The works of 31 year old Sameer Kulavoor, visual artist and founder of design studio Bombay Duck Designs, often fiercely cut through the bones of urban India to capture its soul. The quintessential self-initiated publication projects like The Ghoda Cycle Project, Oh Flip, Zeroxwalah Zine and Blued Book are keenly observed minutiae about the makeshift and inventive side of urban India, peppered with personal notes and bursting with raw energy.
And his works are now available in Paper Planes’ e-store. To mark this charming development, we decided to meander with Sameer Kulavoor into some of the interesting bylanes of his work and life. Read on:
As we find ourselves in childhood memory lanes, we realize that seeds of creativity were sown quite early in Sameer’s life. One of his neighbors in Borivali in Bombay, where he grew up, was an art and design teacher at a school. “I used to be really fascinated by her drawings. And when she was moving away, she gifted me this old diary in which I religiously started making drawings and putting dates on them.” According to him, the drawings might have been bad but the whole experience really triggered his affinity towards art.
His family has been supportive of his creative endeavors throughout. In the early years, when his father got a glimpse into Sameer’s artistic pursuits, he started taking him to Jehangir Art Gallery in town (South Bombay) during the weekends. Interestingly, a lot of memories and impressions from town from his childhood days and his college time have been imprinted into many of Sameer’s works.
Joining JJ School of Art & Architecture post studying at Sydenham College was a big move for Sameer. Here is where he finally started understanding how large the world of design and its potential were. Among various other application techniques at JJ, he learnt the usage of colors, an important theme in his work. He uses colors in a symbolic way, and only when they add some meaning to his creations. Ghoda Cycle (which visually documents various uses of cycle for livelihoods in India), for example, has a very interesting use of colors where only certain parts are highlighted in color on top of the overall B&W layout. In this phase, Sameer has also made cartoons for the youth magazine JAM, and had a stint with Hungama Digital to do flash animation. And he had a brief stint with the digital agency BC Webwise where he was heading the animation department.
Post JJ, he started doing a lot of advertising work. A campaign he worked on for Heinz Ketchup (for Umbrella Design) at that time was instrumental in opening up a lot of advertising doors. Another campaign on Gillette for Raj Kamble at the ad agency BBDO in New York gave him recognition in the international circles. The campaign won a D&AD award and Luhrzers Archive in 2007 declared Sameer one of the top 200 illustrators in the world. Around this time, he was also working with the motion graphics team at MTV under creative director Piyush Raghani who gave an ample amount of creative freedom to Sameer.
This was the time when Sameer had a lot of success; however, there was a lurking feeling that he still hadn’t found his calling. “Expectations in advertising were very weird. People were simply following trends. Like at one point, clay animation was a trend that everyone wanted to ride on. And I wanted to do different things and push boundaries.”
By 2008, dissatisfaction was looming large like a cloud that would lead to a hurricane, and thankfully a trip to the UK to see Pearl Jam live in concert proved to be quite effective in figuring out what new direction Sameer could now take. While in UK, he also saw a lot of publication work in London which influenced him a lot. “I really like the publication format. And I realized that people weren’t doing much of it in India, and the existing work was too coffee-table style and overly polished for my taste. For me, a book needs to have that handmade quality like it’s actually been crafted by the author’s hands. Publication, as a format, was also a good way to put down multiple ideas.”
He came back and his inspiration took a concrete form and emerged as Bombay Duck Designs. 2008 to 2010 were the basis of the three main publications- Ghoda Cycle, Zeroxwalah and Blued. Along with the books, he was still doing ad projects, but at a much lower pace, and illustrations for various magazines including Vogue, GQ and Rolling Stones.
The first book, Ghoda Cycle, received a great reception which later resulted in a collaborative project with fashion designer Paul Smith. “I definitely wasn’t expecting that kind of response. I never approach my work thinking about the outcome. It is always about that raw impulse that ‘I have an idea and I need to get it out of my system by executing it’.” He confesses that self publishing Ghoda Cycle was technically not a sensible thing to do then as it made absolutely no commercial sense. He instinctively still went ahead and created 250 copies by pooling in money from his freelance projects. One of the copies reached Paul Smith’s office as Sameer really admires his style of work. Smith approached him to create a series of t-shirts based on the book. The collaboration was a runaway success, and people started recognizing Sameer as one of the most talented and original contemporary visual artists of the country.
