Creative director, spatial designer, stylist, and event designer Priyanka Shah believes in putting out creations that stir an emotion in the viewer, even if it’s surprise and disgust. The Mumbai-based designer has a background in graphic design—including stints at Alok Nanda and Company and multi-disciplinary studio Grandmother Design—but has now given herself over to explore dynamic ideas that defy disciplines. “I guess it’s about the approach and whatever the medium, it just follows,” she says. Only two years after starting Studio Lalala, her often-witty, distinct, off-kilter creations have earned her a place as the contributing editor at Architectural Digest—and as a young creative who is leaving a mark on contemporary Indian lifestyle and culture. Here, we talk to her about her collaboration with November Noon, and how it took her to Bijoy Jain’s home-cum-workshop, Studio Mumbai.
You don many hats. You’re an art director, a set designer, and a fantasy botanist. How would you describe your journey?
II started as a graphic designer—that’s what I did for 7 years until I became tired of working on softwares like Illustrator. So I decided to work on a passion project with botanical sculptures, where I essentially design plants. These can now be bought as Limited Edition Art Prints. Slowly, the project gained attention and brands started asking me if I could create the same for them. One thing led to another and there I was art directing shoots. That’s when I started Studio Lalala, a Creative Studio where we indulge in various disciplines like Creative Direction, Styling, Visual Merchandising, Event Design, and Spatial Design. I guess it’s about the approach and whatever the discipline or outcome may be, it just follows.
How did you navigate the design industry without giving up on your authenticity?
I think people are influenced by what they see on the Internet. I’m not saying I’m not. But you must use the internet to help open up your mind and not restrict yourself to what you see. Creating your path is extremely unnerving, but I have taken it as a challenge to follow my gut and discover my innate creative aesthetic. This process started with the Fantasy Botanicals. When I started the project, I had no reference point, so the only option was to follow my instinct. Since then, it’s been an extremely thrilling and often anxiety-inducing journey where I’m constantly exploring myself and the world around me
In a lot of your work, you’ve pushed the limits of what still-life can look like. It seems unhinged, idiosyncratic, and sometimes has a slice of humour to it. What inspires you?
Once we receive a brief from the client, we deconstruct it entirely, question every aspect of it: What? Why? How? And hopefully, bring in a new perspective. It’s like stripping away all the learned meanings attached to objects, spaces, concepts; and then rebuilding them from scratch. I truly believe that when we see good design, it should move us or stir up an emotion. My go-to emotions that I’d like my audience to experience are surprise and disgust. After having worked on commercial projects for several years, I grew tired of making everything look so perfect. I started finding beauty in the regular, the broken, and the decaying.
You work at Architectural Digest (AD) as a contributing editor, which seems like such a great fit. Tell us a bit about it.
The first time I met Greg, the former editor of AD, we discussed some ideas which got him so excited, he asked me to execute them. I wanted to stack furniture like I was stacking fruits; imagine a bed on top of a chair on top of a stool. The magazine had never done something like that. They were excited and they took a leap of faith in me. So glad he did. We had a good working relationship. I was quite surprised when he called me to become the contributing editor. The magazine allowed me to explore my ideas and they’re receptive to them.
You also created the recent campaign for November Noon (NN). The compositions are rich, elegant and offer familiarity to the viewer. Take us through it?
One of the great things about the brief was that I had a free hand in doing what I wanted. I enjoy looking at things sculpturally. And, that is one thing that I tried to create through these compositions. The concept was very interesting of how people are living in isolation due to the pandemic. I liked how they were not trying to paint a rosy picture, but instead highlighting the truth of how things are. That is how I perceive the world around me and find beauty in the mundane. We tried to recreate those moments through sculptures.
The setting for the images is a mid-century home by architect Bijoy Jain. How familiar are you with his work?
I’ve been following his work for a while and like everyone, I’m a big fan. We were quite excited when we managed to get the space for the shoot. I think the values of the brand juxtaposed with Bijoy’s work is familiar yet unexpected.
Much like you, Bijoy’s work defies limitations. His art, for instance, looks at the fusion of materials and ideas. Does that inspire you as a creator?
Absolutely. Much like how he questions tradition with modernity, I do too. I am always looking at how I can use quotidian materials, and produce objects in a novel manner to defy limitations. I often forage around the city streets, local markets, and my mother’s garden for raw material and inspiration. Across my work, I have used oranges, bananas, and jackfruit and you’d often not realise it at first glimpse. I like to challenge the viewer because you’re seeing known materials in a new light.
He often describes his work as a practice—calls it a “discipline of doing architecture every day.” How do you interpret that?
I certainly agree. Design is a part of everyday life. I started making Fantasy Botanicals as a 100-day project. The idea is to upload one botanical daily. It was a great way to have the creative freedom to dream up a new plant but also the discipline of showing up and doing it daily. Along the way, it led to bigger and exciting things. The project is now an ongoing process that is shaped by the people I meet along the way and the experiences I’ve had.
Is there any other work by Bijoy that particularly stands out for you?
Of all his works, I’ve experienced only Studio Mumbai and I think it’s mesmerizing. It’s a moment of calm in the Bombay bustle. One time during the shoot, as I walked through the corridor, I saw Bijoy sitting in the far corner, eating his meal. To see him occupy the space he has designed, there was something human, real, humbling about it.
Let’s talk about clothes. You’ve made them look elegant in a manner that’s personal and intimate. What was your first encounter like?
I like how the silhouettes are so contemporary and the way they’ve married them with fabrics that one is used to seeing in traditional saris.
Is there a garment you loved working with?
Honestly, I enjoyed working with all the outfits. The fabrics and fits were so beautiful that even if they were draped on a chair the fall was great! If I was to pick one, it would be the scarves. They allowed me a lot of room to play around. I think my favourite image has to be the one where the scarves are wrapped around a pot.
And, a piece that resonates with your style?
I like this printed bustier in yellow that I shot with for the campaign. Also, the bustier suspended mid-air with the rest of the sculpture is my favourite look from the campaign. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
What are your key takeaways from this project?
I think it was exciting for me to see the people that came together for the project. I had been wanting to work with AnaiBharucha, the photographer. When I was presented with the brief, I could see her style fit in with what we were trying to achieve. Or even the concept that was put together with Now Form. I’m so glad this happened and I'm looking forward to creating more magic with November Noon.