Rukminee Guha Thakurta

Photography by Kartik Vijay

Rukminee Guha Thakurta

Can you take me through your journey in design over the years?  
I studied Graphic Design at NID, chose to work with print and tried my hand at everything from newspaper design, exhibitions and identities to books and magazines. I love the printing process: the smell of paper and printing inks at the press, and watching images form with each impression of the four-colour process. Perhaps because of this and my love of words, I end up with more book and magazine projects. Circumstances also led me to SteidlVerlag in Germany where I got to be a part of the best of all of the above, and ever since I’ve been known as a book designer. But I’d call myself a graphic designer really. At my studio, Letterpress, I work on all kinds of print-related projects.

What inspires your design aesthetic? 
My design aesthetic probably has a bit to do with my nature: excess and fuss make me uncomfortable. My instinct, always, is to pare things down to the clearest, tidiest unit; which is an exercise that takes a bit of work actually. I strongly believe that less is more.

Tell me about some of the books, publications, magazines, galleries and artists that have had a significant impact on you as you worked on, or with, them. 
I spent a month travelling and documenting the crafts of Chhattisgarh for The Handbook of Handicrafts early in my life as a designer. It opened my eyes to the brilliance of the Indian craftsperson: their use of local materials and how they seamlessly blend in functionality with stories.
A very memorable project while I was at Steidl was a book I made with John Cohen. A musician himself, Cohen had an archive of photographs of Bob Dylan and other musicians of the 60s that he had shot over the years. It was incredible to edit those with him and listen to the back stories as we looked through photographs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan and others; all friends of Cohen’s. 
Then, working on a book with Dayanita Singh is an exercise in rigour: we go back and forth and round and around till a subliminal meaning is found for everything…it’s part of the same paring process I mentioned earlier.

Is art design and design, art? How do you view the relationship between the two, and between the medium of Print?
Design as a socially responsible job [and not garnish], has a clear mandate to communicate, solve ambiguous problems, create order and make things work. It also has to look at scales in production. Art is a bit harder to pin down: unlike in design, usability and function are not central to art. It encompasses a vast gamut of human expression. Yet, for hands-on practitioners of any discipline, one must have the ability to see things in detail and from afar, and then work things out depending on the context.

Take us behind the ground scenario of book designing in the country—how far have we come and how far are we yet to go? 
Book design is a unique process because it is often a collaboration between an artist and the designer. It’s a bit like the composer who writes the music and the conductor who interprets it and gives it shape. It’s usually a long and expensive but rewarding process. Though we don’t come close to producing the number of high quality books that I see in, say, Japan or Germany, I was led to so many different practices around books when I curated a show on books at Chatterjee and Lal last year. It was evident that there is a tremendous interest in books. And contrary to what our preoccupation with smartphones may lead us to believe, there are significant numbers who like to look, read, touch and feel books.

What are the biggest challenges of your profession, and what, according to you, is the biggest need of the hour? 
We live in an age of inequality and diminishing resources. As designers we need to not only create awareness and affect social change, we also need to stop contributing to mindless consumption, which we do by flooding the market with unnecessary products. Sustainability and responsibility have to be a part of design practice.

What are you currently working on and what is next?
I am working on a book of a large Indian art collection outside the country and other print-related projects including an identity. What I’d really like, is to simultaneously focus on self-motivated projects. The areas that interest me currently are storytelling and education. A short story of mine in collaboration with Nityan Unnikrishnan was recently published in a graphic novel anthology and I am working on writing more. I am also keen to explore design education for children: I’d like to design short modules for local schools with a focus on material culture and local skills. 

Text Soumya Mukerji