Collective thinking

President-elect of the International Federation of Interior Architects and Designers (IFI) and critically-acclaimed designer, Shashi Caan talks to Selina Denman about good design, and the untapped potential of the Middle East.
Collective thinking
By Selina Denman
Sat 07 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

President-elect of the International Federation of Interior Architects and Designers (IFI) and critically-acclaimed designer, Shashi Caan talks to Selina Denman about good design, and the untapped potential of the Middle East.

Shashi Caan is a woman dedicated to design. Having worked at some of New York's most prominent design firms, before setting up the Shashi Caan Collective, her own, uniquely-structured architectural and design practice, she takes the discipline of design - stress discipline, not profession - very seriously indeed.

A recent four-year tenure as the chair of interior design at Parsons, the New School for Design, and her current role as president-elect of the IFI is ample evidence of her passion for the practice.

But throw three textiles collections, office furniture and carpet lines, and then her research, written, teaching and lecturing work into the frame and it becomes clear that she is intent on guiding the evolution of the industry.

Commercial Interior Design spoke exclusively to Caan about her work and experiences and, in light of the upcoming IFI General Assembly and Congress being held in the region, her slant on the Middle East.

How did you end up in the industry?

My entry into the design industry was something of an accident. Art and design were not a consideration for me until I turned 15 and decided that I much preferred creativity and the intuitive arts than areas concerned with a linear logic. It was then that I decided to explore the possibility of going to art school.

At that time, I couldn't even draw matchstick figures and consequently spent every spare minute of my final year at secondary school studying art and learning to draw. A year later I was accepted into the Edinburgh College of Art for my BFA, which was both a shock and a thrill.

Even then, I fully expected to study painting and drawing but, in my second year of Art College, I discovered the applied arts, which challenged and provided greater meaning to me than the fine arts. I studied printed and woven textiles, along with furniture and spatial design.

I became increasingly intrigued and concerned with the human habitable environment, which led to me studying further for a MS in Industrial Design and then a second MS in Architecture. However, designing interiors continues to be my passion today.

What do you love most about design?

I love that design could be an object or void space, as well as a process and a potential strategic outcome. I am inspired by the possibility of making an improved difference in our lives and for our wellbeing.

I love interiors most of all because when considered substantively and appropriately, with a greater focus than simply on trend and style, interiors can freshen, enliven and enhance our behaviour and activities.

These days, I am involved with helping to determine the core essence of design. I would like to see interior designers garner an equal respect and stature to the engineer, the architect and the doctor.

After a great deal of research, I now believe that interior design is to the built world as psychology is to the world of science.

While architecture and interiors have a symbiotic relationship, I believe that they are distinct and individual professions - just as a medical doctor (dealing with our physical health) is distinct from a psychologist (dealing with the emotional, perceptive and behavioural health).

To this end, we have a lot of know-ledge to identify and education to build. The process and representation of interior design also needs to be redefined.

You recently worked on a new building for the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). Did the fact that you are an alumni of the university impact the design?

Designing a very public and significant space for the ECA was an extraordinary experience. I was thrilled with the opportunity to help spatially articulate the future vision and the deep creative and intellectual heritage and legacy of my Alma Mater.

This was certainly an emotionally-charged project in as far as it challenged me to become very conscious of the adult and creative talent that I have become. I was humbled by the respect and responsibility that was given to me and our office by the ECA. What other projects have you worked on recently, and which of your projects are you most proud of?

At The Collective, we are very fortunate to have a broad diversity of work. Recent projects have included showrooms, a childcare facility, a church restoration and addition - including the church house with residential units - three carpet collections, a book on interiors which is still in the works, and a number of research projects such as ‘Spatial Color'.

We are very big proponents of research and believe that the brief given by a client requires careful listening, accurate interpretation and an augmentation with substantial design knowledge and exploration that we provide as the design experts.

I am proud of many of our projects. The flagship for Fidelity Investments in New York remained unchanged for 16 years. This proved to me that I had designed a space that the occupants were proud of and one that serviced them well.

An installation for the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, which impacted the downtown skyline and allowed for the museum to become a beacon in the city, was designed to choreograph light and movement with soft change.

This was a wonderful project that allowed for tremendous learning on my part and engaged all the citizens of the city of Pittsburg.

Each project has its own story, process and unique attributes. I am proud of all of them and look forward to the ones that are still waiting to be born.

What is your definition of good design?

Good design is layered, and supportive. When the human spirit is uplifted and piqued by the unfolding of discovery and delight, good design is present.

