New Thai Style & Sar: The Essence of Indian Design

by Kim Inglis, Laurence King, £29.95 (hardcover) / by Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma, Phaidon, £49.95 (hardcover)

By Nirmala Devi

New Thai Style is a trawl through a selection of private homes, hotels and resorts in a search of some perfect fusion of tradition and innovation that apparently constitutes luxury living in Thailand today. Sar (which means ‘essence’ in Hindi) is an index of 200 relatively everyday objects (most of them new, but a few of them a century or so old) that tell us about the nature of Indian design and Indian life. Both picturebooks (the objects in Sar are photographed through the kind of lascivious lens that normally captures food porn for cookbooks), you might say, are throwaway publications. The kind of thing you buy as a present for someone you don’t know or as a holiday souvenir to get rid of your last bits of currency at the airport (although you’d need a lot of leftover currency to buy Sar). So why review them? Because in many ways both books are founded on a contradictory ‘methodology’ that is creeping into global art culture.

So why review them? Because in many ways both books are founded on a contradictory ‘methodology’ that is creeping into global art culture

At the same time as they propose to offer an insight into something that is innate (to the Thai-ness or Indian-ness of buildings or objects), both books seek to offer something that is transferrable (the point of these books – presumably – is that the reader too can acquire the essential components of Thai-ness or Indian-ness). In both books therefore (or in an exhibition), every object has a meaning that is inherently related to the context of its production (which is why you need an expert – an author or curator – to guide you through it), but a meaning that it can nevertheless carry with it, regardless of the context in which it is displayed (otherwise why would you be interested in the book or exhibition). Hence, in New Thai Style we get a peek into a garden with some unspecified (but seemingly temple-style) ‘reproduction stone carving’, or a living room full of similarly unspecified scatter rugs accompanied by sofa sets and cushions ‘sourced from Jim Thompson’. The last is a company set up by the eponymous American entrepreneur who (except for the fact that he is long dead) perhaps represents the New Thai Style dream: his former home, assembled from six traditional Thai houses bought from around the country and then assembled into a new whole during the late 1950s, is now a museum. Out of the dream and back in the book, we end up with sentences like this one: ‘Thai style has always been permeable to outside influences and it may be this combination of time-honoured traditions and new styles… that makes contemporary Thai design so attractive.’ So, the essence of ‘new’ Thai style is attractive because it doesn’t have to be Thai style? Hey, I can achieve that!

Meanwhile, in Sar, we learn that ‘new’ Indian design is about the opposite: ‘a new confidence to look inside the country for inspiration rather than outside it’. None of which explains what a relatively standard pressure cooker is doing here. Or a roti press (which looks exactly the same as a hamburger press), accompanied by a text that claims that the press ‘means’ that you no longer need to use a rolling pin for roti or chapatti-making, and looks forward to the release of the fully automated Rotimatic which will take care of the whole roti-making business from bag of flour to finished product on plate. OK, perhaps I’m being unfair to the pressure cooker here. The authors of Sar do hint at the fact that it might represent something important about how India was exploited (first as a result of compulsion, then of addiction) during the colonial era and beyond as a market for British-made goods: indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century Indians were the biggest purchasers of the stuff. But that story has very little to do with the ostensible subject here: the pressure cooker’s design – even if, as the authors, an artist/curator and a fashion designer, presumably do, you consider it to be the result of an act of appropriation. The problem here is that if you claim, as the authors of Sar do (and as many curators of international art exhibitions also do), to be looking at these objects ‘free of an ethnographic lens’ and in terms of their aesthetics alone (that which makes these objects transferable) you are either forced to abandon some of what made them essential or significant in the first place (as is the case with New Thai Style’s mysterious ‘reproduction’ sculptures); or to resort to the ethnography you proposed to abandon – for the authors of Sar the function of the Damroo stool (named for its drum-shape) ‘is integral to the Indian way of life of spontaneous gatherings’.

In the end, I’m not saying that either of these books pretends to be anything that it is not. But both, in different ways, highlight the inherent tensions surrounding the (re)presentation of distinct cultures in a globalised world.

This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia.