Indian-born and Bay Area-based artists Utharaa and Palaash’s work is centered around softness—soft materials, soft sounds, soft visuals, and softness as malleability, empathy, slowness or imperfection. This month, we were lucky to chat with the couple behind Soft Geometry about their work and their inspiration. Read on for a thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation about art’s power to connect cultures, bridge traditions, transform, and communicate—and to see how Soft Geometry styles Seek.
We’re huge fans of soft-geometry—there’s such gorgeous fluidity, whimsy, and of course, softness to your work. Can you tell us a bit about the aesthetic values that guide your work, and where the inspiration came from?
Utharaa: We continue, obsessively, to understand ‘softness’. Softness is a degree, almost anything can be plotted along a soft-hard axis. It is our perpetual design exercise to toss between each other ideas about what makes an object soft. Material and the tactile is a given - soft velvet, felt, hair, wool and any other number of materials that are soft to touch. There are visual associations - pastel colors, billowy clouds, things that lack edges, the soft light of dawn or dusk. You can also plot sounds - soft whispers, soft melodies, the rustle of leaves - or scents: the smell of rain, wet ground or faint perfume. More interestingly still, you can think of it in the abstract - softness as malleability, a willingness to learn or change, fluidity, empathy, slowness, childlike innocence or imperfection.
We often make connections between these ideas and the Indian object culture that we grew up in, our childhood homes filled with a mish-mash of objects, cane step stools, carved wood boxes, inlaid trays, block printed linens, hammered brass lottas - things that did not match or stack, weren’t modular or multi-functional, belong to a style or palette, but shared that they were hand-made. Objects built by hand, considered and crafted by hand impart softness.
Whether it is the soft light that shone through dusty panes that inspired the Elio lamps or the slow craft of caning that inspired the woven chairs and the tables of the sw collection - softness and Indian culture inspires and informs our work and life every day.
What are your individual design or art backgrounds, and when/how did you decide to start your own studio?
Palaash: Up until when we met in college in New Delhi, we had very different backgrounds, very different childhoods. I grew up in Ghaziabad, an hour out from Delhi, and had quite a destructive childhood of breaking things and pulling them apart, always getting in trouble and having to then fix the things I broke. I guess I became naturally curious of how things came together and decided to go to school for product design. Utharaa, who is from Kochi on the other end of India, grew up exposed to design early on, her parents were architects, who often brought their work home and it made an impression on her that creative jobs are the not-boring jobs!
When we became batchmates in the product design department at NIFT, New Delhi and did our first project together, we worked on it from completely different angles. The outcome surprised both of us and we continued to work together repeatedly, in the process crafting a method of collaboration that got better, more enjoyable and rewarding with every iteration.
We went on to work different jobs in India, and later both arrived at Savannah College of Art & Design, Utharaa for a Masters in Furniture Design and I for a Masters in Industrial Design, and we continued our collaboration even more vigorously through that time. In 2018, we had the opportunity to showcase some pieces that we had worked on together, and just like that we became a ‘studio’. It was less decision making - more going with the flow, the process, and seeing where it led us.
A lot of your work draws on the craft traditions of India, which is central to us at Seek as well. How do you incorporate those traditions into your work at soft-geometry?
Utharaa : The shortcut to Indian design seems to be to “apply” it, with little rhyme or reason, to any modern canvas. The appeal is understandable - Reduce a few centuries worth of craft knowledge and tradition into an identifiably Indian looking pattern, apply it superficially to a 1000 dressers and coffee tables, and sell predictably under the guise of a handcraft meets design story, nevermind that most everything is machined. Indian design is essentially reduced to mean an intricately repeating pattern, then add in some bright colors and call it bohemian!
In our practice, the emphasis is on studying the underlying philosophies, traditions, even behaviors that make up Indian visual culture, and letting those learnings influence our thinking and our process. To be Indian, for example, is to despise same-ness. For better or worse, rich or poor, to be special and own special is everything. Often a plastic chair, a wooden chair and a metal chair happily co-exist around a dining table, beaming in their individual specialness, sometimes to a great poetic mix of time and styles, and sometimes to lesser effect. To be Indian is to value knowledge, skill and expertise and to be suspicious of those who claim to know it all, or worse outsource it. It means to have arrived carefully at who your preferred jeweler, tailor, locksmith, blacksmith, cobbler, potter, carpenter, upholsterer and that is just scratching the surface. To be Indian is to never waste anything. Everything is fixable, upgradable, savable, re-usable, salvageable. By virtue of it being yours, this object is special - To donate it to a worthy family member is a last resort. To discard it is unthinkable!