Collaboration has been a big part of the way Sameer works. The key examples include the Paul Smith-Ghoda Cycle association; 100% Zine publication that he works on with Lokesh Karekar, founder, Locopopo Design; collaboration with actress Kalki Koechlin for the Mumbai Katalyst collection for Kulture Shop and collaboration in the studio itself with his sister Zeenat Kulavoor who specializes in Typography. “The crux of any collaboration is the respect you have for each other’s work. People I work with fortunately have respect for my work and vice versa, otherwise it would never work. Lokesh, for example, has been a batchmate and we have seen each other’s work change and evolve so much over the years. We share a comfort level and really respect each other’s opinions,” he says.
His most signature work, annual music festival NH7 Weekender, is also a result of a collaboration based on trust and respect. Vijay Nair, co-founder of OML, the company behind Weekender, was Sameer’s batchmate at Sydenham. “We would often bunk classes and go to his house to listen to the latest bands. Over the years, we manage to keep in touch on and off.” When the first NH7 took off in 2010, Vijay got Sameer involved in an informal way.
The first Weekender was a rushed experience for Sameer, however, his various observations during the first edition resulted in planning for the next year. In 2011, he plunged deep into it, giving the festival its unique and much lauded identity, packaging and design. After many successful Weekenders, things between Vijay Nair and Sameer still remain vivaciously casual. They find a “shady” bar to discuss the basic ideas first before putting the actual plans on paper for execution.
Taking a turn towards this year, we find that Bombay Duck Designs launched the second edition of Blued Book, among other projects. Blued is an interesting publication that captures one of the biggest makeshift creative solutions or jugaad in urban India- the use of tarpaulin (taad-patri) as a cover against the rains. It is a ubiquitous sight during the monsoons, especially in Mumbai. The book was also a result of Sameer’s fascination with spaces and architecture. “I am quite intrigued by the whole problem solution perspective when it comes to spaces. Like in Blued Book, I wanted to show the creative side of India - how monsoon is the problem and taad-patri is its solution.” He has also just finished his next project – Kala Ghoda Musings, slated to officially release this coming Sunday at Kulture Shop.
From exploring and pouring India into his books, Sameer this year has moved to capturing our neighbour country Pakistan. For the Chennai-based publication house Tara Books, he is working on an illustration storybook based on the enormously intricate hand painted truck art in Pakistan. This is yet another example of a collaborative project as the truck art is coming from the actual truck artists in Pakistan, which will be placed in the context created by Sameer who is amalgamating web based references and his own imagination to create the spreads.
Now that he has fairly established himself in the local and global visual art scene, has he also evolved a design philosophy of his own? He says that there is no philosophy as such but a spare and reductive approach has been consistent in his work. He says that there are no “unwanted elements” in his work, as he likes to keep things precise and simple.
Another theme that’s been an integral part of his work over the years is the idea of creating things by hands as much as possible, a tough feat to achieve in today’s outrageously digital world. But this is probably what has played a huge role in making his work so exquisitely unique. This handmade approach is quite intrinsic in his life beyond work too, and is amply present in various forms in his newly done up modern apartment in Parel, which is discerningly contained, and consciously wrapped up in an old world charm.
While he is quite unequivocal about his approach to work, does he feel creatively satisfied at this point in his life? The answer is a vehement no. He still likes to juggle between various formats and instantly move from one project to another. “Ultimately it all boils down to the fact that I get bored very easily. Tomorrow I might do something completely different, a gallery show may be. I am open to everything,” he says before we take a 20-minute ride from his residence to his studio in Mazgaon, an old quaint neighbourhood in Mumbai, to see some of his new works in the making.You can now but a copy of The Ghoda Cycle Project, Oh Flip, Blued Book and 100% Zine on our online store here. Also available In Store now Kalaghoda Musings, a limited edition art print of 300 copies signed and stamped by Sameer.