The doyen of design
Architect and Interiors India|January 2021
ARCHITECTURE MIGHT BE IN HER BLOOD, BUT CANNA PATEL, FOUNDER & CHAIRPERSON, HCP INTERIOR DESIGN, HAS CHARTED HER OWN COURSE IN THE FIELD OF INTERIOR DESIGN, IN THE PROCESS HELPING ELEVATE THIS DISCIPLINE IN THE COUNTRY
MITALEE KURDEKAR

As the daughter of one of India’s most respected architects, it is indeed surprising that Canna Patel, founder & chairperson, HCP Interior Design (HCPID), had a truly serendipitous tryst with architecture. Despite being the offspring of the illustrious architect Hasmukh Patel, she was always inclined towards the study of textiles. However, fate intervened and she was unable to secure admission to the undergraduate programme of Textile Design at the National Institute of Design (NID), and – realising her “natural love for art and architecture” – she enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture at CEPT University, where she immediately proved her calibre.

In fact, as a student, Canna’s talent was acknowledged several times, whether it was when she was awarded the National Merit Scholarship by the Government of India in 1978; the Merit Scholarship in 1980-81 by the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad; or the Gold Medal for her undergraduate thesis in 1986. Accolades aside, the decision to pursue architecture helped shape Canna’s thought process; although – even today – she displays an affinity for textiles, often incorporating them as focal design elements in her projects, thereby bringing out a unique sense of materiality through their use. Interestingly, her passion for the subject means that she has since also taught it at her alma mater – CEPT. In fact, she has conducted courses in 'Design – Expressions and Technology', 'Textile in Built Environment', 'Textiles & Upholstery in Interiors', 'Material and Methods of Construction', 'Design Management', and 'Professional Practice' at the prestigious university. In an attempt to lift the overall profession, she has also conducted several workshops, including: 'An Art of Dealing with Interior Designer', 'An Art of Managing Soft Furnishing on Interior Projects', 'Y not live in style without losing your mind', 'Define your Portfolio', 'Effective Way to Present', and 'Fundamentals of Flooring through Tiles'.

In the same vein, her dedication towards design led her to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, USA; which was followed by work experience in the US, and extensive travel all over Europe, China, Southeast Asia and Australia, all of which combined to have a deep influence on her subsequent design philosophy and work. “That blend, in many ways, represents a synthesis that reflects contemporary India,” observes Canna, in effect pointing to where her true learning and inspiration stem from.

HOME INSPIRATION

For Canna’s projects reflect a fine sensitivity to the Indian climate, social norms, cultural values and aspirations; features that are essential, yet often missing in contemporary projects. “I have not followed any particular style or movement, but rather, drew inspiration from nature and craft,” she professes. In that sense, the zealous architect in her finds stimulation in the small things – a ray of light on a leaf, layers of fabric, and so on. And while she has visited and learned from iconic projects, the ones that have moved her the most are a church by Mario Botta, in Ticino, Switzerland; a chair factory in Switzerland; and a spa (Zurich Thermal Baths & Spa) in East Zurich that was converted from a brewery; confessing that these experiences provided her with an understanding of how designers should or should not be!

While she is influenced by her world travels, there is a distinctive Indianness to her work, which helps to render it timeless for the setting it occupies. She attributes her Indian upbringing and an exposure to the country’s cultural diversity and rich heritage for having a deep and significant influence on her creativity and affording her an eye for contrast. But, I suspect, that would be an oversimplification. It takes an inherent ability to be able to absorb the most of our experiences and an even greater skill to apply the right ideas to the work at hand. Canna excels at this, and her inherently keen eye for detail has only helped enhance this proficiency over time.

For instance, she notes, “Walking through the Rashtrapati Bhavan, North & South Block, and Parliament in recent times, it is interesting to realise how at different ages, we notice different things (we are interested in different things).”

Today, a fine eye for detailing and the integration of art in her interior and architecture projects have come to be trademarks of her work. Even when it comes to following the works of legendary architects or interior designers, Canna has instead preferred to observe and learn from good projects, mostly through books and images available at the time. “But frankly, Dad, Hasmukh C. Patel, was a greater guru. My strong-willed mother, Bhakti Patel, nurtured the values of effective decision making and being a persistent professional. She gave me an unusual upbringing as a girl for that time,” she says. One can only imagine how it must have been growing up with such great influences.

Regarding her other influence, Canna recalls, “Meeting Elizabeth Kerkar, designer of a lot of the Taj hotels in the '70s-'80s, really inspired me. As a foreigner, she looked at India and Indian design very objectively. She admired our heritage and would then include it in her designs in a modern way, respecting the context.”

THE LEARNING CURVE

Speaking of context, Canna’s M. Arch. studies saw her delving deeper into the various social and cultural impacts of architecture on people and vice versa. Her postgraduate research thesis took her design understanding to a completely historical and philosophical level. “I compared dance forms with the movements of a visitor within a Mughal garden… understanding aesthetics, landscape, movement within spaces. This got me aligned to thinking about the importance of being contextually relevant – designs in India needed to reflect their connection to India,” she explains of her evolving mind-set at the time.

However, the ideals of a student are often tested in the real world, as was the case with Canna. When she found herself back in US in 1992, it was during an economic crisis. The recession meant that work was hard to come by, and the realisation that architecture – as a profession – relies largely on the economy, suddenly dawned on a young Canna.

Yet, she persevered, and now refers to the time as an “overall character-building experience”. After taking up a few jobs in the US, she ended up in Milan, Italy, in 1993. Here, following the advice of her parents, she bought a fax machine and a laptop to work with the HCP office in India. “Work from home was an experience I had way before COVID-19,” she says with a smile. It was during this year that she became certain of her interest shifting towards interiors and away from architecture. The city provided a different exposure, with Canna visiting the myriad furniture showrooms, quietly observing and sketching various details; also, working from home, without the convenience of technology, unlike today, taught her the importance of media and documenting one’s work. She probably wasn’t aware of it at the time, but both these experiences had a profound impact on her thinking and manifested themselves in different forms, much later in her life.

Soon after, she was entrusted with her first independently handled project. It was an interior design project – the residence of N.B. Patel – in the year 1993, a time when interior design was way behind as a profession in India; not only did Ahmedabad have no upholstery showroom, it lacked the latest in hardware and light fixtures too. Canna soon realised that she needed to do so much more than just designing to be successful. And so, she did.

Dedicating the next decade or so to learning about interior processes – working drawings, tenders, estimates, specifications, order forms, maintenance and operation manuals/ videos/ presentations, she quickly learned that it was all very different compared to architectural work. Armed with ample knowledge, she started her independent practice – HCP Interior Design – in 2006. Adding to her repertoire, she launched Y-not, the product design branch of her office in 2015; while 2016 saw her act on her belief that archiving is a vital part of the design process, as she began making short videos to share her interior projects with the world. In addition, she is keen to pass down her vast experience and learnings in the field, and has been involved at CEPT in a teaching capacity since 2013.

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