These ideas have lead us to our collection today - from designing our first pieces as a series of steel frames that can be dressed in different materials and take on new personalities with every iteration; to learning how to weave a traditional 6-way cane lattice, committing to do it ourselves in our studio and improve our technique and speed every time; and to designing the Donut coffee tables to be made from repurposed solid wood waste pieces from furniture factories.
The intention is to learn and grow as Indian designers, not to make Indian-looking things.
Also on craft traditions: What are your thoughts on how these age-old crafts—with their emphasis on hand-made, slow processes—can be preserved in our ever-quickening modern times?
Palaash: We say often that the more time an object takes form within a maker’s hands the softer it is, the richer its story, the more meaningful it is to everyone who will touch it and live with it. The pandemic gave us a chance to reassess, we are living through the most vivid connecting of dots between objects, spaces and people- are they lifeless constructions that are dutifully functional? or are they multi-faceted, sculptural, interesting objects that stimulate, surprise, enrich, uplift and enthuse you? The objects around you become the carriers of stories, histories, culture and feeling. We may not ever be able to explain why, but almost always, your collection of ceramic tiles is more important than the extendable dining table! That is our case for hand-made, slow-made, objects - they simply mean more.
You’re partners in art as well as in life! What’s it like working with your spouse? What has that experience taught you about both creative partnerships and life partnerships?
Utharaa: Seamless. Our life and work just flow in and out of each other. We don’t quite know where one ends and the other begins. We are each other’s muse and each other’s respite. In over 11 years of collaborating, 7 years of living together and half a year into our marriage, we follow three rules for conflicts:
- Don’t be upset that there is a conflict
- Don’t be more dramatic than necessary
- Don’t carry it to the next day
At Seek, we value personal style as a vehicle for creativity and self-expression. In what ways do your fashion senses/personal styles dovetail with your aesthetics as designers?
Utharaa: We share over half of our wardrobes with each other. So perhaps we gravitate towards the androgynous or the surprise of how certain proportions play differently on each other. There is also a love for a good loose fit that we can work in, and we enjoy a slightly off pairing or odd silhouette. Beyond that we wear a lot of hand-me-downs, we have so many pieces from our aunts, moms, dads and siblings and still always dig through old clothes every time we make a trip back home.
Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration
Palaash: We don’t know that you can seek it. Perhaps you can invite it by crafting parts of your creative process. We take an hour-long walk every single day - this is usually good fodder for the brain. During our walks we play ‘what if ____?”, random, not deep, fun rambling musings - this is also good idea fodder. We talk for hours while working in the studio, sometimes we exchange stories from our childhoods, we draw over each other’s sketches or re-draw each other’s ideas. These are all tools to just keep your mind moving. When you start thinking within a “color palette” or a “brand voice” or anything like that, it usually means your mind has been in the same place too long and is bored.
What’s the most recent piece of art you’ve felt moved or inspired by—whether a book, a film, an exhibit, etc.?
Utharaa: Bruce Nauman, Contropposto Studies at the Punta Della Dogana Museum in Venice, Italy. The entire exhibition is video installations that are a reference to the artist’s own 1968 work “walk with contropposto” where he has filmed himself walking along a narrow corridor with his arms outstretched and feet one in front of the other, and trying to maintain this pose as he walks.
We went into the museum and from beginning to end, it felt as if we were transported to the inside of his mind, studying this one singular act or movement a 100 different ways, through collage, through sound, by magnifying it, by multiplying it, through sculpture, through light.
It felt obsessive, spiritual and comic all at once.
What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Utharaa: “Ho Jaega” It’ll happen.
In India, if you ask anyone to do anything that is new or challenging or difficult - this is a pretty common response. Perhaps in different languages, but the spirit of it remains the same. It often sounds like a blindly optimistic two-word ‘yes’ but hidden behind it is a funny philosophy that touches on desperation, perseverance, creativity and sheer will.
In two words, it encapsulates - you may not know exactly how, but you say it will happen, and now you have to figure out how to make it happen and so eventually it will happen because you make it happen.
So the best advice we’ve gotten is that whatever it is, you make it happen
What are you seeking more of this year?
Palaash: We are seeking more balance between being students and being practitioners. We want to dedicate time to trying new methods and materials, setting and achieving some reading goals, and spending more time outside the studio.
Can you share an upcoming project you’re excited about?
Utharaa: We are launching a new collection of tables this Fall at the Unique Design X Group show in Paris. It will be our first large scale work using resin as a medium, which we have been experimenting with for a while with the Elio lamps, and we are excited to have arrived at a form that poses an interesting question of table as sculpture or sculpture as table, and also as a new translation of soft.
Very inspiring read; leaves you touched with fresh hope and a smile that future could be soft and promising;.???.. Ho Jayega. :)