Innovating with Integrity: Asha Sairam Explores Human-Centered Design, Sustainability, and Community Impact at Studio Lotus

Exploring the intersection of design philosophy and ethical practice, we delve into the insights of Asha Sairam, Principal at Studio Lotus, renowned for its pioneering approach to architecture and interiors in India. With a commitment to conscious design, Studio Lotus integrates sustainability, community engagement, and heritage preservation into every project. In this comprehensive discussion, Asha Sairam shares her perspectives on the role of craft, human-centred design, and innovation in shaping spaces that resonate with purpose and integrity.

 

Through the insightful leadership of Asha Sairam, Principal at Studio Lotus, we explore how every project integrates sustainability, community engagement, and heritage preservation, redefining architecture and interiors in India with purpose and integrity; Image Credits: Juliet Dunne

 

Can you elaborate on the concept of conscious design and how it shapes Studio Lotus’ and your approach to interior design?

When we speak of conscious design, it means designing with awareness. We consider the impact on the people we work with, the materials we choose, the community we build, and our environmental footprint. Our focus isn’t on awards; it’s about making every decision with a full understanding of its consequences.

In interior design, this awareness extends to understanding the context: geography, existing architecture, and how the space interacts with its environment, including sunlight and weather conditions.

We also prioritise integrating what already exists on-site. Previous tenants may leave items for repurposing, or the site’s construction materials themselves may offer unique design opportunities. We aim to minimise our impact by reusing these materials and integrating them respectfully into our design process, preserving the space’s original structure and character.

 

Asha Sairam, Principal at Studio Lotus, shares profound insights on how their human-centered approach reshapes spaces to resonate with the true needs and experiences of their users; Image Credits: Kartikeya Manan

 

So, in your answer, you mentioned several things that you take into consideration for a conscious design approach. Basis of the same, I believe that human-centred design is also very crucial in what you do. Can you elaborate a bit on that as well?

In simpler terms, human-centred design is all about focusing on the user. Whether we’re designing a hotel, restaurant, retail store, or public building, our approach is centred on the experience of the people who will use these spaces. While we appreciate and work closely with our clients who commission these projects, our primary goal is to design each space with the end-users in mind. This means considering how guests will experience a hotel, how diners will feel in a restaurant, how consumers will interact in a retail store, and how the public will use a public building. By prioritising the user’s perspective and their interactions with these spaces, we ensure that each touchpoint is thoughtfully crafted to meet their needs and enhance their experience.

 

From communication design to hospitality interiors, Asha Sairam’s journey at Studio Lotus epitomises a seamless blend of passion and purpose; Image Credits: Ishita Sitwala

 

Got it. Moving on. So, what inspired you to transition from a background in communication design to specialising in hospitality interior design?

Yeah, it was a series of fortunate events that led me here. I never really had a plan to end up in this field. Initially, I was studying communication design and enjoying it but felt restricted by its two-dimensional nature, focusing mostly on graphic design and branding. It was during a retail space design module as part of my course that I got exposed to three-dimensional thinking, spatial relationships, and user experience. That experience sparked my interest in a field I didn’t know existed. I chose to write my thesis on retail space design and experiential retail, exploring concepts like the Apple Store and Niketown, which were emerging internationally at the time. That’s when I discovered Studio Lotus, one of the few firms in India pioneering in this area. They had designed innovative projects like Levi’s Rivet and XYLYS store in Bangalore, which fascinated me with their use of interactive technology.

Finding information about Studio Lotus back then was challenging—they had minimal online presence. However, I persisted and reached out to them for an internship. After a follow-up call, I met with Ambrish, and I started my journey with them during their first hospitality project, RAAS Jodhpur. Despite my background being more in graphic design than architecture or interiors, they welcomed me, needing someone with a different perspective for pattern-making tasks.

After college, I spent a couple of years with Sumant Jayakrishnan, known for his work in set design and temporary spaces. It was a valuable transition, still dealing with volumes but in a different context. Eventually, I reconnected with Ambrish, Ankur, and Sid at Studio Lotus, seeking guidance on where to apply my skills and interests next. They encouraged me to return, emphasising the unique perspective I could bring to their projects despite my technical knowledge gaps.

Since joining Studio Lotus in 2010, I’ve continued to learn and grow, exploring different facets of interiors and now specialising in branded environments and hospitality interiors.”

 

Explore her transformative experiences and lessons learned, shaping an innovative path in architecture and interiors that embraces diversity and challenges conventions; Image Credits: Ravi Asrani

 

That seems like quite a journey. You mentioned Raas, so I just want to ask for a follow-up on that. How do you balance preserving the heritage of historic buildings like Raas while still incorporating contemporary design elements?

