American Design Hot List 2020
San Jose, CA; soft-geometry.com
Soft Geometry founders Utharaa Zacharias and Palaash Chaudhary both grew up in India but went to art school in the States, where they’ve built up a practice dedicated to pursuing ideas about softness — everything from materials to scents to sounds. Those ideas are most obvious in our two favorite pieces of theirs — a fluffy, yarn-covered chair and their gently curved translucent Elio light, a major hit from our Offsite Online show earlier this year.
What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
As rather recent immigrants to America, hopping from Kochi–>New Delhi–>San Francisco and conducting all parts of our life and work from opposite ends of the world, we rarely fit into the umbrella “American,” yet American design now feels strangely familiar. It has been our platform, the worlds’ stage, where — as two twentysomething kids on visas — we could share our piece. It has meant the opportunity to come from a 4,000-year-old culture, draw, interpret, break the rules and retell its age-old crafts and traditions in our own deeply personal way and present it to an audience willing to see and listen, without the weight of that history.
There is the romantic ideal of America as the confluence of different stories, perspectives, cultures and people. What is most exciting is that every year, especially this year, there is dialogue, intention, and hope to broaden the types of stories and aesthetics celebrated in the American design landscape. This encourages bolder deviations from the norm and helps us get closer to that ideal.
What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
Well, first off, 2020 turned out wildly different than what we had planned for! But despite the projects that were put on hold, the Elio series, launched at Sight Unseen’s Offsite Online, was a breakthrough for us both in terms of stepping into lighting and arriving at an exciting texture and translucency with resin — which was a new material for us. We aren’t quite done playing with it and look to expand the line next year into a collection of small home objects.
The other “plan” or hope is to get back to India. We have been studying the history and techniques of two old-time Indian craft traditions and had started workshops with an artisan cluster in 2019 to learn the process and build out some in-the-works furniture ideas with them. A lot still hangs in the balance of vaccines and lockdowns and whether the US embassy in India opens up, so we’re kind of making things up as we go for now.
What inspires or informs your work in general?
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, fur, 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, humility, empathy, slowness, childlike innocence or imperfection.
Increasingly we 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, woven by hand, considered and crafted by hand imparts 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 tables of the sw collection — softness and Indian culture inspires and informs our work and life everyday.