Studio Visit
Doshi Levien, Product and Furniture Designers

If you’d expect anyone to spend their days working amidst a snowdrift’s worth of process and ephemera, it’s London designers Doshi Levien. What you see piled atop the shelves and pinned to the walls of the couple’s Shoreditch studio, after all, is the product of two very different yet equally prolific minds working through their own approaches to the same tasks — Nipa Doshi being the Bombay-born lover of handicraft who collages, paints, and draws her way towards ideas from the ground up, and her Scottish husband Jonathan Levien, who spent his childhood in his parents’ toy factory and developed the more exacting methods of an industrial designer, prototyping proclivities and all. While both enjoy surrounding themselves with collected objects like Italian ice cream cups and Chinese pencil boxes, it’s impossible to understate the importance of the couple’s divergent interests to their work’s unique point of view; the designs that made them famous, after all, were daybeds and sofas for Moroso that combined industrially produced furnishings with hand-embroidery and textiles sourced from Indian artisans. It would be a cliché way of characterizing the pair if it weren’t so overwhelmingly true, even by their own admission: “After ten years of working together, I see it as an essential ingredient in what we do, almost a layer in the approach without which it would feel naked,” says Levien.

The day this past March that Sight Unseen visited the duo’s surprisingly sunlit studio, Doshi was poring over some colorful exploratory sketches for a forthcoming Camper store themed around boardwalks and the proverbial endless summer, while Levien stood over her shoulder offering suggestions for how to refine the focus and execution. Besides those rare times when one of them designs something the other thinks is perfect enough to leave be, they almost always collaborate on projects, to varying degrees. “What happens is that an idea will start from someone, but it’s not until the other person comes on board that it really becomes whole,” says Levien. “There are some projects where it’s easy to see who’s having a stronger influence — Principessa for Moroso was more of a Nipa project, whereas the Kali range is more into my territory — but there’s still always a balance.” By Kali he means the line of covetable plastic bathroom accessories put into production earlier this year with the German housewares company Authentics, and by balance he refers to those subtle moments when he and Doshi’s perspectives suddenly and crucially synch up. “I think it’s really important that even objects like these have that sense that you want them,” Doshi says of the line’s soap dishes and toothbrush holders, comparing their appeal to that of jewelry. “It’s really about creating objects and not products,” Levien chimes in.

There are a few other objectives on which the pair agrees, even as their interests are still, even now, diverging (Levien has his mind set on doing more industrial production pieces, while Doshi is yearning to dip back into experimental work like the pair’s Wellcome Trust window installation from 2004). They’ve been thinking about putting together a book, and even more ambitious, opening a curated retail store. They’d use it as a space to expand their design activities, offering not only their existing products and editions, some of which can’t be found elsewhere, but also pieces they haven’t been able to justify making without such an outlet — new textile collaborations with Indian craftspeople, for example, that would be too expensive to produce and difficult to sell with a middleman involved. “It will inspire us to create a lot more work,” says Doshi. “It’s not just about selling things, though, but about linking those things to cultural insights, and being able to present our idea of how the world should be.” To learn more about their vision in the meantime, check out our peek into Doshi Levien’s studio at right.

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Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien in their studio, a loft-like space in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood. The couple met in the ’90s as students at the RCA, where they remember being outspokenly critical about one another’s work; more than ten years after founding their own studio in 2000, they still approach design in markedly different ways, and yet the dialogue they’ve since developed is now a crucial part of their process. They balance each other out. (Though, as Doshi admits, “in a way you’re more brutal with each other because of the personal relationship. Communication can sometimes be harder because you’re not making allowances for the other person’s feelings.”)

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A view from the entrance of the studio, which is filled with prototypes, inspiration objects, and schematics, many of which are pinned to the sliding door of the island, which doubles as a presentation board. “The table in the center is where we all come together on projects and for lunch,” says Levien.

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Atop the central island is an almost museum-like presentation of items relevant, in one way or another, to the pair’s work — from variously shaped tests for umbrella-handle designs to everyday objects they’ve brought back from their travels and kept on hand as references for shape, material, or color. The striped cups in the center of this shot, for example, are relics from a visit to an ice cream parlor in Milan. “I have a lot of packaging,” says Doshi. “I have so much ephemera, too. We put inspirations up on the wall, but then we keep changing them, dating them and putting them away.” Adds Levien: “It’s a working studio, as you can see.”

