Gajanan Upadhyaya: The father of Indian furniture design

In 1966 he left for Copenhagen to train in furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, worked with Poul Kjærholm, and a host of other designers during the golden age of Danish design.

In 2018, when I last met Gajanan Upadhyaya, he was as full of enthusiastic energy as he was in the 1980s when I was a student at the institute. He questioned me in this inimitable way: “But you are not a furniture designer, you are a communication designer, why did you come to ask me questions about my chairs?” As quickly and without waiting for my response, he proceeded to explain the details of the particular chair he was holding.

Furniture design as a formal discipline was first established in India at the National Institute of Design, NID. NID’s visionary founders, Gira and Gautam Sarabhai, were instrumental in bringing national and international creative professionals to guide the institute’s early years, and Upadhyaya was one of the first Indian recruits. The ethic of ‘learning by doing’, on which the program was largely based, resonated with GU, as it was later called, speaks of a childhood in rural Gujarat, spent working from his hands, from the manufacture of simple slings to the most complex weaving of coconut fiber on charpoy.

Over the course of his career, he brought his initial training as an architect as well as the sensitivity he acquired as a son of a farmer. In 1966 he left for Copenhagen to train in furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, worked with Poul Kjærholm, and a host of other designers during the golden age of Danish design. He returned to India in 1974 to teach in NID’s furniture design department for over 20 years, contributing his designs to iconic furniture stores such as Taaru in New Delhi. Even after his retirement, he continued to maintain his design skills by working as a consultant for TDW Design, a furniture design company in Ahmedabad.

GU’s non-narrative approach to his work sought an ideal similar to Plato’s; conversations about the prosaic – matter, thickness, structure, etc. – have often become philosophical. The ideas of robustness and anonymity spoke as much of his work as of his personality. GU’s designs were remarkably modern in thought and expression, despite his distancing from the political and ideological discourse around the modernist movement. Distinct in the economy of the material used, absolute in the structure – his work was “pure” and “honest”. His interactions with furniture designers such as Japanese-American George Nakashima and Danish Hans Gugelot, who both participated in NID workshops, as well as his time in Denmark, working alongside modern masters, reinforced his sensitivity to a universal idiom. The 24/42 chair on which GU worked with Gugelot displayed his material economy approach, while the Kornblut chair, which he built with Nakashima, was as much a tribute to wood as it was poetic in its form.

In 2018, his strides were as crisp and swift as his comments on every detail of furniture design, as he stepped over furniture in the NID’s iconic prototype room. In his life there are lessons not only for the furniture students he taught, but also for the many other students, professors and colleagues who had the opportunity to come into contact with him. Generations of designers are indebted to him and strive to emulate his work and life ethic. However, the lack of public recognition of GU – who is reasonably referred to as the father of Indian furniture design and who has trained a multitude of Indian designers for nearly half a century – is glaring and speaks as much of his personality as of his. his creations – solid, but anonymous.

This is an adapted excerpt from a forthcoming publication on Seating Culture in India, written and edited by Sarita Sundar and forthcoming in 2022 by Godrej Archives, Godrej & Boyce, Mumbai.

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