From type to textile

Akila Seshasayee talks to Sujatha Shankar Kumar about her foray into textile design and how it is informed by her graphic design sensibilities

Three years ago, graphic designer Akila Seshasayee found herself drawn to her first love – textiles, a natural crossover as she recalls, “I actually wanted to study textile design at NID, but I chose graphic design because it just seemed cooler!” Looking at her design work though, it is not hard to fathom why. Works by her studio designosis demonstrate how information is processed to emote, bringing an intelligent awareness similar to the awe we feel seeing a microchip or the exposed structure of a leaf. Form and function are bound together to radiate beauty with an underlying sense of purpose. The name designosis is a portmanteau of design + gnosis (Greek for knowledge). The morphed term also suggests ‘diagnosis’ recalling the designer’s problem solving capacity where, like a good doctor, she must combine analysis, creativity and intuition to arrive at the right solution. 

When I ask Akila how she translates information into visual language so seamlessly, she says, “ I find it very hard to not convey information or a distinct idea through the design I am working on – without this core it becomes shallow and meaningless. Secondly, I have always believed that being interested in the world at large is more vital to the design process than being singularly focussed on the arcana of design itself. My reading and interest in a wide variety of areas other than design has informed the way I think about it. In fact I have read very little about design in general, and even less about graphic design. And have never regretted it.” In her cover design for Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book “Decolonizing Methodologies” bits and bytes of information are streamed into a real ‘footprint’. For Akila, this transformation to an emphatic visual image is an intuitive process. She absorbs information thoroughly in the initial phase and at the design stage she simply lets her right brain take over.


Riding the new wave

Nowadays, her partner at designosis Divya Kukreti, an exceptionally talented, detailed and thorough designer handles the graphic design projects, while Akila surfs the ocean of textiles. When she first set out she encountered two conflicting waves in the contemporary milieu: the anxiety faced in the handicraft sector as traditional crafts are fading with the advent of technology while, contrarily, the superlative aura of hand-woven and embroidered products continue to attract up-market buyers. Between these two is the fear that technology will override traditional sensibilities. Akila counters this saying, “In some ways, it is your friend.” In Akila’s first experiments with textiles in Chennai, she worked with indigenous patterns found in non-textile media. The beauty of the imperfections of handwork cannot be replaced by a mechanical process – but what if it was digitally printed with extraordinary care? “Most digital prints in the market were ghastly!” she says. This led to her decision to create bespoke garments pursuing the idea “to be faithful to what that technology could do” aiming for a niche market.

Colour penetrates every kind of fabric differently and Akila did detailed trials to get the exact result she envisaged. As with every creative practitioner, there was the urge in her to be unique. Today, we are constantly bombarded by visual information, streaming in at the flick of a key on your digital device. Akila points out, “There are over 3 billion people using the internet and something seeps in and subtly influences you when you don’t even realize. It is difficult to be totally original.” She managed to tune into one space, which was relatively unexplored. She loved recording imprints people make in the world: road markings, cobblestone paths, corrugated roofs and brickwork – and the idea of printing their photographic impressions was tempting. “I really looked at whether someone had done this before. A lot of designers like these images as they are so graphic. But using them on textiles is unusual.”

Brick by Brick

How was Akila’s approach different from a textile or fashion designer’s? Designers like Mary Katrantzou had made innovations with digital textile prints so, in itself, there was nothing revolutionary. However, Akila had a unique vantage point. “My prints are totally informed by the fact that I am a graphic designer. A graphic designer looks at a rusty roof and is blown away by its beauty, and this is the biggest gift I’ve got from being one: that everyday beauty is immediately obvious to people like myself, while other people seem mostly oblivious to it. The other advantage I have had is one of ignorance – not knowing already how things works or the conventions – this helped in looking at things afresh.”

Digital printing also offered her enormous flexibility – the minimum quantity required is just a meter so she could custom-design the print. It did not need repeat units as in mainstream block or reverse printing. Hence, she could visualize the saree inventively rather than be restricted by the regular print processes. Akila was excited and challenged as she says, “I could actually place things where I wanted them to be seen when the saree was draped, which was an exercise in itself.” To get the subtle variations in her design for Brick by Brick she shot all the images then painstakingly worked on the colour, test printing every iteration to get the final result we see.

Left to right: Brick by Brick, a saree from Akila’s Kabir collection and detail of Rusty Roof

Akila has had five shows, including her first for Red Earth, another for Jaya Jaitley’s store and a trunk show at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Her designs can be daring and non conformist like her Kabir sarees, which use typography boldly and has other women exclaiming, “I love it, but I could not wear it!” She also does exquisite florals and more conventional collections as for Chamundi Silks, Mysuru. Her interpretations take us to a space where like in a song, suddenly words do not matter: we are listening to the music and even when words get blurred, we can sense their meaning. As someone who does not like to be boxed into thinking predictably, Akila treasures the freedom to compose without being confined. She emphatically states, “I’m not interested in garments but in the print itself. Digital has many advantages including a freedom from repeats, using multiple colors without costs going up and also using halftone images. But that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal process to use for everything and all fabrics – plus the effect and beauty of screen or block are special too. I’m open to any and every process, modern and traditional and am in fact working with multiple processes now for the home textile collection I am producing.”

Written by Sujatha Shankar Kumar, Images courtesy: Akila Seshasayee
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