So, I don’t think it’s ever been a challenge for us in that sense. We’ve always had a clear understanding of a few principles, which guide our approach to adaptive use projects, especially with heritage sites. Whether it’s been RAAS Jodhpur, Devigarh or the Baradari at City Palace, Jaipur, our first principle is to preserve what is old and deserves preservation. This involves understanding the original construction technology of the structures and restoring them to their former glory, reflecting their historical context.

Over the years, many layers of modifications have obscured these structures’ original beauty. Our initial efforts are focused on uncovering and restoring what was originally there. Once we achieve that, we recognise that our role isn’t to mimic the past. These buildings have aged gracefully over time, embodying their unique character. Our interventions respect this natural evolution; we don’t seek to replicate what we inherit on-site.

The essence lies in understanding that time has beautifully shaped these structures, and any additions or renovations we make must harmonise with their inherent charm and historical significance.

 

Explore the intersection of heritage and modernity with Asha Sairam as she navigates the delicate balance of preserving historic buildings while infusing them with contemporary design elements at Studio Lotus; Image Credits: Avesh Gaur

 

Can you discuss the role of craft in your design philosophy, like, how you merge that, particularly when it comes to contemporary interiors?

I’ve always had a strong affinity for working with craft. Early on, we recognised the immense richness of India’s craft traditions. It’s truly remarkable how within just a 300 km radius, you encounter entirely different crafts, materials, and textiles. This diversity is a testament to the depth and variety of our country’s craftspeople.

Whether we’re working on projects in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Hyderabad, or Bombay, the local crafts available to us vary significantly. This diversity not only enriches our designs but also allows us to celebrate and preserve the unique heritage and skills of each region.

The crux of the craft changes completely.
Everything changes completely. The techniques, materials, and outcomes vary drastically. Historically, craft techniques faced a decline, with limited visibility and demand until about 15 to 20 years ago. Today, there’s been a significant revival, yet some traditional techniques still struggle to survive due to insufficient demand.

Initially, our interest in craft stemmed from its ability to offer bespoke solutions at a reasonable cost, thanks to India’s abundant craftspeople. However, as we delved deeper into using these techniques, we realised their broader impact. By integrating crafts into our projects, we not only achieved uniqueness but also generated employment and revitalised endangered skills in construction and interiors. This dual benefit—creating distinct identities for our projects while positively impacting local communities—has remained integral to our approach. While we don’t impose crafts on every project, we embrace opportunities where they align naturally. Moreover, working across India’s diverse landscape allows us to embed layers of context into our designs, blurring the lines between architecture and interiors.

In decision-making, considerations like context, accessibility, cost, materials, and longevity guide our choice of crafts, ensuring each intervention harmonises with its surroundings and purpose.

 

Asha Sairam shares her personal journey of growth and discovery at Studio Lotus, emphasising the importance of continuous learning, reflection, and embracing opportunities that challenge and inspire; Image Credits: Juliet Dunne

 

Got it. This has been quite different from the usual conversations that we have because of the different perspectives that you brought into the pictures. First of all, thank you so much for that. Now, I want to ask you, can you share any memorable lessons that you learned from this very, very diverse design journey of yours?

Lessons learned. Firstly, I believe in never stopping the pursuit of knowledge. Continuously learning and embracing new insights is not only in our professional practice but also in any endeavour. It keeps me humble, open-minded, and attentive to perspectives from those with more or less experience than mine. This mindset encourages me to engage deeply in conversations across diverse fields, recognising the vast differences in knowledge bases. It’s also a core value within our organisation, where we celebrate learning as a daily commitment. For me, this remains the foremost lesson.

Secondly, I’ve come to appreciate the value of reflection as a practice. Taking time to ponder my actions, reactions, and responses allows for greater clarity and mindfulness. In today’s world, where we are bombarded with constant information and stimuli, this practice of quiet introspection grounds me and helps me respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively in challenging situations.

Lastly, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s more effective to seek forgiveness than permission. Opportunities often present themselves unexpectedly, and I’ve observed that hesitation and fear of failure can hinder seizing these moments. This lesson is especially pertinent when working with younger designers and individuals who may be hesitant to take risks. Embracing opportunities to innovate, learn, and grow—even if it means facing setbacks—has been a significant driver of personal and professional development for me.

