Stepping into Kangan Arora’s studio is like falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Her shared studio space in West Norwood is a riot of colour. Bold prints, fabric samples and popping primary colours abound. Her quirky and vivid textile designs take inspiration from the chaotic life and street culture in India. We stopped by to discuss inspirations behind the Urban Outfitters exclusive collection, the creation process and the London Design Festival.
UO: Tell us a little about your story so far
I’m originally from a busy and industrial region often described as the ‘Manchester of India’ because of it’s many large textiles mills, so was exposed to the melding of business and creativity from a young age.
While studying at the National Institute of Fashion in Gujarat, I developed a deep love for textiles – printed, embroidered, appliquéd; I wanted to learn everything about creating beautiful fabrics and this lead me to London where I studied Textile Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design.
Packing my bags and coming here brought an altogether different experience, but one that I Ioved. Central Saint Martins is such a cauldron of creativity, it taught me to appreciate the wider culture of design and develop my own ideas unhindered.
After university, I had a year working with print designer Lisa Stickley and eventually starting making my own products in late 2011. The last 4 years have been a rollercoaster, where I’ve launched my own label, exhibited at London Design Festival and collaborated with some really exciting brands like London interiors landmark Heal’s, rug experts Floor_Story and now Urban Outfitters!
UO: Do you come from a creative family or is your creativity all your own?
Textiles really runs in my family; my great grandfather was a bit of a pioneer and started a fashion textile business in Punjab over 100 years ago, so from the age of five that’s all I wanted to be involved in when I grew up. Somewhere along the line the bold, dynamic fashion influence transitioned into interiors textiles and home-wares and that’s what I am doing now..
UO: What is your design process, from first idea to finished product?
I collect and take hundreds of photos of things that inspire me everyday – walls, signs, objects. There’s never a definite start or end point when I’m toying with a design – I find that once I have an idea, it’s constantly developing and evolving even after it’s been applied to a product.
Taking a few different ideas that more or less sit well together, I start drawing, abstracting forms and motifs before adding colour.
A lot of the designing actually happens on-the-go in the studio: when I’ve put 2-3 patterns that I’m happy with on silkscreen, I just have a play around to see how they work together and in which colour combinations – this experimentation is really the fun part of the whole process, like unwrapping presents and never knowing what you might receive next.
Once I’m happy with a print, I get the sewing machine out for sampling (mostly cushions at the moment) on our dinner table at home! I find that sampling in the house gives me the freedom to experiment before I go to a manufacturer.
UO: If you had to describe your style in three words, what would they be?
Quirky. Chaotic. Colourful
UO: What inspiration do you draw from your North Indian heritage?
I’m drawn to the colourful, chaotic life and street culture in India – from graphics on auto rickshaws and highway trucks to hand painted shop signs and Bollywood posters; from the ever curious characters in government offices and local markets to the neon intensity of the bazaars.
There’s an inadvertent beauty and playfulness to be found everywhere you look in India, an eye popping injection of colour which always helps raise a smile!
UO: What do you miss the most about India? Do you see yourself moving back at any point in the future?
India is really an assault to the senses – the sights, the smells, the sounds, being there is like living life with no safety net! I mostly miss the warmth and curiosity of the people, the vibrancy and energy of the streets.
I go back regularly to visit family and to fuel the creative fires, it’d be fun to spend a stint working somewhere like Mumbai or Pondicherry, but London is home for now – it’s the centre of gravity for the world of fashion and design.
UO: What’s the best and worst thing about your job?
Being primarily a print designer, the best thing about my job is the opportunity to apply my designs to all manner of products and to collaborate with brands you really love and admire. So while I have my own branded range of textiles and home wares, to be able to also work directly with a fashion retailer like Urban is so exciting!
The hardest part of running your own design studio, is having the discipline to manage the less exciting side of things – admin and accounts – while also applying yourself to the more entrepreneurial aspects of the business.
UO: What are the challenges when designing for a client rather than for yourself?
I wouldn’t say there are too many challenges when designing for a client, it’s more a case of understanding their story, who their followers and customers are. It’s actually really rewarding, forcing yourself to be disciplined and applying your creative impulses on a blank canvas that a company like Urban provide.
UO: What was the inspiration behind this collection?
I became absorbed in a number of different influences while designing the Urban exclusives – American minimalism, Scandinavian modernism and Memphis Milano.
Particularly the works of Sol Lewitt, Sottsass and Sonia Delaunay because of their appreciation of colour and movement in pattern. I wanted this collection to have a shifting kaleidoscopic quality, with overlapping and tumbling shapes, a very playful feel.
UO: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a designer? Any wise words to pass on?
Collaborate and build relationships. As a young designer, you need to meet as many people as possible and broaden your horizons. When looking to test new techniques and ideas with limited resources, the best way to do that is not in theory, but in practice.
Try to develop a strong idea of what you do best and what your strengths are, but don’t be afraid to try something different and hit a few dead-ends on the way, it’s all invaluable experience.
UO: What other artists/designers are inspiring you right now?
Nathalie du Pasquier, Camille Walala, Eley Kishimoto, Doshi Levian, Muller van Severen, Daniel Emma, Mae Engelgeer…so many.
UO: If you feel creatively blocked, do you have any rituals to help get the juices flowing?
Step 1: Turn off the computer and turn the Wi-Fi off (or turn on the Self Control app – Yes, it exists!)
Step 2: Turn up the radio (6 Music) or my favourite Bollywood 70’s Disco playlist
Step 3: Crack out the felt-tip pens and get doodling! You can’t beat going back to basics and starting a new sketchbook.
UO: What’s your favourite way to spend the weekend in London?
Come rain or shine, the weekend is for getting out the house and pounding the streets! I love seeking out those odd and uniquely London places and happenings – could be a Victorian public toilet converted into a coffee shop (The Attendant), or a pop-up cinema beneath a flyover in Hackney (Folly for a Flyover by Assemble).
Having a little bit of routine and revisiting the old favourites is also nice – a blustery walk across Hampstead Heath, an indulgent brunch stop at Caravan, paying a visit to some of the smaller, independent design shops – I love Future & Found in nearby Tufnell Park and Monologue on Redchurch Street – followed by a trip to Dishoom with friends, for the staple House Chai and Keema Pau.
UO: What’s next for you in 2015 and the future?
I have a pop-up shop during London Design Festival at designjunction where I’m launching my new collection of cushions and rugs called Fluorescent Forest. It runs from 24 – 27 September at Victoria House and the old Central Saint Martins building in Holborn.
More long term plans involve producing fabric by the metre for upholstery, extending the home-wares range to include throws and blankets; and curating a summer pop-up shop of all things bright… Watch this space!