Welcome to an extraordinary interview between Foyer and the highly esteemed Kamna Malik, a luminary in the design and architecture industry. With an illustrious career marked by numerous accolades and groundbreaking initiatives, Kamna Malik has emerged as a creative visionary, pushing the boundaries of design and inspiring countless individuals along the way. In this insightful conversation, we delve into Kamna Malik’s unique perspective on recognizing outstanding talent, staying updated on industry trends, the power of collaborations, and the challenges of launching innovative design projects amongst others.
FOYER: Thank you for joining us today. Let’s start by discussing your journey into design, architecture, and interior space. Could you share how you got involved in this field?
Kamna Malik: Sure, it’s quite an interesting story. Initially, I never intended to pursue design, architecture, or interior work. It happened unexpectedly while I was pursuing my educational degree. I studied law and even applied for a master’s degree in corporate law and mergers and acquisitions. However, one day, I woke up and realised that it wasn’t what I truly wanted to do. It came as a shock to my parents because nobody in my family had a background in the creative field. They were all in different intellectual spaces, and creativity didn’t come naturally to them. So, the design was never on my radar. Interestingly, my second choice was a career in media. When I moved to Bombay, I got my first design job almost by chance.
F: Could you tell us more about how you stumbled into your first design job?
KM: Certainly. It was a rainy morning in July when a new magazine called Trends was launched in Bombay. I was actively looking for a job at the time and someone suggested that I apply for a position at Trends. Initially, I thought it was a fashion and lifestyle magazine, so I went for an interview. During the interview, the editor asked me questions more related to lifestyle than technical design. At one point, she mentioned the magazine and showed me the cover, which featured a home. That’s when I realised Trends was an architecture magazine, not a fashion one. I admitted that I hadn’t read Trends before, but she gave me some international editions to take home and asked me to complete a writing test. I was uncertain about passing the test, but fate had other plans, and I ended up clearing it. That’s how I became a part of Trends, and from there, my journey in design, architecture, and interior work began organically.
F: It’s fascinating how you transitioned into the design field by chance. Now, let’s move on to your experiences as the former editor of Elle India and curator for India Design ID. How did these roles shape the Indian media and publication industry, and what creative visions did you drive during that time?
KM: Joining Elle India was a unique experience, especially because it happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. When I joined, the team was undergoing a restructuring, and I had to build a new team during the pandemic. It was quite amusing because I didn’t meet my team members in person until the first phase of COVID restrictions eased up briefly before the second wave hit. So, for a while, they were just voices on Zoom calls.
Elle India was also in an interesting space due to the changing consumption patterns caused by COVID. The way we consume content shifted dramatically, and attention spans became shorter. It was a challenge to adapt our strategies and cater to the preferences of the newer generation. We brought in young talents to the team, which proved to be a wise move. Although I may have had different opinions during editorial meetings, I trusted the fresh perspectives of the young team members because their ideas resonated well with the younger audience. Digital platforms played a significant role during this time, and having a team that understood the new age trends and technologies greatly benefited the brand.
As for India Design ID, it has been an amazing journey. I’ve seen it grow and put in tremendous effort to make it what it is today. The design, decor, and architecture scene in India have evolved tremendously, and there’s a growing appetite for design among the population. Luxury has taken on a new definition, and people are willing to invest in well-designed homes. When I began my career, there were only a handful of established architects and designers doing notable work. Now, there is a wealth of talented individuals, especially young professionals, contributing to the industry. Social media has played a crucial role in providing exposure and opportunities. While I have mixed feelings about social media’s impact on design, it has undeniably opened doors for many aspiring designers and architects.
F: It’s evident that you’ve made a significant impact in the media and publication industry. Moving forward, you mentioned having a degree in entrepreneurship and innovation. How has this background helped you in bringing together engaging ideas and lifestyle trends and influenced your work in design and architecture?
KM: Pursuing my MBA in entrepreneurship and innovation changed my perspective on everything. Before that, I viewed everything from a publishing or media standpoint and didn’t fully understand the business aspect. The degree taught me to approach every aspect of my work as a business. While nurturing my creativity, I also had to consider the profitability and viability of my ideas. Finding a balance between creative pursuits and commercial success became crucial.
This perspective has been particularly valuable in starting my venture, KRSP, which is still in its early stages. It helps me analyse where I want to take the business, develop strategies, and identify gaps in the competitive landscape. In today’s competitive environment, it’s essential to differentiate oneself and provide unique value propositions to clients. My background in entrepreneurship and innovation allows me to approach design and architecture with an analytical mindset, ensuring that my solutions are both creatively fulfilling and commercially viable.
F: That’s a valuable skill set to have. Could you share your core specialities and how they have contributed to your success in working with brands and achieving desired results?
KM: I would say my most valuable quality is my ability to be a sponge. I have always been open to various discussions and possibilities. What sets me apart is that my sources of inspiration aren’t limited to India alone; I draw inspiration from all over the world. Every night, I immerse myself in global design content, whether it’s through reading materials or consuming content on social media platforms. By expanding my horizons and embracing international trends, I can produce more effective solutions for clients.
