words Anna Bates
portraits David Levene
Doshi Levien has made a career out of cross fertilisation. Scottish-born Levien’s form-making is sensual but reserved, while partner Doshi – who grew up in India – has a far more celebratory approach. The London-based design practice’s work has a desirability hard to achieve in everyday functional objects. Its portfolio includes shoes, umbrellas, cutlery and pots and pans, all of which are made to feel enticing and subtly exotic. A recent collection of Indian-style daybeds for Moroso, decorated with a board-game graphic, had become filthy by the end of this year’s Milan furniture fair. “People couldn’t stop touching them,” Doshi says. The couple’s studio is aptly sandwiched between east London’s predominantly Asian Brick Lane and Liverpool Street’s sprawling officescape. There’s a poster on the wall entitled “leaders of India”, a Magis wall cabinet next to Indian brass pots and a book on Bauhaus leaning against “Indian Interiors”.
Levien speaks with care, clarifying his sentences (as well as Doshi’s), while Doshi has little reserve. Pouring English Breakfast tea out of an Indian teapot, Doshi begins: “There is a sense of schizophrenia in our work – you can almost see two personalities in there. But there’s also schizophrenia just within me.” She studied at a prestigious design institute in Ahmedabad, modelled on a report Charles and Ray Eames sent to the Indian government recommending what a local design school should be. “Somehow it became a very Bauhaus model,” she says. “It was a good education, but in India, form follows celebration. We were learning to make toasters and coffee makers with a Braun aesthetic but we’d step out of the college and the whole world would be completely different – people were making tea on the streets from a flame. I became very interested in how design can reflect the place you come from.” Exposure to these contrasts resulted in a love of both modernist forms and the highly decorative. So it’s perhaps natural that Doshi’s admiration for Levien’s process turned into a partnership. “I wanted those skills – utilitarian, tweedy, considered and precise but with a sensual approach. I just don’t have them – but Jonathan has. Without them, I don’t think my work would be as interesting. You’ve got someone else who is really good at what they do. It’s like buying a skill isn’t it?”
“Umm,” says Levien, not entirely sure of Doshi’s last comment.
Half an hour earlier, Levien ran through the door holding the heel of a ladies’ shoe in the air. The couple are near completing a project with John Lobb, one of London’s oldest bootmakers, to redesign classic shoe styles. But Levien looks concerned. “It’s not quite right,” he proclaims, walking over to Doshi. There’s a moment of quiet. “It looks fine,” she says.
According to Doshi, the pair often disagree. But the shoemaking process is so rich in history and technical craftsmanship that they seem slightly in awe of it, and their voices hush. “When you enter that world you meet people who really know their stuff,” says Doshi. “We were so conscious of what we didn’t know. But now we know all about the last, the toecap…”
“You’re just listing technical terms,” Levien interrupts, before explaining in careful detail the different stages of shoemaking.
The couple met in 1994 when they were studying at London’s Royal College of Art. Doshi applied with a seal of approval from Jasper Morrison, with whom she interned. Levien left school to train as a cabinet-maker before taking advice from his uncle, an industrial designer for Ideal Standard, to apply to the college. Six years later, they set up their studio.
Typically Doshi will come up with ideas through painting and collage, and Levien will start to apply a three-dimensional structure to her forms. But Levien is quick to point out that it’s not that simple. Some pieces belong to one party much more than the other – the Moroso daybeds are more Doshi’s, the Swallow cutlery and Melba glasses, both for Habitat, are more Levien’s. Then there is a whole grey area where they can’t decide what came from whom.
This diverse approach has made them very difficult to pigeonhole, ironically a quality that has often made clients keener to approach them. Computer-chip company Intel asked the duo to design an interaction project precisely because they aren’t interaction designers, and Herman Miller commissioned them to design office furniture before they had branched out of product design. But working with the designers is inevitably going to be a bit of a gamble – there is no way of knowing which way the Doshi Levien seesaw will fall.
One of the practice’s strengths lies in being able to spot holes in the market. The pair is currently searching for a manufacturer with the parts to produce a series of unusually shaped umbrellas, which they hope will join the shoes in updating the traditional notion of classic English style. They’ve also introduced pots and pans for international food into Tefal’s product range, with cultural references decorating the bases. Tellingly, they call themselves a design office rather than a studio – “our process isn’t complete until there’s that third party,” says Levien. They approach manufacturers whose products they think are in need of improvement.
Despite their utilitarian starting point, Doshi doesn’t like to think of the practice as problem solving. “For me design is about an attitude. It’s how you conduct your everyday lives – it’s in gestures like how you cook, lay your table or make your bed. I really miss the care that used to be invested in objects. Most of the things that we use aren’t beautiful. If you buy an umbrella, you don’t want it like women want their shoes. I’d like the world to be surrounded by things that I’d actually buy. In the most blatant way I like well-made things.”
“She’s an unashamed materialist,” Levien says.
“Why does everyone want to be serious?” Doshi continues, now in a higher pitch. “Design should learn from fashion and desirability. You know, to have that sense of ‘pick me up’.”
It is no coincidence that both cite fashion designers and tailors among their inspirations, listing Balenciaga, Martin Grant – a designer who ignores trends, concentrating on pattern cutting and tailoring – and tailor Jussara Lee. They design products with meticulous attention to form, but embellishment is as integral to the piece as it is to a Balenciaga dress. “When I was at college I spent time life drawing, studying the body to gain a more sculptural, expressive sense to my work,” says Levien.
It was this tailored approach to design that made them want to create a shoe. They wanted to work with “makers”, using traditional processes and techniques to design something contemporary. They pitched the idea, called Apprentice, to the Arts Council, and were given funding.
A couple of days later, we’re in a taxi on the way to John Lobb, where Doshi is going to try on one of the shoes for the first time. Stepping through the doors is like entering Dickensian England. The air is oppressive – the scent of leather is overwhelming – and there’s hardly any daylight. A couple of shoemakers are handsculpting wooden lasts – abstracts of clients’ feet taken from measurements. An alphabetised library of nearly 12,000 of these lasts is stacked from floor to ceiling. “There’s something so personal about them,” says one of the makers, picking up one that was for Princess Diana. “They’re like mummies, really, aren’t they?”
“We started thinking we’d do really wild shoes,” says Doshi. “But we went in with the approach that we really wanted to learn about this. We ended up with very simple designs.” In many ways, they didn’t have a choice. “There were a lot of material constraints,” adds Levien. “We realised we needed to use the materials they know, because this was part of their knowledge. You see how they know the world through their practice. They talk of the shoe structurally, as if it is architecture.”
Doshi sits down to try it on. It’s a classic court shoe in shape, but the glossy green crocodile skin makes it entirely different from the twee models lining the shelves. The other pair, awaiting completion, has a grey, lizard-skin upper with a black patent toecap and silver kid lining. Although Levien’s pairs look more sober, on closer inspection you see how the leather has been layered so it looks like the shoes have been wrapped.
The shoe fits perfectly and Doshi is delighted. In many ways, it has been quite a self-indulgent project, with the duo learning more about the process of shoemaking than the shoemakers have learned about contemporary design. But John Lobb hasn’t ruled out working with them again, and “contaminating” such a dyed-in-the-wool establishment would certainly be an achievement. “It’s what really gets us going – we like to be a bridge to the processes and bring something from outside. That’s our ambition,” says Levien. “To find the best makers in the world and work with them.”