Designing with Heart and Humanity

Team of students in India using bamboo for construction and furniture.

Team of students using bamboo for construction and furniture.

As a young designer in India, Kirtee Shah's impassioned approach to his vocation—serving the “un-served” client, giving back to the society—was something he considered as “alternative professionalism.” Now in his 60s, Shah's approach is woven into his DNA and is something he kindly and artfully imparts to each of his students. What follows are his words of wisdom to design students about the heart and humanity that is essential to their work, and how we should all strive, as fellow travelers, to search for love, compassion, and forgiveness in our work, working relations, and professional dealings. Shah and the students are participating in a project in India designed to demonstrate bamboo’s versatility, durability, strength, sustainability, and low cost for furniture making and building construction.

(Note: Students were working on a project for the landless Kotwalia population. Its goals were to foster respect for indigenous wisdom, heal relationships, and galvanize environmental awareness and long-term cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability.)

Having the Kotwalia artisans work with you, the trained professional designers, as equals, is to achieve a sort of role reversal, a measure of equity, equality. That is the love and compassion in this project: not an add-on, it’s integral. Woven into the fabric, not imposed from outside. Internal and intrinsic. Working for the poor, working with the poor, seeing them as clients and artisans, as equally capable contributors in the creation process, is what humanizes you, the formally trained professional. 

From the few months that you have been working on this project you certainly know that this is not just about well-designed houses and furniture items for the Kotwalias (members of a tribe in Gujarat state in western India known for their skill crafting bamboo). It is also about process richness, depth, and accountability. That the designs will be creative, relevant, context specific, cost conscious is a given. They cannot be anything less. My key point here is that, it is not only what you do, how you do it is equally important. And what the process of the engagement does to you as individuals, as formally trained designers, and to your inner self is important to this work. Let me say that the latter is perhaps more important than the former, though not in either-or sense but, in a manner of speaking, 

the process is not any less than the product. 

As the designers on this project, you and your co-participants are the cornerstone of this giving love, taking love, finding love, transmitting love, sharing love, and living love process. And therefore quality, depth, intensity, unity and transparency of your engagement are of great value.

It is not only how you approach, see, and do things. It is how you feel: how you relate, how you give, and how you take is equally critical. Love is in the message, relation, and action.

The same applies to other themes—bamboo, houses, furniture, even sustainability. We certainly need those subjects articulated in their technicality. But not in isolation, not as outsiders, not to stand alone, but in conjunction with you, your views, your understanding, and your feelings of them. It is your feeling, your reading, your assessment, your interpretation that is crucial because you alone can speak and express what you see and feel. You are the medium and the message.

The Kotwalias are the clients and the community. How do you see them as clients, artisans, community? How each one of you relates with them is also a part of the project-product outcome.

What will bring your design to a level millions have not reached? Your design skills? It’s doubtful. Your discovering the Kotwalia as clients, as builders, as community? Perhaps.

Is it possible that the real missing ingredient, the one that bridges the un-bridged gap in the millions before, could be compassion, love?

Can the chemistry of your relation do the trick? My sense is that this essential ingredient cannot be a material thing.

The replication, up-scaling ambition of this project is mostly aspirational. So is the dream of creating jobs and employment for the hundreds of Kotwalia artisans. But it is not fake. It is a way of defining the nature of the challenge and thereby the quality and scale of required effort. Is the purpose, let alone the intensity visible?

“Togetherness,” “synergy,” “interdependence,” mutual respect among the formal architects, formal furniture designers, and Kotwalia artisans are basic “values” of the project. Has it worked that way?

I write this to gain your views on the matter. I obviously have much more to say and learn. We owe it to this project, its funders, its planners, and its subjects and end-users, and to ourselves, as fortunate selected insiders. It is a rare opportunity. It is imperative that we see the larger picture and the deeper meaning.