Ghazala Rahman: Reviving History Since 1981

We sat down with Ghazala Rahman in her showroom on Main Boulevard, Gulberg, and talked about, well, history. The stories of her life, her experiences in the Golden Age of Pakistan, her business and her inspirations.

Ghazala Rahman in front of her old Iranian hangings, now converted into a screen.

Tell us about your early life here in Lahore, and how much the city has changed from the one you grew up in.
“Oh, it was very different then. The really important part of my life was when I joined NCA. At that time, it was a small ivory tower of a college tucked away in the heart of Lahore. It was a very well rounded education where we interacted with our own environment. [Provincial] crafts were so alive at the time, so much so that it manifested itself in the way we appeared. Quite singular and very different form other young people at that time, giving you the introduction to local aesthetics. There was a very apparent love for those crafts and absolute devotion to those great skilled craftsmen, whom now most have disappeared. We felt as if Lahore belonged to us, being a very small city at the time. The city was ancient but everything was alive and thriving. Everything we saw belonged to us. I’ve seen it evolve over the decades. That sense of ownership is not there anymore.”

This mirror was inspired by an old miniature painting of a Mughal badshah sitting on this throne.

We felt as if Lahore belonged to us

“After working in television for five years as a set designer, I moved on and started looking into crafts (this was well before I got into furniture), and what always inspired me was hand painting, on walls, murals, puraani chathein, puraanay makaan, gharon mein, wo sub kuch meine dekha hai. One of my first pieces was influenced by the murals at Wazir Khan Mosque, and I found a craftsman who produced a hand painted box. And that paved the way for the birth of Indesign. It all started with a box.”

One of my first pieces was influenced by the murals at Wazir Khan Mosque, and I found a craftsman who could a hand painted box. And that paved the way for the birth of Indesign. It all started with a box.

What was it like when you first opened Indesign in the 80s and then went on to become a pioneer in the furniture industry? What was the reason(s) behind your success?
“Why was Indesign so successful? I believe the main reason was the revival of age old traditions and identity that were lost to time. I presented those traditions in a modern form, attractive for the present day. Later on, I revived hand painting, carvings, marquetry, inlay work, patina, and sandblasting to name a few. I had the good fortune to be able to draw myself. There is my hand [and aesthetic] in every piece. I’ve had my own experiments with different techniques and their outcomes. I still do the finishing myself, for example, antiquing a piece, but at that time it was such a novel idea ‘ke ye kis tarhan ho raha hai?’”

In an interview you mentioned Kamil Khan Mumtaz as your ustaad. What was that like?
“I had very good teachers. I was lucky enough to be in that golden circle where we were invited to Shakir Ali’s house, who was a leading modernist painter. Teachers and students were friends in those days, and interacted at many levels!”

The ‘Bended Wood Sofa’, reminiscent of colonial times.

I was lucky enough to be in that golden circle where we were invited to Shakir Ali’s house

What inspires your pieces? What is the process from conception to execution?
“I love going back and forth in history. So, by nature, I’m a curious person. I do some research before [attempting a piece] I love the aesthetics of midcentury: it’s so simple, modern and it’s so perched. I love the aura of the 60s, I grew up in the that period, I mean my mother’s house had very 60s style architecture.”

Your pieces are the perfect amalgamation of antique and modernism. Additionally, they heavily focus on the tradition of the use of wood craftsmanship and artisan skill of Pakistan. What is your favourite Indesign piece to date?
“I think that cheenidaan became such an icon, and I did several versions of it. The jharoka was popular as well. That period was so rich in my mind, and that journey was so stimulating. I was doing a lot of hand painting. I did a lot of reproductions of old antique pieces, like my Raj table, with heavy hand carvings.”

The ‘Cheenidaan’ displayed at Ghazala Rahman’s home.

Sadly, there were a lot of copycats after you launched your store. Do you view that as flattery or plagiarism?
“Both! [laughs] After my pieces were a hit and the old traditions reborn, there were a lot of copies [fast selling in the market]. My business began to completely go under after all the copies began to take over the market, quite honestly. I would see a piece in my studio and then the next day it was sitting in a window of another store, and the piece hadn’t even come out yet! I began to fret but also realised that the marketplace was expanding for the craftsman. The market rose from the crafts that I had introduced initially. It doesn’t bother me much now, but I was really taken aback then.”

The ‘William Tell Chairs’, and the ‘Mini Console’ with a marble top.

I think good design is to always subtract

In your opinion, whose furniture designs do you admire that are original and not lacking in creativity, aside from yours?
“You tell me! I see a lot of modern designs nowadays, not that I haven’t experimented with modernism myself, but I feel that it’s all very industrial and it doesn’t evoke the sense of love and labour or human connection across certain time periods of history.

I studied history of art in NCA, I guess you could say it’s a temperament. My reproductions are my interpretation of history. Each piece has to have some background to it, but when I’m making it, my focus is narrowed down to the detail. Phir meri apni marzi hoti hai. I think good design is to always subtract.”
As an art admirer, who is your favourite artist or artwork displayed in your home?
“I have inherited some amazing art from my father in law. He was a civil servant and one of the earliest patrons of the Arts Council. Chughtai would give him some of his pieces over the years as well. He had a vast collection in the end. He distributed it to all four of his children. I once came across a beautiful painting of his that my father in law used to keep at his desk. I was surprised when I saw it (laughs)! I asked if I could keep it and he gave it to me. He also gave me a Haji Sharif, who was there [at NCA] when I first joined. I treasure all the beautiful artworks he gave me! I have my own collection as well. But to answer your question, it’s very hard to pick a favourite! You can’t just pick one.”
Finish this sentence: A home is incomplete without _?
“Books! [Laughs]“

Artist, critic and a self proclaimed historian. I write about the this and thats, odds and ends, and etceteras of the art world.

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