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Four Women In Design On What Inspires Them To Create

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Jeena J Billimoria

HELLO! spends a day with four uber talented and accomplished women in design — Shreya Kanoria, Farah Siddiqui Khan, Arundhati De-Sheth & Riddhi Bhansali Mehta — talking about their creative prowesses and what makes life a charmed one.

It’s a cool December morning in South Mumbai, and team HELLO! is setting up today’s shoot at a beautiful home with four stylish and creative women, all at the top of their varied careers — interior designerShreya Kanoria; curator and art advisor Farah Siddiqui Khan; jewellery advisor Arundhati De-Sheth; and graphic designer Riddhi Bhansali Mehta. Soon enough, the ladies are ready to pose in front of the lens, each bringing refreshing individuality and style, before getting comfortable for our candid chat about their busy yet colourful lives... And what makes them stand out in a crowd.

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HELLO!: Tell us a little about your professional journey, the one that’s brought you where you are today. 

Shreya Kanoria: “I’ve had a keen eye for design since childhood, and there was no other path for me. I chose to go to design school for higher studies, where I learned the technical aspect of interior design. After college, I had an amazing five years working under a reputed architect, where I got the opportunity to hone my skills further. I love the idea of problem-solving on site and marrying design with the more practical aspects of my work.”

Farah Siddiqui Khan: “My interest in art was kindled by my mother when I was just a little girl. Growing up in New Delhi, she’d take me to a lot of the exhibitions at private galleries and museums. In a way, art has been in my DNA, but professionally, the art market involves a completely different outlook. I’m lucky enough to wear so many hats in the art world as a curator and art advisor. I founded Farah Siddiqui Contemporary Art in 2004; it’s a full-service art advisory and private curating firm, which remains my primary organisation. In 2018, I launched Cultivate Art, an online platform that’s an entryway to initiate individuals into the world of art. I have a wonderful team that’s always on the lookout for new talent. We work a lot with young collectors and people from the design world. And since 2020, I’ve launched three new organisations in the art, design and philanthropy space: BENNFT, Young Collectors Weekend and Life With Objects.”

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Arundhati De-Sheth: “My professional journey began rather organically and serendipitously. I’ve always loved jewellery. My fondest childhood memories revolve around my mother’s jewellery. I’m so glad that after graduating with an MBA from ESSEC Business School, Paris, I got some great internships and work experience in the world of high jewellery and watch-making. But a truly pivotal experience was working for Nirav Modi as a high jewellery sales expert. That role gave me training, knowledge and experience, and cemented my love for jewellery. When I took a break from working, I immediately gravitated to writing editorial features and interviews and providing insight into the world of international and Indian fine jewels. It kept the connection alive even during a ‘resting’ period in my life. Finally, my firm took its own form and structure some time in 2018. It’s been a gratifying time, as I help individuals looking to add fine jewellery pieces to their personal collection as well as curate seasonal collections that I amalgamate from a variety of sources.”

Riddhi Bhansali Mehta: “I’m Founder & Creative Director of Riddhi Mehta Designs, but haven’t been professionally trained as a graphic designer. I grew up in Antwerp and went to Central Saint Martins, London, where I studied art history and curation. I then worked for several large art houses. My family is into diamonds and collecting art, so I spent my whole life surrounded by art and design. I moved to India and worked in my husband’s family business in textiles and fashion. After I had my son a few years later, I decided to train myself in graphic designing software. In fact, Riddhi Mehta Designs grew from my bed, where I sat with my laptop during Covid. It was just me, trying to find my place in the world of design. I couldn’t be more grateful for the clients who believe in me and my family and friends who support me. Today, we are a boutique studio specialising in branding and identity.

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H!: What does a typical workday look like for you? How do you create a healthy balance between a thriving business and family? 

SK: “I’m not much of a creature of habit, but I usually spend half the day in site meetings, reviewing the progress of work. The other half is usually spent meeting clients or vendors in the office. Of course, living in Mumbai means that I practically spend a great deal of time in my car! Weeknights are usually spent at home with family and close friends.”

FSK: “As a mother to a four-year-old, I’ve learned that creating time blocks is the best way for me to get work done without compromising on family time. It can go from meetings with artists, clients and business partners and collaborators to music classes with my daughter. It can definitely be hectic at times, but I wouldn’t trade a moment of it!”

