This is the third piece in our series that weighs the pros and cons of living and working in Mumbai’s creative community, following in the footsteps of our London City Guide, we explore the state of design education in the city. We’ve previously explored the nuance of what it’s like living and working as a designer in Mumbai and the city’s design education. Here, we look at a few of the design studios working out of Mumbai.
One of the biggest disadvantages of running a design business in Mumbai is how expensive it is, relatively, to rent a studio. Most studios are pretty tiny, since Mumbai’s space is at a premium. Geographically, it’s “like an island. It’s not like Delhi, which can grow and grow,” Lokesh Karekar, founder of the studio Locopopo points out. “In Bombay, the real estate is expensive, that’s why everywhere you see small restaurants and small rooms.”
But for all its challenges, this is an exciting time for designers and studios in Mumbai. Clients are becoming ever more receptive to the power of good design, and designers are deciding that they should celebrate and push their own roots, rather than solely looking to the western design proliferating online.
As part of our ongoing investigations around designing in Mumbai, we profile two studios—Locopopo and Bombay Duck Designs—who do just this: look to tradition, while pushing their form and awareness of emerging commercial imperatives on design. They also have a close relationship, having studied together, and today even passing clients between one another. Keep your eyes peeled for more Mumbai studio insights in the coming months.
Founded by visual artist Lokesh Karekar, Locopopo is a design studio working across identity design; packaging; branding; products, and illustrations for brands; books; and magazines. Its work has earned international accolades including recognition at Cannes Lions, the Kyoorius design awards and many more. Karekar was named in the Forbes 30 under 30 list. He is also the co-founder and editor of the visual art zine, Hundred Percent. The studio also has its own shop selling illustrative products, LocopopoShop, which takes inspiration from combining traditional and modern Indian aesthetics.
Karekar came primarily from a visual artist background before specializing in illustration and design. As such, Locopopo’s graphic work is characterized by a simple, thoughtful approach to form, composition, and color. His illustration work, too, uses bold compositions; with line-work inspired by more traditional Indian arts and depicting observations from his travels both locally in Mumbai and further afield. The studio space itself is small, with a shelf at the front showcasing shop products, prints displayed on the walls, and a small row of computers. There’s also a little “god corner,” as Karekar terms it, where his Hindu gods sit.
At art school at the JJ school of Applied Arts Bombay, Karekar specialized in typography and then went on to work for design firm Grandmother India for two years before it closed, and moved on to working for an online company, during which time he was working more and more on his own illustration out of hours. Eventually, he made the leap: “I became my own employee,” he says. “I used my illustration strengths to complement my design work and I think that’s what I’ve been doing pretty much for the last 10 years now, and using my design work in my illustrations. Most of the identities I work on are illustration based; though I also do ‘pure’ design work.”
Locopopo has three full time staff; sometimes bringing on extra freelancers depending on the project’s needs. A typical day sees Karekar arrive around 10 a.m., diving 20 minutes from his home and attempting to avoid the hellish rush hour traffic. The studio is in the middle of Mumbai, while most commuters head to work in the south–otherwise the journey would take considerably longer. The day finishes around 7 or 8 p.m., but like any design studio, “sometimes if there’s a huge backlog of work then we stay until 10p.m.”
The staff usually all eat lunch together, and there’s a definite family feel: “All the staff know my family and I know theirs,” says Kaerkar, “so we we often go out to eat together.”
For Karekar, “the best part of being in Bombay is you get to see more cultures: it’s like a huge melting pot and there are a lot of international brands here as well as a strong local culture. All over India there’s a lot of different visual cultures: each state has its own visual culture and language, and the imagery is different for each state, the folk art is different… so there are a huge variety of styles.”
The studio hasn’t struggled to get work—“there’s definitely enough to go around”, says Karekar–but he sees Mumbai as very much in a “transition period.” Ten years ago, he says, “there were hardly any design studios.” Now there are “many,” but to him, few of these are making truly interesting work.
So what does he look for in hiring talent for his studio? “The main thing is they should be passionate about what they’re doing and ready to do hard work. Their skills should be good, but it’s more about passion and hard work. I want to see illustration capabilities—they should be able to draw or create forms or designs on their own. If I brief them on something specific, they should be able to create that on their own. They should also have a good knowledge of type.”
For the last three or four years, the studio has shifted from working on smaller, one-off illustrations for commissions such as editorial or packing work and towards more wide-ranging projects that take in brand illustration as part of a wider identity. It has also landed more consulting work, such as a project with a theater to develop its illustration stye as part of a more wide-reaching redefinition of what its brand really is. “So really my job is being an illustrator, designer, and art director,” says Karekar.
“The work always has to have the brand point of view; any illustration I make, I’ll try and incorporate those brand colors.”
A recent project Locopopo took on was for for Nilgiri Dairy, a brand with a range of products including curd, yogurt, milk, cheese, and paneer. “We developed a style very specific and iconic to the brand, so it goes on every piece of packaging and all the other touchpoints,” says Karekar. “That was a huge project: it took about a year as the whole list was very long—buttermilk, lassi, everything.”
He adds: “Brand work, for me, is an ongoing process: it can’t be it’s finished—it’s a continuous building process that relies on teamwork, not just presenting a solution to a client. They have to be open and have their own thoughts: collaborative clients are the best to work with, not just ‘give me the logo.’”