 

Studio Lotus integrates human-centered design principles into every project, ensuring that each space is crafted to enhance the quality of life and resonate with its users on a profound level; Image Credits: Kartikeya Manan

 

When it comes to new concepts that you and your team worked on, I want to know, how do you balance between innovation and practicality when you conceptualise new concepts of this kind?
I believe that innovation without practicality lacks true innovation. We don’t pursue innovation for its own sake; rather, it should always aim to serve a higher purpose, solve problems, or enhance existing conditions. Functionality forms the foundation of innovation—it ensures that whatever we create serves its intended purpose effectively. This doesn’t mean functional designs can’t also be aesthetically pleasing, proportionate, sleek, or efficient.

We see examples of this integration every day in our surroundings.

Exactly. Innovation and function aren’t contradictory in my view. When we strive for true innovation, it not only meets its functional requirements but often enhances them. I feel the goal of innovation should always be to improve upon what exists, ensuring that practicality and functionality remain integral to its design and purpose.

 

Studio Lotus’ upcoming ventures, from iconic hotels to vibrant clubhouses, each present unique challenges and opportunities to innovate, enrich, and elevate the art of architecture and interiors; Image Credits: Avesh Gaur



Completely agreed. I also want to know, can you elaborate on any ongoing or upcoming projects at Studio Lotus that particularly excite you and what kind of challenges or opportunities they present?

We’re currently involved in several exciting projects. We’re developing new hotels, such as one in Rishikesh and another on the outskirts of Kolkata in Raichak. Additionally, we’re focusing on multiple restaurants in Delhi and designing clubhouses for various developers. One of our major undertakings is a mixed-use development outside Jaipur, which is particularly stimulating.

One of the most intriguing challenges right now is a residential project in Dubai. Residential work is new to me, as I’ve tended to concentrate on commercial interiors. It requires a different mindset, which I’ve often hesitated to engage with. However, this presents a valuable learning opportunity.

What excites me about these projects is the diversity in scale. We’re tackling everything from large-scale developments and hotels with hundreds of rooms to smaller-scale projects like restaurants under 3000 sqft. Each scale offers unique challenges and learning experiences for me and my team. It’s gratifying to navigate between these different scales, as they each have their own set of advantages and drawbacks. As our team has grown from 20 to 120 people, there’s always a temptation to specialise in what we do best for efficiency’s sake. However, we’ve chosen to embrace diversity in our work. I believe the variety of projects we undertake keeps our work dynamic and compelling. It offers endless opportunities for growth and innovation, which is why I find our current portfolio so inspiring and fulfilling.

 

Studio Lotus’ vision for architecture is one where each project is a testament to their belief in creating meaningful spaces that not only function but also inspire and enrich lives; Image Credits: Avesh Gaur

 

And just one last question that we ask everyone we interview, which is, what advice would you give to an aspiring designer looking to make their mark in the industry?
I believe the goal shouldn’t be about making a mark because that can lead you to make choices solely driven by ambition rather than genuine passion and purpose. It’s not aspirational enough to manipulate your journey in that way. Instead, I think there’s currently an undervaluation of the importance of experience and hard work.

My simple advice would be to appreciate and feel grateful for the opportunity to pursue a profession you genuinely enjoy. Few things are more disheartening than being stuck in a job you dislike. As adults, we spend more time at work than at home with our families, so finding joy in what you do is essential. Gratitude for this opportunity makes every task meaningful, whether it’s designing a large hotel or a small restroom in a restaurant.

You approach both with equal enthusiasm.

Absolutely. Maintaining enthusiasm throughout your career is inevitable. It’s important not to enter the field with the sole aim of leaving a mark, especially for my generation. We sometimes take things for granted due to the privileges we have, which can lead to a lack of appreciation.

Architecture and interiors are gradual professions that require patience to gain experience and proficiency. In a culture of instant gratification, it’s crucial to stay focused on the daily joy of working in a field you love. This mindset helps combat impatience and frustration when progress seems slow, ultimately leading to greater fulfilment in the long run.

 

Asha Sairam encourages aspiring designers to find joy and purpose in their craft, emphasizing the transformative power of gratitude, perseverance, and a genuine passion for creating spaces that inspire and endure; Image Credits: Avesh Gaur

 

In an era where design must transcend aesthetics to embrace responsibility, Asha Sairam’s reflections underscore the profound impact of conscious design principles. Studio Lotus’ journey exemplifies a dedication to craft preservation, user-centric innovation, and sustainable practices, enriching both the built environment and community landscapes. As the firm continues to redefine architecture and interiors, its ethos of mindful creativity serves as a beacon for aspiring designers and industry leaders alike, advocating for a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to the art of space-making.

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