ADS: “Most days are different. I wake up in time to see my kids off to school. Once they leave, I get my first cup of coffee and scribble miscellaneous thoughts in my notebook; these could be about work or mundane home-related things. I need to write everything down the old-fashioned way! I begin work after a workout. Today, a lot of my work is on the phone, either via social media or WhatsApp, which can be quite draining. I’d love to change that in the coming year. In fact, I’m working on ‘monotasking’. We’re so used to multitasking, but I want to improve my focus by doing one thing at a time. My kids are used to me working at home and have taken to brazenly calling me ‘jewellery lady’!”

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RBM: “Breakfast with my son is around 7am. Then I’m on to planning my day and getting some ‘me time’, followed by a team call. I spend lunchtime with my son around noon, and between 1pm and 5pm, it’s client calls or group calls. After that, I spend more time with my son (shower, bedtime, etc) and 8pm is family dinner. I then brainstorm ideas that need some quiet, and before bed, I pick up my Kindle for a while.”

H!: Share what you believe is the USP of your brand. 

SK: “I like to keep the framework clean and symmetrical. I tend to play around with loose furniture and fixtures. I believe that a space needs to age well and should be convenient to turn around whenever required. All my spaces look different as I’m not afraid to experiment. I feel that the client’s space should reflect their personality and I design accordingly.”

FSK: “With over 15 years of experience in modern and contemporary art from South Asia, I’ve built and managed some of the most important collections of Indian art globally. It’s my passion to build awareness and appreciation for South Asian art, be it through private art consultancy and curation or large-scale public art projects.”

ADS: “I would say it’s the strong balance between the aesthetic and financial value of the pieces I offer a client.”

RBM: “My aesthetic is minimal, almost scandic, with lots of negative space. However, I strive to not be biased towards any design disciplines because to me, it’s vital that the client’s aesthetic shines — my job is to make sense of their style and create a balanced result.”

H!: Take us through your creative process from start to finish.

SK: “I start by visiting the site and understanding the client’s requirements. Next, I go through various iterations of different styles that will work in that particular space. I don’t like to limit myself to any particular design sensibility and prefer to push the envelope. After shortlisting a few options, I present them to the client, and then based on their feedback, we move forward.”

ADS: “It’s an intuitive process. I have a basic framework of questions ready for someone new who reaches out to me to get an idea of where they are at. Next, we meet in person and I go through the finer details and even try to list what jewellery pieces they already own. I don’t want to propagate mindless consumption, so the process is slow and thorough. I try my best to get into their shoes and guide the process from there.”

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RBM: “First, I try to understand the client’s goal and ideate on how to achieve that. I then present routes to achieve the goal, defining all the key elements, trimming the fat and refining and presenting a polished overall design — at least that’s the dream! (Laughs). In reality, the process is a lot more blurred than it sounds; there are lots of brainstorming sessions where we often go back to the drawing board to ensure that the key goals are being met. My team and I collaborate constantly; there’s zero hierarchy, so everyone can feel safe and free to express their thoughts on every project (whether they are on the account or not!). In difficult moments, we often swap projects to look at things with a fresh set of eyes.”

H!: Farah, what makes art such a powerful tool in today’s time — and what does the future of the Indian art space look like? 

FSK: “Art is and has always been a powerful tool because of the innate fact that it’s a means of communication and archiving history. It’s a means of preserving contemporary narrative, even when it may no longer be contemporary. The future of the Indian art space looks like a diverse, eclectic mix of mediums and artists. It’s absolutely thriving right now and with our rich cultural past, it will surely continue to do so.”

H!: Arundhati, what are your favourite jewellery brands in India? 

ADS: “I love many home-grown brands — Hanut Singh, Studio Renn, Sajjante and GYAN come to mind immediately. There are so many more! In general, quality and craftsmanship shows. So I like to show my clients those details that perhaps don’t meet the eye at first.”

H!: What keeps you motivated? Who, in your field of work, inspires you?

SK: “The most fun part of my job is that a new site is a new canvas, and I can do absolutely anything without being restricted by my previous designs. I think the growth of the design industry in India is remarkable. People are doing such fabulous work, which keeps me motivated. Among international designers, I really admire Kelly Wearstler for her bold sensibility and personal style and look up to her for the brand she’s created today.”

