By Sonya Rehman
In her beautiful home, furniture designer, Ghazala Rahman, talks about her love for craftsmanship and the journey that led to her furniture outlet, ‘Indesign.’
Ghazala Rahman, the woman behind the well-known furniture shop in Lahore cuts an intriguing figure. She is a dignified woman, bold in her approach to her work and her life, straightforward and rather frank.
Seated on a large, comfortable couch in her tastefully done-up lounge at her residence in Lahore, Ghazala needs no introduction. A well-established, widely recognized furniture designer in Pakistan, Ghazala’s work transformed the art of furniture within the country, leaving quite an impact on the craft.
Producing pieces and designs that have been (and are) unique and aesthetically stunning, it is little wonder then, the fact that Ghazala’s pieces were imitated by vicious competitors for years on end once she quickly gained recognition and prominence as the woman who produced furniture inspired by Mughal motifs, and colonial and pre-colonial furniture.
In addition, it is also worth noting that it was Ghazala, one sole furniture designer, who not only kickstarted a movement in Pakistan’s furniture industry, but who also aided in creating the market for furniture, paving the way for new generations of furniture designers and interior decorators within the country.
During the interview, she tells me she hasn’t given an in-depth interview in a long time, if at all. There is a touch of apprehension in her voice when she tells me this, but it soon disappears once she begins talking about the past; her college years and how she started out as a young designer back in the day.
With a degree in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts (NCA) in the city, the designer soon moved to Karachi with her husband, Rashid Rahman, where she started working at PTV as a Set Designer. “I learnt a lot during that period,” she says, stating that she worked for the channel for five years before quitting and focusing on her work – work which she churned out of her little workshop in her father’s backyard.
“Since I’d grown up in Lahore, one is always surrounded by antiquity. You absorb the motifs, the Mughal motifs; you didn’t need to go anywhere to discover all this…it was right in the city,” she states, mentioning that after the discovery of a craftsman, she began working with hand painting. “That was my forte at the time. I started making boxes, chests, etc. I started it off very quietly in my workshop. Then I had my first exhibition at Rohtas in Pindi.”
Founded in 1981, the Rohtas Gallery was established by Naeem Pasha, Suhail Abbasi and Salima Hashmi in Rawalpindi. Ghazala recalls fondly how Salima “persuaded” the designer to host an exhibition. “She’s been my mentor – she was a young teacher when I was a student. One day she said; ‘I’m taking your stuff for Rohtas,’ and I think…that was the beginning of it all.”
“I got into woodwork steadily,” the designer says, “I would love to read and discover where the influences had come from…I mean, the first and the most natural thing is the colonial period.” A lover of history, Ghazala lapped up books on furniture through the years. Once, when her husband was traveling abroad for work, she asked him to “only bring back books on furniture,” which he did – research books which Ghazala devoured.
Would it be safe to assume, then, that the designer is constantly learning her craft? “Absolutely,” the designer agrees, “As an art student I had learnt everything from the time of the cave men to modern times – so to connect art movements with furniture was like, kuch bhi nahin.”
“I don’t think I was ever really ambitious,” Ghazala says, as she reminisces about the past, “But I am an achiever if you can call me anything.”
In the early 80s, after the birth of her second son, the designer established ‘Indesign.’
“It was an instant success which took me by surprise,” states Ghazala, adding, “Everybody ran away with my designs!”
“This market was established single-handedly by me in Pakistan, and I’m not boasting,” she says, “Everybody got a hold of my pieces and started to make copies. Everybody!”
How did she combat that? “I couldn’t. I’ve never been savvy. It was leaking from my showroom, my workshop, people would walk into my house when I wasn’t here and take photographs of my pieces, there were showrooms that had opened up in Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi, in every town – my work sitting there…either they were bad copies, mediocre copies, or sort of close to my work…but it was just copies galore for years and years!”
With clients and customers from “all over” Europe and America buying her work, the designer states that she was “constantly” being robbed. “I just kept competing against my own work,” Ghazala says.
How does she deal with it now? “It’s still a problem,” she says, adding, “You know it’s a very ruthless kind of business. Because you train craftsmen – and I have trained countless, some of them are currently doing very well. In the due course of time the real skills have dried out in the market. It’s so commercial, so vast now. A lot of the carpenters have gone into construction and office furniture. No one wants to send their children to learn how to make a bloudy chair!”
Later, while walking through her house – the designer points out a quaint little chair in her bedroom. It’s a traditional-looking, fold-in chair.
“[It’s] an iconic chair – nobody even now knows this was originally an ‘indesign’ piece, because everyone had it in their home. This was the first chair I ever made. The first one I made was for Asma Jehangir – she has the first pair.”
In the dining area, she prompts me to hoist up one of her chairs at the dining table. “You know you can’t have surplus material in your furniture,” she says, pleased, when I remark how light the chair is.
Mentioning that the furniture business in Pakistan is currently “very competitive,” the designer candidly states that she doesn’t see an “inner passion” in any of the new work in the market. “The furniture isn’t saying anything to you, it’s not speaking of who made it. I think that’s what is lacking in most of the work that I see these days.”
What then should young furniture designers do to change this, I ask. “I don’t have any advice to give,” Ghazala says bluntly. “They have to discover themselves.”