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In the center is a tagine the pair created for Tefal in 2001, after they noticed — on a trip to Doshi’s native India — that the cookware brand was selling European kitchen tools in a region with specialized culinary needs; their resulting Mosaic range also included a wok and a fajita pan. She and Levien have since become famed for their ability to integrate into their work both their own disparate backgrounds as well as their sensitivity to the general role objects play in connecting people to their cultural context. For Doshi, it was a tutor at the RCA who “encouraged me to draw on the stark contrasts that co-exist in my culture; the friction and harmony between the ancient and the new,” she told the London Design Museum in this 2007 interview.

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Inside this plexi box is the couple’s Swallow series of cutlery and glassware, designed for Habitat in 2000 when Tom Dixon — “a great supporter of our work in the early days,” says Levien — was still creative director. To the right, however, is an item that’s a bit more offbeat: “a tool to take my staples out after my baby,” laughs Doshi. “The doctors thought I was crazy that I wanted it. I was like, ‘You’re going to throw it out? It’s a symbol of my pain!’”

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The duo created this trio of tincture-style “Medicine Jars” for their aforementioned window installation commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, a London foundation for medical research. The highly theatrical project demonstrated a way of working that Doshi is enamored of: the ability to construct a fully immersive world they’ve designed from top to bottom, actually fabricating all the objects that might live inside it.

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On a back wall is another relic from that project, a stethoscope for listening to one’s soul. Underneath it is the pair's highly stylized version of a terra cotta object called a matlo, an age-old vessel for naturally cooling drinking water that’s still ubiquitous in Indian households. It, like the stethoscope, arose from a kind of hypothetical installation, this one aptly named “My World”: It mimicked the atmosphere and rituals of a traditional Indian craftsman’s studio, where clients remove their shoes and sit on a mattress while communicating their needs.

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The Bengali-cotton Courtesan dress pictured here — alongside a vintage tea trolley purchased at the nearby Spitalfields flea market — was also created for “My World,” as was an early version of the embroidered Charpoy lounger for Moroso. “The show was very much about how we’d like our material environment to be,” explains Doshi. “It was a manifesto, almost, for how the world could be, though it was embodied in a succinct collection of products.” These are exactly the kinds of non-readily-available items that they hope to sell in their own shop someday soon.

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A yellow cabinet originally designed for Magis, which has since gone out of production. The brightly colored accordian objects, they note, are “four pencil sharpeners found in a dusty Hong Kong stationer’s.”

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When we visited, the pair had just received the first samples of their exhaustive Kali range of jewel-toned plastic bathroom accessories for Authentics, whose stacking boxes, drinking cups, toothbrush cups, toilet brushes, toilet paper holders, soap dishes, soap dispensers, and handheld mirrors are shown here. “Normally if you look at bathroom accessories you never imagine using one range for everything,” says Doshi. “The pieces here relate to each other but are eclectic, where it doesn’t feel like you’ve bought a matching set. We really thought about this.”

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Plastic handheld mirrors purchased in the port town of Shekou, China, were used as inspiration.

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The collection’s centerpiece is a wall cabinet with glass shelves on either end. “It represents quite a few innovations in terms of what we’re trying to do with plastic and molding,” says Levien, who tends, in general, to be the one more likely to marvel at length about the technical side of the pair’s designs, including another innovative plastic work: the studio’s new Impossible Wood chair for Moroso.

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Pictured, a cardboard prototype for that chair. “Liquid wood was the material that we were hoping to use; it’s 100% biodegradable and doesn’t use any petroleum-based plastics,” Levien explains. “But it’s very brittle, so we ended up using a material which is 80% wood pulp and 20% polypropylene, which gives it structural stability. What’s interesting is when it’s molded under all that heat and pressure, the liquid wood takes on an uneven variegated pattern that looks like real wood — that’s the moisture escaping.”

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While Doshi, too, talks intently about the process behind their designs, she's more apt to lace her speech with colorful metaphor and description: “It looks as if it’s constructed like a boat, yet it would be impossible to make a chair this thin in wood,” she adds, lifting a sample of the composite to her nose. “It smells beautiful. I almost want to eat it.”

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Another design Doshi Levien launched in Milan, the high-backed, upholstered Capo chair for Cappellini, elicits a similar dialogue. “We started by folding paper to achieve this language,” Levien says. “I like the way the arms feel disjointed from the seat, because of the cantilever. You get this kind of floating plane of fabric.” “We were thinking of Belmondo in Breathless, like a real dandy lounge,” Doshi continues. “It was also this idea of putting your collar up when you’re wearing a jacket, and the protection you get. Its comfort is in that gesture.”