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ADS: “Generally, I’m motivated by the positive feedback I receive. I love the excitement I feel when I chance upon some new designs and stones or a brand that isn’t very exposed and I think would be novel to show. I love the thrill of the find. Internationally, there are some people doing lovely things in my field, like New York’s FD Gallery.”

RBM: “I think it’s just part of my education. I was always told to try my best. Even if I failed, I would at least know that I tried my best. I like having a problem to fix, and with most projects, that’s exactly the approach I take. I hear out my client’s dilemmas and spend my days brainstorming simple, elegant and visual solutions.”

H!: Tell us about the projects you’re working on currently. 

SK: “I’m working on a few homes and offices. A very recent development is a new children’s play area that I will design!”

FSK: “I’m working on the next edition of a young collectors’ weekend for January 2023 in Mumbai, as well as the next exhibition of Life With Objects. I launched this venture in 2020 with another passionate business partner, design consultant Natasha Mehta, where we spotlight ceramics and crafts. Just last month, I brainstormed and ideated with Rahul Damodaran, my BENNFT co-founder, for a web 3-based art and philanthropy platform at the Dubai Design District. We also have something exciting coming up at the next India Art Fair.”

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RBM: “I’m working with a really exciting brand called Art Garde, which is a digital platform for NFTs and digital twins of real-world art. I’m also working with an awesome FMCG brand called PHAB, which aims to make healthy, protein-based snacks accessible to masses, as well as SILA, a platform that’s already taken the facilities management sector by storm and is now expanding into real estate. And last but not least, I’m working with an upcoming restaurant called Ultimus, a Dubai-based burger brand.”

H!: Which of your professional projects are you most proud of ? 

SK: “My own home, as it’s so close to my heart.”

FSK: “Curating the first Elephant Parade in India for Elephant Family (founded by late Mark Shand), to raise funds to help secure 101 identified elephant corridors across India. I’m conscious about including a broad range of talent for the parade. Each artist invited to participate brought a unique approach and sensibility — from eminent fine artists and iconic fashion designers to folk and tribal artists. I was excited by the possibility of juxtaposing a range of artistic practices on one monumental platform.”

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ADS: “I’m proud of my annual jewellery show, which takes place between Navratri and Diwali. The message I want to send out with the show is that jewellery is art and should be recognised for its artistic and aesthetic attributes, rather than thought of as a financial investment. I pour myself into it for months. I almost single-handedly design the show, select the vendors and every single jewel, work on the pricing, design the space and invite all the guests! I get to travel, to meet new people, to hunt down new sources… It’s a creatively invigorating time.”

RBM: “Honestly, all of them. I feel that I grew and learned something new with every project. They are all very close to my heart, and it’d be a challenge to name just one.”

H!: What are your go-to brands, and how do  you use fashion to express yourself ?

SK: “I believe fashion comes and goes, but style is something that’s innate to a person. I like to wear something that makes me feel good, branded or not. I designed many of my clothes, particularly party wear. My choice of clothing completely depends on my current mood! And, like my interior design, it’s a marriage of aesthetics with practicality and comfort!”

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FSK: “My personal style is very minimalist. I believe in curating outfits that I can wear again, so the brands that instantly attract me are those that have this vision in their design ethos. My go-to brand is Lovebirds. I love the new aesthetic by Inca India, as well as Akaaro. I also love the elegant, chic designs of Ralph Lauren and Italian designers who create timeless pieces, like Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli.”

ADS: “My personal style is comfort-chic. I don’t think I ever wear any thing that makes me feel self-conscious. I have eclectic taste and like many home-grown Indian brands as well as street shopping, as much as I love shoes and leather goods from international labels. I tend to play safe with my overall appearance, but with growing years and personal confidence, I hope to push the envelope some more.”

RBM: “My personal style is refined with a hint of street. I like to look effortlessly put together. The idea is to look casual but collected. I like Refined Revolution, Vince, Zara, Chloé, Adidas and Patrizia Pepe.”

Text: Jeena J Billimoria; Photos: Ryan Martis; Creative Director: Avantikka Kilachand;Fashion Editor: Sonam Poladia; Junior Stylist: Anushree Sardesai; Food Curation & Table Decor: Artz Collective & Menuscript- Food Stories by Mona Dalal; Jewellery Courtesy: Arundhati De-Sheth

This interview has been adapted for the website from an interview that was originally published in HELLO! India’s December 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!