But, as with any of the classical arts, good design needs to be cultivated and learnt. Good design to me is not about trend or fashion but rather about smart solutions rendered with empathy and beauty.

And as with any of the future-focused technological fields, design needs to be uniquely imagined and utilises the highest skills of problem definition, solving and actualisation. Of course, it also requires a keen knowledge of the latest technologies, materials and world affairs.

How often do you see truly innovative interiors, would you say?

Most often, design elements are regurgitated and restyled. While bad (uneducated) design is abundant and there are many examples of tasteful works, true innovation is very rare in interiors.

Globally, what would you say are the greatest threats to good design?

Ignorance, or a little knowledge used under the guise of ‘good taste', is very difficult for me.

The interiors discipline, in particular, suffers from surface adornment and stylisation when, in fact, the good interior designer is someone who shapes volumes specifically to inspire appropriate feeling, while simultaneously shaping the form and function in a cohesive, conceptual and integrated manner.

I think the interiors field also often suffers from a lack of discipline in the thinking process and a depth of critical overview.

To this end, rigour, keen observation, sound analysis, smart reinterpretations and creative, imaginative solutions are core to the practice of interior design.

If there is one project in the world that you wish you could have worked on, what would it be?

While there are many built works that are inspirational to me, such as the Taj Mahal in India, La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, or Grand Central Station in New York, I am inspired by the projects and challenges that are yet to come.

How did you first become involved with the International Federation of Interior Architects and Designers (IFI)?

IFI was a chance encounter for me and is, today, a significant part of my life. I became involved when I was invited to participate in a global roundtable discussion on the ‘State of the Art of the Profession' in 2006.I was part of a team of 26 highly-trained designers, representing 12 countries from around the world. This was a fabulous conversation and a great experience.

What role can the IFI play in the development of the global design industry?

Self described as the United Nations of the interiors discipline, IFI offers the potential for the global interiors community to come together and deeply question all aspects of the discipline.

As a policy making NGO, IFI is vested in fostering dialogue and shaping the resultant policy for important current and topical issues in order to seek excellence and to raise the bar for design.

IFI has the potential to truly help unite our fractured design community and to help ask profound questions of our global quality of life.

What are your thoughts on the Middle East's design industry?

The opportunities that the Middle East has for helping to elevate interiors are enormous. The lack of preconceptions or depth of imbedded practice structures allows for the possibility of an instant elevation with the qualitative, innovative and new definitions for interiors.

The Middle East also has the resources and opportunity to become a leader in shaping more meaningful and substantial future practice.

In the mature markets, such as the US, where the interiors profession is by now 100 years old, much has been done to help to define the discipline as a comprehensive and holistic entity. There we are rethinking the discipline.

As interior design matures around the world, many countries are considering the substance, content and the professionalisation of this practice.

The Asians, for instance, are doing some very interesting investigation with a view to rethinking and re-establishing interiors from a uniquely Asian point of view. I think this is important to do.

As we know, design is shaping the economies of major cities around the globe. I believe the Middle East has an untapped potential and a unique cultural viewpoint. I look forward to witnessing the actualisation of this potential in the Middle East in the near future.

Why is this a fitting location for the next IFI General Assembly?

Dubai is exotic, sophisticated and has enormous potential to truly help move interiors practice and awareness to fresh heights. This is an exciting time.

What challenges can APID expect to face in the coming months?

I believe the greatest challenge for any member country is to remain mindful of the fact that the IFI constituency is a global one. As you know, IFI's member body consists of national associations and institutions. Individuals as such cannot become a member of IFI.

Therefore, with 70 national members in 45 countries, participants will come from many markets and with their own expertise. It is possible that the issues that may be at the forefront in Dubai may have been cleverly dealt with in another country/city.

Considering the content to truly reflect latest and greatest critical thinking for the interiors discipline as a whole and around the world is essential for the greatest success of an IFI supported congress.

The second challenge, which requires an equally sharp focus, is on the word discipline rather than profession. There are growing numbers of people who hold PhDs in interiors around the globe.

These individuals are not interested in the practice of interiors but rather wish to move the research base to a depth that will allow the interiors expertise to become richer and comparable to other scientific fields.

These participants need to be addressed, along with the educators, who also come as strong experts offering unique perspectives. Therefore the congress is a great opportunity to question broadly and find stimulation in diversity. Most often, the professional organisers forget these specialised participants and as a result they witness disappointment and criticism.

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