the presence of all five senses in space, we are just rediscovering this wisdom today. Notice the symphony of senses unfolding in a temple. The journey begins with gentle light, leading us from the world's hustle into serene shadows and darkness. As bells resonate, tranquillity dances upon our ears. Flowers and fragrance weave stories, incense whispers ancient tales, and prasadam beckons with its sweet and savoury promises. Spirituality transcends thought, becoming a melody for touch, taste, scent, sight, and sound.

I strive to evoke all five senses in my designs. It is natural, say, second nature to me. Clients often express their delight when they enter their new homes, remarking on the peacefulness and beauty that envelops them. This effect is a result of the careful attention I pay to incorporating the five senses into my designs to create ordered beauty.

A notable project is the Parliament Building of Bhutan in Thimphu. When prominent figures like the Bhutanese Prime Minister and His Majesty the King inspected it at the SAARC Summit of 2010, they commended the design, appreciating how it reflected their culture, art, and architecture. These instances reinforce the importance of infusing sensorial and contextual elements into the design process.

Parliament Building of Bhutan in Thimphu

JZ: As we conclude, might you reflect on your journey of 50 years and still going strong, viewed through the prisms of design, literature, and education? Kindly unveil the gist of your five-decade-long design voyage.

SK: Yes, it has been an incredible and humbling journey, starting as an educationist that, without planning, took an incredible turn into design. This is part of the Great Plan. From lecturing and shaping young minds to becoming an interior designer and architectural conservationist, it felt destined for me. Travelling and reading, inherited from my parents Chand and Inder Prakash Sur, laid the foundation for my design career. Life's surprises led me to this fulfilling path. And then, in a delightful turn of events, my path came full circle when I was made Chairperson of the School of Planning and Architecture Bhopal, the first woman to chair a ‘National Institute of Excellence’.

Throughout my design career, I continued to give lectures and contribute essays to significant publications. Recently, I embraced a new role as an author, which has again added excitement and fulfilment to my journey. I merge my experiences with a passion for storytelling in every passage, just like I tried with the spaces I designed. As I reflect on this evolution, I am reminded of the infinite possibilities that life offers. From lecturing to designing and writing, my path has looped back to academia, but in a different form. This journey has also opened up a world of endless opportunities. With each book I publish and each design I explore at K2India, I continue to embark on new adventures, inviting people to join me on this captivating path where education, design and literature intertwine.

I have always strongly believed and advocated that craft serves as the fundamental instrument for realising the vision of design.

In closing, we regain our appreciation for the profound impact of design on our lives. In the intricate tapestry of Sunita Kohli's journey, her creations resonate with a deep commitment to culture, craftsmanship, and creativity. Through her unique design approach, she harmonises literature, travel, dance, and music to craft spaces that transcend time. She beckons us to rekindle our design sensibilities, suggesting the amalgamation of tradition with the brilliance of innovation. Her design world, a landscape she has meticulously sculpted, resonates with her wisdom—a wisdom that transcends eras, urging us to carve pathways where heritage and modernity coexist. Her journey illuminates the path for future designers, reminding them that design is not just about appearances, but about storytelling, about imbuing spaces with emotions, making each room a chapter in a greater narrative. In the boundless dance of her designs, the echoes of Kohli's journey reverberate—a timeless symphony inspiring generations to embrace the artistic magic within the realms of design.

About the Author

Sunita Kohli
President of K2India

Sunita Kohli is a national award-winning interior designer, furniture manufacturer and architectural conservator-restorer since 1971. She is the President of K2India and the first Interior Designer to be conferred the Padma Shri by the President of India and the Mahila Shiromani Award by Mother Teresa, in 1992.

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