For the studio’s Art Map project, Locopop was tasked with creating a map delineating all the art galleries in south Mumbai with their opening times, contact details, and so on; as well as recommendations of local cafes, restaurants, and other places of interest. “It was a new concept as a whole here,” says Karekar.
Bombay Duck Designs (BDD) is an independent studio founded by Indian illustrator and artist Sameer Kulavoor and his sister Zeenat, who specializes in typography. Both studied at Mumbai’s Sir J J Institute of Applied Art; and the studio today combines an art-led approach with the more commercial side of its work.
Bombay Duck Designs—the name was chosen as a nod to a (confusingly named local) fish—works across music and cultural projects, publications, exhibitions, motion graphics, animation, advertising, and editorials. Its branding projects are usually heavily illustration-led, and more recently the studio has worked on larger identity projects, such as its designs for Bacardi NH7 Weekender, one of India’s biggest music festivals. Traditionally, though, it often works on smaller illustration commissions and self-initiated print pieces, and it operates a shop.
Kulavoor usually gets a cab into the office—the public transport isn’t great in Mumbai; and the traffic is mindbogglingly hectic—and the working hours are flexible, usually spanning around 10 or 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. The size of the team varies, but usually has a core staff of four, bringing in more freelancers if the project needs it.
Prior to founding Bombay Duck in 2008, Kulavoor was freelancing as an illustrator. “At that time there were very few illustrators—especially doing what I was doing, which is a mixture of graphics and illustration.” His career began working at MTV’s local office in Mumbai, a job he managed to land through a friend. Afterwards, he freelanced as an illustrator, zine-maker, and branding designer, until it seemed the best idea to formalize the operation into the Bombay Duck we now know.
BDD is based out of an attic space in a 100 year-old building, chosen for its natural light. It worked with architect Rahul Malandkar from the practice Apt to create the space it has today, which features a color palette of white, black, and grey; with touches such as bamboo curtains and print racks, as well as lightboxes that can easily be dismantled and reassembled.
The studio feels more like an art space than a clean, computer-packed design studio: it’s filled with paints, prints, brushes, and traditional tools that hint that the hand is just as important as the computer mouse when it comes to Bombay Duck projects. “Even in commercial projects, everything starts on paper,” says Zeena. “My practice has been evolving—I’m somewhere in the middle of things, between graphic design, art, and illustration,” adds Kulavoor. “I find that an interesting spot as it gives me leeway to do interesting things. I don’t like any type of labels.”
When we met, Kulavoor was working on an installation piece for the Sassoon Dock Art Project in Mumbai, and was showing his work in a gallery, as well as running the commercial side of the studio. “Being involved in multiple things keeps it exciting,” he says.
The studio’s founders both find plenty of inspiration in their home city—“the people, the crazy contrasts, the rapid changes”—and have found that in recent years such changes have meant bigger brands looking to invest in design. Its client list ranges from work with M&C Saatchi and Lufthansa airline to local banks, Red Bull, Paul Smith, and music festivals.
The studio has worked with the Bacardi-sponsored EH7 Weekender since the festival’s inception in 2010; working across print communications, signage, stage designs and backdrops and more. It’s now handed over the job to Locopopo (everyone knows everyone when it comes to design in Mumbai, it seems.)
Bacardi Weekender work by Bombay Duck Designs
“There’s enough work for everyone in Mumbai,” says Kulavoor, echoing his pal at Locopopo. “It’s a small scene, and there are lots of things happening at a smaller level. We’re seeing younger designers creating zines and putting them out into shops like Filter, Artisans, and Kultureshop.
While the approach to graphic design, and recognition of its importance, is certainly increasing in Mumbai; there’s still a sense that Indian tradition plays a significant role in its aesthetics. When Red Bull approached Bombay Duck, it commissioned the studio to create designs for limited-edition cans and packaging that looked at the idea of “celebration, not through the lens of religion, but how things are celebrated in India on a street level,” says Kulavoor. The designs feature a mouse—the “vehicle” that the god Ganesh is said to travel on in Hindu culture. They also reference a festival in Southern India where “men with large bellies paint tiger faces on them, so when they dance it’s like his face is moving,” Kulavoor explains. “It’s bizarre, but those are the things that make it special.” The can design also has a VR version that, when scanned, takes users to a microsite in which they can become part of the illustrated scene themselves.
“At the end the year a lot of festivals happen, mainly Diwali, and a lot of brands come up with celebration or special packaging,” says Zeena. “We didn’t want to make the designs for Red Bull too specific to one festival or religion, so we made it as inclusive as possible and included these elements that are referencing things spread across the whole country.”
One of the projects the studio is most proud of is its work with Paul Smith. Bombay Duck was commissioned to create drawings of local bicycles to be used on T-shirts for the brand. In India, bicycles are often customized depending on the rider’s personalities. “It’s a very Indian thing,” says Kulavoor. “We like to decorate all our stuff. The bikes’ mud flaps have slogans and so on.” Kulavoor had previously created a book showcasing this unique approach to cycling and included elements such as rubbings created from cycle logos, and sent a copy to Paul Smith, known for his love of cycling. The brand asked if they wanted to collaborate, and ended up using four of the drawings on apparel.
“I like projects that start with personal work and then get picked up by a brand,” says Kulavoor. “Those are ideal projects.”