Designing the Future of Design: An Interview with Kumar Vyas by Victoria Lautman

Sketch of an eight petalled lotus, the inspiration for Vyas' design of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. Image Courtesy of Kumar Vyas.

“What do we mean by education?” “What is design?” “Can design be taught?”

These were some of the questions a small group of innovative pioneers - huddled in the attic of Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra museum - asked themselves when they set about creating what would become the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, India’s first design school. The year was 1962, and not only were there no designers in the country, the profession of design, for Indians, simply did not exist.

One of these pioneers - who would head the industrial design department, help formulate the school’s curriculum, and train its faculty members - was Kumar Vyas. Born in 1929, Vyas remained at NID for three decades, and continues to work from his office on the campus he helped create. His numerous articles and books were essential to establishing India’s current design-rich environment; two years ago, he received the prestigious Sir Misha Black Medal for Excellence in Design Education.

Vyas’ experience designing a design education is not only a fascinating journey, but also a source of inspiration - if architecture education took Vyas’ lessons to heart, and re-examined itself from square one, how would it be different? Read Victoria Lautman’s interview with Vyas after the break, and tell us what you think in the comments below.

Excerpts from Victoria Lautman’s interview (a longer version of this interview was originally published in The Hindu) :

What was the state of design in India when you decided to head the Industrial Design programme at NID?

There were no designers and no design profession as recognised today, separate from the glorious tradition of master craftsmen and handwork production. And of course there were no other design schools in the country. These were just some of the obstacles we confronted in creating NID, but it was a very exciting time.

Describe the process of designing a design school.

When I arrived in Ahmedabad in 1962, a small group of us met almost daily to brainstorm in the attic of Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra museum, across the street from what became the NID campus. Gautam Sarabhai presided over the meetings and was an extremely effective leader, telling us to start with a blank slate, with nothing on paper. Then he’d direct the discussions with questions like “what do we mean by education?” or “what is design?” and “can design be taught?” It was through this outside-the-box process that our ideas gradually formed, and became the foundation of NID education.

But it was extremely difficult, since we had no pattern of education to follow. What we were attempting was completely unheard of in India, starting with the core concept of “learning-by-doing”, similar to the Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design, two of the world’s most influential design programmes whose systems we examined. We decided from the start that NID students would have continual contact with the industrial world outside, including the crafts industry, and that they’d participate in designing objects, messages, and spaces of everyday use. That was an entirely new concept. Now it prevails everywhere.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, designed by Kumar Vyas. Image Courtesy of Kumar Vyas.

Who else was in that attic with you?

The regulars included Gautam’s sister Gira, who had trained as an architect and was very involved in the meetings. Dashrath Patel was the only other “working” designer besides me, who established NID’s ceramic and photography programmes, and later, one for exhibition design. And There was also James Prestini, a renowned professor at Berkeley, and Gautam’s brother Vikram, who pioneered space research in India. There were several faculty members from the Indian Institute of Management, which had just opened.

How big a role did the famous 1958 India Report, by American designers Charles and Ray Eames, play?

The India Report was itself very stimulating. While it became a guide for us, we didn’t depend on it. It was more a way to articulate what design meant for India rather than a blueprint for education.

How did you find faculty for such a revolutionary programme?

That was a problem. We actively sought them out but, in India, our only resources were graduates of colleges of Applied Arts or Arts and Crafts schools that were British colonial holdovers, or the colleges of Engineering and Architecture. Whoever came on board would have to be open to these new, somewhat radical, ideas. If we accepted graduates from these other disciplines, we had to train them further in the hope that some would emerge as teachers for NID. We put them through various programmes; essentially “trained the trainers,” paying a stipend while they learned. Several went to Europe for further education, and by the end of 1969 we’d graduated over 60 faculty trainees, of which 25 were absorbed as teachers. The rest worked as India’s first generation of design professionals or educators. It wasn’t until 1969 that we solicited our first “real” students.

How many in that first class?

Only 30, with five disciplines: product design, ceramics, furniture, textiles, and graphic design. More disciplines were added later, but even after the student population grew we kept the teacher/student ratio at 1:15 per discipline.

Image of the NID Campus © Victoria Lautman

And the teaching style?

It was a departure from the traditional format — no teacher at the top, feeding information and knowledge down to the students. Gautam specifically encouraged a form of partnership, with faculty sharing their experience while also learning alongside the students. Through Gautam’s international contacts, we targeted top design professionals to teach or create workshops for a few months or a year, which also helped formulate the programme. Early on, we had some major design projects to work on, like the furniture and tableware for the New York World’s Fair Indian restaurant, and the large Nehru exhibition that opened in London. For that, the whole school worked beside Charles and Ray Eames. It was fantastic.

Does the footprint of those early days still exist?

It’s grown into a much bigger institution and gone through many changes. Some I can appreciate, others I feel could be corrected. There’s such concern for the number of students applying and attending, but I have always felt that playing a numbers game isn’t in anyone’s best interests. Having the right faculty was essential to us then, and should continue to be essential now.

You can read the original article, with more interview questions, at The Hindu

Victoria Lautman is a print and broadcast journalist from Chicago with an MA in art history. She writes frequently on the arts, architecture and design, with a current focus on India, where she often travels for research. Her website is

About this author
Cite: Victoria Lautman. "Designing the Future of Design: An Interview with Kumar Vyas by Victoria Lautman" 30 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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