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On an industrial estate near Mumbai’s airport, a team of international architects and designers have found a way of alchemizing the city’s chaotic spirit into something crisp, context-driven and beautiful.

Mumbai is a city that requires some measure of humor to survive. It’s a place that fills you with optimism and the sense that you are in a rising part of the world, but it’s also bursting with frustrations and creative subversions of the law. It has a brand of maddening chaos all its own.

“If you can’t accept and adapt and go with that flow, you are constantly going to be frustrated,” says Samuel Barclay, an American architect. We’re sitting in the Case Design studio, an architecture and design practice he co-founded with Dutch architect Anne Geenen, inside an industrial complex in north Mumbai, beside a factory producing auto parts and a workshop making plastic cups.

The studio suggests its own version of organized chaos. In the back room, carpenters and designers are at work creating miniature models of their projects to show at the Venice Biennale. Outside, an architect is studying the topography of a hillside in Indonesia, where Case Design is building a guest-house. Geenen is making herself a cup of coffee. Barclay has just arrived, a motorcycle helmet in the crook of one elbow and his shirt drenched in sweat. “If you can actually see the chaos as an opportunity for a different way to work,” Barclay continues, “then there are so many possibilities that immediately open up.” Barclay and Geenen describe Case Design’s architecture, design and interior projects as “a practice committed to exploring the design process through acts of making.” I’m here to understand what that means.

At Case Design, every sketch, model, mock-up or piece of furniture is the product of an argument. I’m sitting on a wooden folding chair that was originally designed for a small cafe that doubled as a performance space. The chair went through numerous rounds of edits, mostly taking place over WhatsApp, and then at least 10 real-life versions. The final product incorporates the carpenter’s suggestion to use traditional Indian joinery and the designer’s idea to make a felt seat. “Everything becomes an opportunity for a conversation so that whatever is being discussed becomes better, but it also becomes an inclusive process that allows everybody to contribute their knowledge and feel invested in it,” Barclay says.

Barclay moved to India in 2006, soon after graduating from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, to work with the architectural practice Studio Mumbai. By the time Barclay left that job, seven years later, he was managing director. Geenen, who studied at the University of Technology in Delft, had also briefly worked with Studio Mumbai and had heard about Barclay from carpenters she admired. At the time, in the midst of the global economic downturn and the daunting prospect of spending the winter in Europe, she was looking for a reason to stay in India. One evening, she cold-called Barclay. Four years later, they are the type of partners that finish each other’s sentences.

  • Words:
    Mansi Choksi
  • Photography:
    Ariel Huber

Their first project together in 2013, as the newly minted Case Design, was a not-for-profit residential school for young women in Pune, a town outside Mumbai. The school was to be built on farmland, with a budget that more established practices would have considered laughable. “The challenge was to try to find solutions, despite limitations, to try to add something to the environment for students who would spend so much time there,” Geenen says.

They decided to create buildings that were essentially concrete frames, planned around airy courtyards, walkways and terraces. The emphasis was on designing spaces that were economical, but that would feel familiar to the students, many of whom would be living away from home for the first time. The floors were a mosaic made from scrap stone that the women would instantly recognize as something that they had seen in their own home, or in an aunt’s or an uncle’s. Cubbies outside classrooms were built from a stone that is considered so low-brow that it is deemed fit for use only in hidden-away parts of Indian homes. The verandas were interspersed with charpoys, light bedsteads that are a fixture across rural India, so the space could turn into informal living rooms.

The school project became a learning experience for Barclay and Geenen. “I kept calling my carpenter, asking about the progress on the charpoys. I said, ‘At least send me a picture. I need to know that the charpoys are going to arrive on time,’” Barclay says. “Between my bad Hindi and his English, I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long.” Finally, only days before the opening, a photo popped up on Barclay’s phone. The charpoys were now strapped to the back of a public bus and were ready for dispatch. “I said, ‘Why did it take so long?’ And he says, ‘The strings [which are strung across the bed frame] were being woven from torn saris.’ When the men become too old to travel to job sites, they still want to do carpentry, but they do it from home. They sit together in somebody else’s courtyard and weave these charpoys.”

Barclay becomes thoughtful as he talks about the rich and complicated personal histories that became woven into these pieces of furniture. “I’m not trained to think of charpoys as being an acceptable aesthetic. That’s not what architecture school teaches you,” he says. “But now I think it is a beautiful aesthetic. Right out of school, I would have made something sleek and cool and modern and completely inappropriate.”

This philosophy that a building, home or a piece of furniture should carry a sense of time and place is apparent throughout Case Design’s projects. Within four years, Case Design expanded to the Middle East, Africa and South-east Asia, building structures in each location that would feel like they belonged there. In Zanzibar, Tanzania, they are building guest houses from a coral limestone that is ubiquitous across the island. In Hatta, United Arab Emirates, they are building a house from the soil on which it sits. And in Bali, Indonesia, they are building a home with bamboo.

The Mumbai apartment of wire mesh manufacturer Deven Shah and his wife, Bhavana, is an elegant example of Case Design’s principles at work. The project began one evening in 2014: Geenen was working out of Barclay’s living room, when a stranger showed up at the door, out of breath. He kept asking for Barclay in Hindi, one ear attached to a cell phone. Finally, he thrust the phone at Geenen. On the other end of the line, Shah told her that he was looking for Barclay. He wanted him to design his home. Barclay and Geenen had three months to turn around a fully furnished apartment that had been ripped down to the floor.

When I walk into this apartment (pictured), I feel what it means to breathe a sense of belonging into a space. Today this home maps the histories, interests and aspirations of Deven and Bhavana. A picture-hanging system is mounted on the ceiling throughout the house so that Bhavana, a painter, can display her glorious art collection. There are Japanese-style sliding cupboard doors that include panels made from Deven’s wire mesh fabric. The unpainted walls are plastered with nothing except cement, lime and marble powder because the couple wanted the house to feel more natural and less sterile. “Does it look like the photos?” Bhavana asks. “Because, you know, living here is a dream.”

For Case Design, the simplicity and harmony of the apartment was the natural result of the personalization they aim to bring to every project. “We try to respond to the forces that are inherent in a context,” Barclay says. “And then we adapt,” Geenen adds.

CASEGOODS
by Harriet Fitch Little

In 2016, Case Design spun its architectural practice into a ready-made product line. Casegoods (by happy coincidence, the term is a synonym for hard furnishings in American English) comprises a range of lamps and furniture conceived by lead designer Paul Michelon. Items range in size from a conference-length table topped with thick marble, to the small, playful Rolling Round Light and a set of gently hollowed-out bowls carved from reclaimed rosewood, mahogany and teak. Attention to patination and grain is a signature across the otherwise diverse range.

  • Words:
    Mansi Choksi
  • Photography:
    Ariel Huber

CASEGOODS
by Harriet Fitch Little

In 2016, Case Design spun its architectural practice into a ready-made product line. Casegoods (by happy coincidence, the term is a synonym for hard furnishings in American English) comprises a range of lamps and furniture conceived by lead designer Paul Michelon. Items range in size from a conference-length table topped with thick marble, to the small, playful Rolling Round Light and a set of gently hollowed-out bowls carved from reclaimed rosewood, mahogany and teak. Attention to patination and grain is a signature across the otherwise diverse range.

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