Phantom Hands, which is run as a collective, supports a network of over 50 artisans, and pieces from the company’s ‘Project Chandigarh’ have now found patrons across the world, from upmarket co-working spaces in New York to former cricketer Brett Lee.
When the modernist architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret or Le Corbusier set out to build Chandigarh, India’s first modern city, in 1951, he decided to get his cousin and fellow architect, the reticent Pierre Jeanneret, along to work with him. If Le Corbusier created Chandigarh in his head, it was Jeanneret, a former collaborator with his cousin on prestigious projects in pre-WWII Europe, who brought them to life, with bricks, stone and reinforced concrete. “In Chandigarh, Pierre Jeanneret had the thankless task of supervising, step by step, the creation of the new capital city, of sticking to the plans and carrying them through when the path was difficult and strewn with obstacles. I am very appreciative of it and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” said Le Corbusier of his cousin.
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Jeanneret, who was appointed Chief Architect of Chandigarh and whose ashes were strewn in Lake Sukhna after his death in 1967, also designed several categories of government housing, but today he is more known for the furniture he created for Le Corbusier’s ideal city. Desks, ‘judge’ chairs, easy chairs, library chairs, lamps: Furniture designed by Jeanneret, mostly out of teak and rosewood, populated Chandigarh’s new government buildings. And there they remained until the turn of the 20th century when they were discarded in heaps or sold as scrap by the authorities. Sharp antique dealers in the West got wind of the disregard for cultural heritage, acted rapidly and soon enough, the simple, minimalist and elegant ‘Chandigarh’ furniture found a place in the homes of the wealthy in New York, London and Paris, and at auctions where individual pieces were, and still are, sold for tens of thousands of dollars. In June last year, in New York, the London-based auction house Phillips sold three pieces of Jeanneret-designed furniture for Rs 1.12 crore. Nearly a decade and a half after they were first ‘rediscovered’, Europe and America’s fascination with Jeanerret’s furniture hasn’t dimmed. American media personality Kourtney Kardashain reportedly has 12 Chandigarh chairs; and both the famed Belgian interior designer Axel Vervoordt and the fashion world’s favourite architect Joseph Dirand are huge fans.
Benches from Project Chandigarh collection.
In 2011, the Ministry of Home Affairs set about making the sale of the furniture and artefacts illegal, and a few years later, a bunch of design firms, including a few in India, started work on reproducing Jeanneret’s iconic furniture. Bangalore-based Phantom Hands was one of them, and its venture had a lot to do with its co-founder Deepak Srinath’s fascination with mid-century modern furniture.
Srinath, a former investment banker, and his wife Aparna started out in 2014 with a website that curated antiques. "But we soon realised that it would be tough to scale it up, and it could remain a lot like a hobby project. Sourcing quality vintage artefacts is very tough,” says Srinath. So, in 2015, the business pivoted into making furniture around the same time as Srinath’s introduction to Jeanneret’s work – a pair of office chairs – on a visit to Chandigarh. “I had never heard of Pierre Jeanneret before that, and I, sort of, plunged into simple, elegant and functional designs that were created using local materials. And he employed several teams of carpenters to work on them. It was like an open source project.” Jeanneret the man and the architect soon became an obsession with Srinath. He went on to devour every word written on Jeanneret, spoke to his former associates in Chandigarh, and made multiple visits to the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in Montreal, where archives pertaining to the architect’s work in Chandigarh are located. (Phantom Hands has been supporting the digitisation of documents and images from the archives since 2016).
Upholstered Chair from Phantom Hands' Project Chandigarh collection.
The first of the chairs speaking the “Chandigarh design language” came out around 2015. “The idea behind Phantom Hands 2.0 was to use traditional Indian craftsmanship to create these designs.” Srinath says that Phantom Hands, which is run as a collective, supports a network of over 50 artisans across the country and, among others, provides them housing. Pieces from the company’s ‘Project Chandigarh’ have now found patrons across the world, from upmarket co-working spaces in New York to former cricketer Brett Lee.
In the last four years, it has also worked with Inoda + Sveje, a Milan-based Japanese-Danish design collaboration comprising of Kyoko Inoda and Nils Sveje that is highly regarded for employing both traditional craftsmanship and technology to realise minimalist furniture design and Amsterdam-based interior designers X + L. With Inoda + Sveje, the inspiration was once again Jeanneret, and out of that collaboration came the Mungaru chairs, which are made of teak and natural cane.
The Tangali Collection, their most recent offering, is characterised by the use of indigenous cane weaving patterns. And it exits Jenneret’s orbit and points to a design language that they’d want to get increasingly proficient at.
“We want to take forward the legacy of ‘Indian Modernism’, and that, besides Jeanneret, also includes the influence of the likes of George Nakashima and Charles Eames. The ultimate aim,” says Srinath, “to make it as well known as, say, Brazilian Modernism.”
Murali K Menon works on content strategy at HaymarketSAC.
Read his columns here.