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On a nearby wall is a photo of an earlier project for Moroso whose echoes are visible in the Capo chair: The duo’s upholstered Paper Planes seats, where they contrasted a reference to folded graph paper (the practical) with rows of tiny Swarovski crystals (the whimsical). Also pictured are two remnants from the making of the Impossible Wood chair: Two black-and-white images of sculptures by Martin Puryear, whose 1977 Cedar Lodge piece (bottom) was a direct inspiration.

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Much of the inspiration around the studio, in fact, comes in paper form, like these assemblages Doshi and Levien plucked from their archives to show us. Both of them collect images, paper samples, and the like, but Doshi is really the one who spins them into the collages and paintings where their ideas for textile and interior designs gestate, and which are the type of thing that would go into the book the duo are planning. At right is an old photograph of Nipa's close friend and mentor Minni Boga.

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Early sketches for the fabric design of the aforementioned Paper Planes chairs.

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Other culturally diverse ephemera, in the form of vintage office-supply boxes and a cache of Hero pens discovered in Hong Kong. A few years back, Doshi and Levien actually compiled a scrapbook of their most-cherished inspirations and posted it on their website; it was so Sight Unseen–like that we published a story about it last year.

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Likewise, this could have been an Artist’s Proof story on our site — it’s a gorgeously crafted wooden crib the couple made for the arrival of their son, who’s now 3 years old. “It’s a one-off, because it was used exactly once,” laughs Levien. (Like many designers who become parents and then feel the itch to create all the children’s objects they can’t find in shops, the pair recently launched their first product for kids, a rocking horse for Richard Lampert.)

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These brass lotas — Indian water vessels — were due to be recycled and turned into wire, but the designers found and liberated them from a metal merchant’s in Gujarat before they could be melted down. The small colored squares taped to the wall below are fabric shirting samples from a tailor Levien visited in Hong Kong.

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Not only are the walls of the studio occupied by souvenirs and memories, the floors are too — the space used to belong to a painter, whose mess of paint splashes was so beautiful the pair decided to keep it intact when they moved in.

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Wrappings they preserved from a gift given to them by a former intern. “We love ‘soonly,’” says Levien.

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“This is one of Nipa’s compositions,” he says. “It’s a wedding garland made with Indian Rupee notes, which is usually worn by the groom. And that’s a Brooks saddle above it.”

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A relic from the duo’s Wellcome Trust windows, “an all-seeing neon eye keeping watch over us,” says Levien.

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On the boards the day we visited was the studio’s upcoming store design for Camper, themed around the idea of carnivals, boardwalks, and summer. “When shops go up they look lovely, but they age so badly, and I really wanted this to feel like a solid Spanish building, like it’s not going anywhere,” Doshi explained. “We’re pairing the idea of eternal summer with the kinds of faded colors you see in Italy and Spain, when everything gets bleached by the sun. Then we’re using ceiling fans and a lot of marble. It’s almost the opposite of slick and new — we almost want the shop to feel like you’re going into an old house or something. It’s a little bit Brutalist.”

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This spread from Doshi’s sketchbook illustrates several of the shop’s defining features, including a wall that’s a mix of normal mirrors and funhouse mirrors, molded-ceramic footrests printed with graphics evoking old-school sliding shoe-size scales, and a marble display table with a glass partition dividing the men’s styles from the women’s. There will also be a series of zoetropes in the windows with a Muybridge-esque animation of shoes walking.

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On our way out we spied this aluminum box the pair also picked up at Spitalfields, with badges and buttons they used to adorn their My Beautiful Backside seating collection for Moroso in 2008. It was inspired by a miniature painting of a Maharani sitting on the floor of her palace, surrounded by cushions.

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Trolleys, however, are the couple’s main weakness in terms of vintage: Near their front door sits another one, which they sourced from a London architectural salvage house called Lassco and powder-coated bright green. This scene provided us with one last telling contrast between the two designers: At left is a prototype of the towel stand from the Levien-led Kali collection, while at right, on the second shelf of the trolley, are wooden vessels with colored laminate edges, designed by Doshi. “Although we’re more aware of our process and how it works best after 10 years,” says Levien, “there’s still that agonizing process of producing something wonderful, and that will never go away.”