Working with clients, I realised the importance of understanding their needs beyond the editorial perspective. It’s easy to become myopic when you’re focused solely on the content you’re producing. However, by understanding their language, needs, and goals, I can bridge the gap between creativity and business objectives. This ability to communicate effectively with clients and provide customised solutions has been a significant contributor to my success in the industry.
I believe in spending at least one hour every day immersing myself in diverse content. Whether it’s related to design, fashion, or any other creative field, I make it a point to keep reading and absorbing different perspectives. You never know what you come across today might lead to in the future. This exposure is essential because it allows me to stay informed and inspired.
When curating a show or preparing a pitch for a client, this wealth of knowledge and inspiration comes in handy. Each client has unique needs, and my ability to draw from a vast pool of ideas helps me provide customised solutions. I maintain a diary where I jot down anything that inspires me or catches my attention. This diary serves as my go-to resource whenever I’m working on a concept or curating a show. I refer back to it and explore the ideas that stood out to me, using them as a starting point for my work.
For instance, in the last edition of ID that I curated, I developed a concept centred around waste. I was inspired by a sustainable fashion initiative I witnessed in New York, where they repurposed waste to create jeans and other fashion products. I wanted to explore how we could apply similar thinking in India, where sustainability and waste management are still in their early stages. As a result, I invited 100 architects and designers to create mementoes exclusively from waste materials. These mementoes were auctioned, and the proceeds went to an NGO, aligning the project with a larger cause.
Research is a vital aspect of my process and has been a significant factor in my success. It stems from my days in law school, where extensive research was ingrained in me. I believe that to excel at something, one must consistently dive deep into the subject matter. For example, working with Asian Paints at ID, we had the annual challenge of launching the colour of the year and creating unique collaborations. Researching and developing concepts that appeal to both the audience and the brand each year presents an exciting opportunity.
F: As someone who has been involved in various design initiatives and awards, what criteria do you consider when identifying and recognizing outstanding talent in the industry?
KM: Originality! It’s a significant concern in the Indian design industry, where there is a prevalence of plagiarism and excessive inspiration from others’ work. For me, originality is the cornerstone of exceptional design. When evaluating talent, I look for designs that are truly innovative and unique. Furthermore, I believe that the moral compass and ethics of a designer are reflected in the originality of their work. Creating original designs showcases their core values and dedication to their craft. In my opinion, it distinguishes a good designer from a mediocre one.
F: With the design industry constantly evolving, how do you stay updated on the latest trends and developments? Are there specific sources or strategies you rely on to keep yourself informed?
KM: Besides reading and consuming relevant content, I believe in exposing myself to different initiatives and experiences. I attend art shows, and design exhibitions, and explore various design stores, even mundane antique markets. Inspiration can come from unexpected places, and I always strive to keep an open mind. Travelling is also a significant source of inspiration for me. Exploring different cities and immersing myself in new environments often spark fresh ideas.
While it may sound clichéd, I have found that being receptive to diverse experiences and continuously seeking inspiration is key to staying updated on the latest trends and developments in the design industry.
F: Your network includes architects, designers, and creative minds both in India and globally. How has this network influenced your work and collaborations in the design and decor industry?
KM: Authenticity and being true to myself have been crucial in building and nurturing my network. I believe in maintaining a balance between being present and available in the industry while also valuing my privacy. By staying genuine and honest, I have been fortunate to establish meaningful relationships within the design community, both in India and internationally.
The amount of love and support I have received is truly humbling, and it reinforces that I have made the right choices along my career path. My grandfather once told me that building goodwill is more challenging than making money, and I strive to maintain a positive reputation within the industry. This has allowed me to collaborate with talented individuals and create fruitful connections that have enriched my work.
F: Being a jury member for prestigious international architecture and design initiatives is a remarkable achievement. Could you share your experiences and insights gained from these opportunities?
KM: While I cannot discuss my current jury experience at Dezeen as the entries are still being evaluated, I have had the privilege of being part of other juries in the past. These experiences have been truly eye-opening. One significant difference I noticed is how international design awards have a strict and organized evaluation process. Before judging the entries, there is extensive communication between the organizers and the jury members. They ensure that the criteria are clear, and the judging process is transparent. When evaluating the submissions, we are not aware of the names behind the projects. The focus is solely on the content and the design itself. This creates a level playing field and promotes inclusivity.
I have been impressed by the seriousness and professionalism surrounding international design awards. They emphasize the significance of winning and the recognition earned. It is an inspiring environment where the best designs are celebrated and acknowledged. I hope that India can establish a similar entity dedicated to promoting and recognizing excellence in design.
Participating in these juries has allowed me to learn new perspectives and appreciate the work of my peers on a deeper level. It has reinforced the importance of recognizing and appreciating outstanding design for its merit.
