Following is the article published in the Vogue India, December 2020 issue.
Our lady of luxury
The catalyst to India’s luxury furniture obsession, designer Seetu Kohli is ﬁnding new ways to push her creative boundaries. Up next is a home-grown label she chalked up with her teenager, ﬁnds Divya Mishra
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.” Architect, interior designer and entrepreneur Seetu Kohli, who counts Lloyd Wright among her design heroes, seems to have taken his words to heart. Today, at 45, Kohli is one of the biggest names in luxury design in India, having built a thriving career out of bringing highly coveted pieces from international brands to homes here and abroad. Even now, amid a global pandemic, she continues to work 18-hour days and juggle projects across Los Angeles, the UK, and India. Bent on using her maturity and mastery in design, she is set to open her first showroom in Doha early next year.
Growing up, Kohli wanted to be a doctor, but her turn to design came by chance. She was a science student, appearing for her medical entrance exams when she visited a cousin who’d been in an accident. The meeting resulted in her fainting dramatically, making her unnerved parents realise that a career in medicine may not bode well. They nudged her to consider an alternative: “My father pointed out that since I had a creative streak, I could think about architecture, which was coming up as a profession.”
Kohli smoothly switched tracks and enrolled at the Sushant School of Art and Architecture in 1992. The course broadened her architectural horizons significantly, and she graduated five years later with a deep appreciation for the works of modernists like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lloyd Wright. “I’ve been absolutely in love with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work since,” she says.
Between 1997 and 2000, her days were packed. She worked on architectural projects, met the man who would be her husband and, in 2000, along with said husband, set up interior design and furniture company Furncraft DeCollage. Was this when she gravitated to furniture and interior design? “Absolutely,” she says. “By then, my natural bent of mind was towards interiors.” In Delhi in the early nineties, interior design hadn’t come into its own as a profession—contrarily, that was what convinced Kohli that it was the perfect time to launch her practice.
It was in the course of designing the interiors for a well-informed client that the idea of bringing luxury furniture brands to India came to Kohli. The home-owner had been unable to join Kohli on her trips to Italy to buy furniture for his home, but having seen what she accomplished on her own, he suggested, in passing, that she bring the brands to India instead. “That planted the seed of the idea and I started working towards it,” says Kohli. But the going wasn’t easy. Most international luxury furniture brands had burnt their fingers in the Indian market with dealers and re-tailers prone to making imitation pieces and buyers unwilling to pay for originals or wait the four months it took to produce the pieces and ship them to India. Kohli understood that convincing the brands would be her main challenge, but knew that there was a market that sought pieces of permanence for its homes—an antidote to novelty-driven and mass-produced design. “If anyone was interested in copying, I would tell them, ‘This is not the place for you,’” Kohli says. It took time and a lot of work to get the ball rolling, but eventually, in 2010, she brought Fendi Casa to India. Once her clients were convinced of the value the pieces brought to their lives, there was no looking back. “Our clients became our strongest ambassadors,” she says.
Over the next few years, Kohli herself became something of an ambassador for Indians at Salone del Mobile, where she saw the luxury brands’ attitude towards Indian buyers undergo a sea change. “When I started visiting Salone 15 years ago, you’d hardly see any Indians, and the brands did not entertain Indian buyers,” she recalls. “Nowadays there are so many Indians there it’s like going to your neighbourhood mall,” she says, with a laugh.
Her visits to Salone are now whirlwinds of endless activity (“It’s a madhouse, and we are like zombies by the end of it”) but the legwork has paid off . Today, her eponymous brand Seetu Kohli Home represents the interiors arm of a series of A-list brands such as Roberto Cavalli, Bentley, Fendi, Etro, Ralph Lauren, and most recently, Armani. “Initially, when we started, people would buy maybe one piece, like a prized possession. Now they want the whole house—right down to the vases and picture frames,” says Kohli about the evolution of the luxury interiors market in India. “They realise that they’re doing more than just setting up a home; they’re creating a legacy.”
It is an idea that resonates with Kohli as she sets off to create a legacy of her own with Mallika’s Edit—an in-house brand named after her daughter. Geared towards a younger generation that focuses on meaningful connections, authenticity and exploration, the brand is a distillation of Kohli’s experience, taste and ideas, created with inputs from her 17-year-old that gives it a refreshing direction. It is a range of furniture designed for global citizens for whom home pieces go beyond function. “For them, a chair is not just a chair, they need to feel an emotional connection with it.”
Divided into two parts—‘Safari’ and ‘New York’—the debut collection was conceptualised by Mallika and transformed into reality by Kohli, who used her extensive experience of materials and processes in India to make it happen. When Mallika’s ideas tended towards the more futuristic (like using carbon fiber), Kohli rendered them into reality by using materials and solutions available here. “I was like her contractor,” says Kohli, about applying her architectural training and experience to the brand.
Now more than a line of interior products, Mallika’s Edit is a testament to Kohli’s diligence and enthusiasm for all things beautiful. Clearly, medicine’s loss has been design’s gain.
(Article courtesy Vogue India)
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