Doshi Levien | icon 028 | October 2005

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Nipa Doshi It was still the recession. London had this feeling of being cutting edge without being fashionable, like it is now. You felt the danger. I stayed on Portobello Road. I remember walking along Portobello Road and feeling you shouldn’t walk there at night.

Jonathan Levien I lived all over the place: born in Scotland; brought up in Norfolk. My first experience of London was Deptford; I lived there in 1994.

nd I remember going to Jasper [Morrison]’s studio in Whitechapel. I had lost his address and the only way I could find his place was because it was the only one without net curtains. London was so grey then. I don’t think of it as grey now. Now you feel how wealthy it is. Even the East End feels wealthy when you come from a poorer country.

jl How long do you have to be in London to say you’re a Londoner? I consider myself a Londoner.

nd I don’t feel English but I feel like a Londoner.

jl How much do we like the idea of being in London, and how much do we actually get to experience it? Just existing here is quite a challenge. It’s like a drug. You have a dose of it now and again and it keeps you going. The rest of the time you’re thinking about how you’re going to survive for the next few months. I think there is a gap between the romantic idea of London and how much of it we actually experience.

nd The cost of things is so unfairly high. There is no value for what you get.

jl The basics are now luxuries. Eating tasty vegetables is a luxury.

nd Borough Market: it’s beautiful but who shops there? I’ve never seen so many Prada bags in one place! At a market! The cost is one side of London I really don’t like. It takes the edge off it when
a city becomes so expensive. When I was here in 1992 I was going out with somebody who used to make things for Tom [Dixon]. I remember going to Tom’s studio in Vauxhall [a 20,000sq ft printworks that Dixon occupied until 1998]. That space! The fact that he could afford to have a space as huge as that.

jl What Tom was doing was really improvising and making up new designs through the process of welding and experimenting with materials. And to be able to afford to do that now would be very difficult.

nd I don’t know how long our service-orientated design economy can remain at the forefront of design. Design really needs manufacturing and engineering. It needs it to be next door for true innovation to happen.

jl We’re almost forced to work in a very computer-centric way now. When I came back in ’95 to go to the Royal College, there wasn’t this optimism about design. People were still wondering what jobs they would have after college. But somehow in ’98, ’99 there was a change. Now there’s no problem finding jobs. But I think I love London less now than when I first came here. It really was rough and you could really feel the history. You imagined Frying Pan Alley as a place where people really were making frying pans. Now I feel the history has been polished away. The more cleaned it gets the more it pushes out the interesting stuff. If we decided to move out of London, where would we go?

nd I wouldn’t live in the English countryside or anywhere else in Britain. London is another country. It’s not England. The city feeds my work; I need to be here for my work. Not because clients are here: we have clients in India, France and Britain. It’s more the fact that London allows you to fuse your work and it really allows you to experiment with identity. The discussion about identity is at a very sophisticated level that I don’t think you’d find in Italy or New York. People in London allow you to be who you want to be – and I don’t mean it in terms of dressing up. I mean that your work can have cultural references and people understand them and embrace them.

jl If you take our project for Tefal, we proposed we travel to Morocco, Spain, Mexico and China to research the cuisine before we designed the pots. And obviously they weren’t going to fork out for a worldwide tour. But we found everything we needed in London. There’s Golborne Road for the Moroccan community; Ealing Road, Wembley and Southall for the Indian element. For every cuisine we found authentic, good quality information. You wouldn’t find that in another city.

nd I feel that what you wear is a fundamental part of your identity. It’s interesting, this thing about terrorism: up until now I’ve never once thought about what I’m wearing. I very comfortably wear a sari when I go out. I never think that anyone’s going to say anything. Recently though, I went to the Portuguese embassy to get a visa and I was wearing my churidar [Punjabi trousers] and my kurta [top] and my head was covered with a dupatta [scarf]. It was the first time I thought, will someone think I’m Muslim? Will they say something to me? Maybe I shouldn’t wear this. I haven’t experienced prejudice in England but maybe people will become less tolerant. And you can see on the trains now; anyone who’s dark skinned, people look at them. I look at them. Women designers are treated shabbily in London. At college it was 50 per cent women. Where are they now? There’s a lot of misogyny. No one talks about it. I worked in an architect’s office when I left the Royal College of Art and was paid £8,000 less than male colleagues from the Royal College. I don’t talk about it because if I do it seems like I’m whingeing. The English hate people who make a fuss. You go to a restaurant and you can’t complain even if your food is shit. But there are no women in British design. There’s Zaha: she’s amazing, I love her. But see how strong she has to be and how loud she has to be. Why should we need to be so loud?

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