Transition of tradition into modernity

Adeela Akmal
September 03, 2019

In an exclusive interview, this week You! talks to Karachi-based furniture designer, Sana Khan Niazi, regarding her design philosophy...

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When it comes to crafting the perfect home, every design enthusiast knows that the choice of furniture can make or break a space. While choosing the right pieces can elevate your entire home aesthetic, one also needs to be mindful about its functionality. Furniture designer Sana Khan Niazi - the brain behind ‘Paimona’ and the recently held Block Exhibition - is of the similar view.

Although, Sana got her Bachelors in Accounting in 2011, she pursued theatre from 2012. But somehow, her determination and passion for doing something beyond herself led her to a different path. “I was performing in Dubai and during that trip I went to shop for my home. There, I realised how underrepresented Pakistan was in the design world. What surprised me was that we had such great craftsmanship and heritage worth centuries, but we are nowhere to be seen in the international design industry as much as we should,” tells Sana. “It was not until I came back and did my own research of what we lacked in this equation that I realised that I could be a catalyst between the craftsmen and the design industry by just intervening in the design process. This thought really excited me and I went all in,” she adds.

In 2015, Sana learnt drawing and design with Architect Zain Mustafa and launched her online design studio in June of the same year. In an exclusive interview with You! Sana Khan Niazi talks about her design philosophy and her work...

You! Tell us about your first design project?

Sana Khan Niazi: It was a CEO’s office which was a disaster. Not in how it turned out but how I dealt with the process. From being underpaid to being crunched for time to being ripped off by the production team, I think that project was an example for a lifetime to learn from. I am glad it happened on my first assignment because then I went on to fix all the problems I faced.

You! What is the reason behind the name ‘Paimona’?

SKN: The name ‘Paimona’ is a Dari (a dialect of Persian/Pushto) word and it literally means a chalice. This name has a very symbolic meaning such that it symbolises the transition of tradition into modernity, the past into the future and craft into timeless pieces of art. I also loved the song, Paimona and I thought how perfect this is.

You! What piece in your portfolio are you most proud of?

SKN: It has to be the Chainak Chandelier. I worked really hard on making all the elements work since I made it to be flat packed. It was tricky because there were electrical connections and movable parts. So, the standard I set for myself was: if you have to get an electrician to help put this piece together, then the design has failed. Tested it many times before I was finally happy with it.

You! What materials do you work with?

SKN: I work with a lot of different materials but the main are wood and metal. It is not really about what material you use but how you use it. I prefer using more natural materials and mostly in their organic form which I believe adds to the character of the piece.

You! Tell us about your recent ‘Block Exhibition’ and what inspired you to organise it?

SKN: It came about due to the lack of a platform for designers who focus on original design and don’t have showrooms to cater to their customers. At the time I was in the process of designing a new line of furniture and was figuring out ways to launch it. My decision came with having found the perfect place to do it! SOL House is the right mix of indoor and outdoor space to cater to an event like this; and they have their own food pop-ups here on the weekends. Once I partnered with the Sol team, I decided to invite other designers to come and exhibit with me because 1) I liked all of their work 2) I wanted to put up an interesting show for the audience with fun and quirky furniture and home accessories. The designers and artists who exhibited at the Block exhibition were Paimona, Carpenter Designs, Sanfarina Design Studio (now Bina Sohail Design Studio), EWC, Naq’sh, Ashir Bhatti (Artist), Shahan Ahmed (Artist) and Sahel Motiwala (Artist).

An exhibit done by Bina Sohail at the Block Exhibition.

You! Who was the target market for this exhibition?

SKN: We had a certain type of audience in mind that would be best suited for this exhibition. These were people who were building homes, renovating or who wanted to move away from the general design inclination in this region. People who are ready to break the stereotype of a consistent design language that we usually see in stores and homes. People who appreciate considerate design practices and processes.

You! Do you prefer functionality or appeal?

SKN: Functionality, hands down. Focusing on functionality does not necessarily make something unappealing, rather it adds to its character. Furniture generally requires technical expertise no matter what piece it is. That is where your functionality, physics and comfort of the piece comes from - from having technical knowledge. Ergonomics is extremely important if you are designing furniture, accessories or spaces.

You! What do you need to consider when designing?

SKN: Functionality. Experience. Aesthetic. In this order.

You! What are your thoughts on sustainable design?

SKN: Sustainable design is the need of the hour. Considering the impact of our practices on the environment, it should be a priority not just in the furniture industry. Every day we try and incorporate such practices in our work and personal life that lead to sustainable practices. It is a lifestyle change that takes time to ease into with how we function. I think sustainable design can begin with smaller decisions and practices like reusing production waste creatively, focusing on material usage in a way that minimises waste, refraining from production techniques that cause damage to the environment.

You! Is there any interior design style you favour or dislike?

SKN: I love craft and how interactive it can be. I am drawn towards more organic interior design; building spaces using natural materials and creating quirky pieces out of them really appeals to my design sense.

You! How do you keep up with industry changes?

SKN: Locally, I believe there is a long way to go for us to be innovative consistently. That has nothing to do with talent but with the resources put behind innovation in the industry; something that the international design industry provides on a frequent basis. Despite the lack of resources, we have a lot to learn from the developments internationally and to introduce them at a local level.

You! What is the most frustrating aspect of your job as a designer?
It requires a lot of patience, though it is not that frustrating of an aspect. Over the course of my career as not just a designer but as a leader of teams, patience is the most important lesson that I have learnt. Patience towards differing mind sets, professional attitudes, thresholds. The most important part of my work is the human element, from understanding the clients’ requirements and aspirations to the craftsmen’s understanding and nuances, it comes down to the human interaction. Which is also something I love in this work.

You! What is the most rewarding aspect of your job as a designer?

SKN: The physical transformation of an idea into a piece or a space. It is like converting a dream into reality. It sounds romantic and I think it is. As challenging as the process might be, the excitement that builds at the inception of the idea and the feeling you get once you see the completed project as it takes shape, makes it all worth it.

You! From your point of view, is design an art or a science?

SKN: Design is the balance of the two.

You! If you had no limits (money, resources), what would you create?

SKN: Sustainable housing. Developments that require added energy cost because they don’t consider weather and the environment in building methods and material and that have no waste management systems. Especially in areas of Pakistan with harsher weather conditions, ‘development’ as it is happening with current practices, is causing a decrease in the quality of life, when in fact it should be creating better living conditions.

You! What advice do you have for young designers?

SKN: No matter what course you take in life, consider the impact of your work/actions on a bigger scale. We live in an inter-connected universe. Remember that small changes lead to a big impact. We often wait for greater opportunities of making a difference and find this as an excuse to not do or change anything in our life. The truth is you can bring better opportunities by making the smaller changes.

You! What are your future plans?

SKN: The future is big and bright! The plan has always been to take locally made products - furniture and accessories - to other global markets with the quality and design standards that can compete internationally. It is tricky to create a sustainable system but we are on our way there.

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