F: What advice would you give to aspiring designers and architects who want to make an impact in the industry and carve their unique path?
KM: My advice would be to stop obsessing over social media. Being an architect or interior designer carries a significant responsibility, similar to that of a doctor or lawyer. Credibility is essential in these professions. Rather than focusing on creating frivolous content for social media, aspiring designers and architects should prioritize their work and let it speak for itself.
Legends in the field, such as Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Renzo Piano, didn’t rely on social media to build their reputations. Instead, they let their work and achievements do the talking. The work itself should be the primary focus, regardless of social media following or popularity. It’s important to maintain professionalism and let your designs and projects showcase your skills and expertise.
F: Collaboration is often key in the creative industry. Could you share some memorable collaborations you have been part of and how they have influenced your work and expanded your creative horizons?
KM: Collaborations have been a vital aspect of my work. One memorable collaboration was at ID one year, where we partnered with renowned UK royal designer Morag Myerscough. She is known for her eccentric prints and colours. This collaboration was significant because it was the first time an Indian show had collaborated with a designer to create exteriors and facades. It was a challenge, considering the tight timeline, but we were both passionate about pushing boundaries and making a statement.
Moreover, every year, collaborating with speakers at symposiums or designers for activations has been memorable. These collaborations have taught me humility, professional conduct, and valuable insights into approaching work. They have not only enhanced the show but also served as life lessons. Meeting legendary figures like Alejandro Aravena and Renzo Piano showed me the importance of humility and how success should be accompanied by humility. Collaborations have broadened my creative horizons and allowed me to learn from the expertise and perspectives of others. They have been transformative experiences, both personally and professionally.
F: Launching unique design initiatives requires innovation and a forward-thinking approach. Can you tell us about a particularly unique or challenging project you have undertaken and the outcomes achieved?
KM: Every edition of India Design ID has been a challenging project. Designing and curating such initiatives requires a collaborative effort, and the biggest challenge is managing people and ensuring everyone performs at their best. From the security guard to the entire team, everyone’s contribution is crucial for the success of the event.
One project that stands out is the launch of India’s largest design centre. While the outcome surpassed our expectations, upon reflection, some things could have been done differently. It’s a continuous learning process, and even small mistakes can teach valuable lessons. The key is to have a passion for design and constantly strive for improvement.
F: Travel plays an important role in your life. How has exposure to different cultures influenced your approach to on-ground events?
KM: Exposure to different cultures has taught me to be open to experimentation. In the past couple of years, I have embraced trying new things and moving away from stereotypical approaches. It can be uncomfortable to step out of your comfort zone, but it’s necessary for growth. Cultures have given me the courage to explore new possibilities and be receptive to different ideas. It’s a subconscious influence that allows me to take creative risks and approach on-ground events with a fresh perspective.
F: Sustainability has become a buzzword in the design industry. What role does sustainability play today, and how can designers and architects contribute to more environmentally conscious practices?
KM: In my opinion, 90% of the industry uses sustainability as a PR gimmick, while only 10% genuinely make efforts towards environmental consciousness. The challenge lies not just with architects and designers but also with clients and the audience. Sustainability often gets associated with traditional materials like mud and wood, and it’s difficult to break away from those stereotypes. Clients often want flashy and extravagant designs, which don’t align with sustainable practices.
To make a real change, it requires collaboration among all stakeholders. Clients, architects, designers, and the media need to question and hold each other accountable. Media platforms should be cautious in their usage of the term “sustainability” and focus on promoting genuinely sustainable practices. Slow changes in lifestyle and a willingness to embrace sustainability are necessary for both professionals and the audience to make a significant impact.
F: You have experience on both sides of the media. How does the perspective change when you’re on either side, particularly in the design industry?
KM: The media industry has undergone a dramatic shift. Previously, editorial integrity was highly valued, and content was treated with respect. However, the current landscape is dominated by paid PR and sponsored content. Credibility has taken a backseat, and there is a lack of joy in the creative process.
As a result, many established professionals have left traditional media platforms and explored different avenues. The industry restricts creative freedom and puts individuals in boxes, hindering experimentation. The media landscape needs to strike a balance between commercial success and maintaining editorial integrity. It’s essential to find ways to hold on to the joy of creating content and delivering meaningful stories to the audience.
F: Storytelling and emotional connection are important in building successful design and decor brands. Can you discuss their significance?
KM: Storytelling and emotional connection are crucial in today’s saturated market. To stand out, brands need to tap into the emotional aspects of their audience. When approaching design, the focus should be on the story being told and the emotional response it evokes. What experience will the consumer take away? If the design inspires and moves people, it becomes organic marketing and generates conversations.
Creating experiences and fostering emotional connections with the audience are keys to building successful brands. It’s about understanding what resonates with individuals and crafting narratives that engage them on a deeper level.
F: Thank you so much for sharing your insights and experiences with us. We greatly appreciate your time and valuable input.
All visuals, courtesy @kamna malik