How Delhi's Studio Lotus blossomed into a sustainable design practice in India
The story of a college dropout collaborating with four like-minded design professionals to cultivate a sustainable yet successful practice in Delhi
He has designed and built a formidable space for himself and his studio in the realm of architecture in India, so it comes as a surprise to learn that Ambrish Arora has never been to architecture school. While studying to be an engineer, he dropped out of college in the very first year! “In my last couple of years in school, I felt very constrained and shackled by the system,” he explains. “When I joined engineering college in Bombay (now Mumbai), I had hoped I would be free of this and learn on my own terms. I thought I would learn how to make, and understand how things functioned – I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig at the time. After the first couple of months, I realised that college education would be another four years of academia. I felt I was ready to engage with the real world and work with my own hands, rather than spend years at a desk, poring over books – which I felt had very little relevance to how the world actually functions.”
The day he called his father in Delhi to tell him, is etched in Arora’s memory. Having retired from the Navy, Arora senior chose to become a school teacher – and here was his son informing him that he wanted to discontinue his education! Contrary to expectations, the father was neither encouraging nor discouraging. “He helped me think through the pros and cons of my decision…and let me decide,” narrates Arora. “ I was clear that I wanted be independent of parental financial support as I took that decision, only to prove to myself that I could take responsibility for my choices. That was it, I dropped out of college with no idea of what I was going to do next – except that I would not compromise on my aspirations and, no matter what, I will not take financial support from anyone.”
Only 16 at the time, the designer now looks back on that incident and his father’s equilibrium and response with wonder. “Today, when I have children of my own, I realise how brave it was of my dad to let me choose my own way with no threats or pressure – except a clear enunciation of what I was going to have to be up against without a formal education and no money. I have always been grateful to him for that, besides many other things he taught me,” says the appreciative son.
Among the influences that helped shape Arora’s practice of design were the years of working with his hands – first repairing motorcycles, then assembling computers, and subsequently building boats. While building boats from the age of 18 to 23, what helped is that his father – a highly qualified naval architect – had no money to hire labour. “It was just him, me, and two other helpers for the first couple of years, executing all the work,” discloses Arora, who recalls drafting patterns on plywood sheets on a 1:1 scale, sawing and shaping moulds of foam and plywood, welding and grinding hardware and joinery. “I think all of this had a profound impact on my intuitive understanding of material and structure,” he acknowledges.
While he was building boats, Arora’s younger sister Ami was studying Architecture at IED, Vidyanagar. “I used to visit her college occasionally to make up for my lack of social life, and more importantly hoping to get lucky with her friends,” he smiles. “During my visits and through the long (and what seemed very intense and meaningful) existential conversations on what the future held, I became intrigued by the world of architecture…and perhaps the first seeds were planted then.”
When he quit the boat-building practice to engage with the world of design, Arora joined Amardeep Behl of Oriole, with whom he later co-founded Design Habit. “He helped me shape the tools for my understanding of design,” admits Arora. “He was an amazing mentor and, thanks to him, I got very strong foundations in the world of museum and exhibition scenography and cinema. Once I set up Studio Lotus, I was fortunate to have been coached in entrepreneurship by Varun Talwar, and now – for the past couple of years – by Darshan Bhatt of CreatNet, which have been transformative for me as well as the Studio. In my journey of learning in design, I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt from my collaborations with Rajiv Majumdar of Praxis and Itu Chaudhary of ICD, and am grateful to Anupam Mishra, Farhad Contractor and Akshay Kaul for deepening my understanding of water and ecology. “
The roll call of ‘influencers’ who he learns from and with every day would not be complete without what the designer calls “the most amazing set of partners” – Ankur Choksi, Sidhartha Talwar, Pankhuri Goel and Asha Sairam – apart from his colleagues at Studio Lotus. Arora also cites Suman Sharma, Arun Kullu and Vedika at the Mangrove Collective (a furniture design and build studio he helped seed). “This is what keeps me going,” insists the co-founder of Studio Lotus.
The now blossoming practice was set up in 2002. “At the time, I was a partner at Design Habit, and we were working on the Khalsa Museum project with NID. I got a commission to design the interiors of a friend’s office. While I led the project, Sidhartha (my partner at Studio Lotus) was a part of my team. It was immensely fulfilling and challenging, and I realised I was more interested in the act of shaping space than building stories in the space.” Within three months, Arora had moved out of Design Habit and set up Studio Lotus, with Talwar and Choksi – his colleagues at Design Habit.
The first projects they handled independently taught them lessons for life. One was the interiors for a gym and play area at the Habitat Centre (“which turned out okay”) and the other was an office for a travel agency, which they handled turnkey – hoping to make a little money. “The latter was a complete disaster in terms of design and quality of execution. We swore never to let this happen to us ever again – to never let a project slip to that level of mediocrity,” says Arora emphatically.
Today, Studio Lotus is known for significant projects in different domains. “There is the Patiala Crafts Mela (which saved our office from shutting down) and through a long loop of connections was responsible for us landing the Mehrangarh museum shop interior, which led us to landing Hotel Raas, Jodhpur several years later, and helped build our adaptive reuse practice,” says Arora. This vertical includes the Godrej Imagine Studio, Khoj, and the Baradari at the City Palace, Jaipur, with the most recent addition being their competition win for an extension at the Mehrangarh Fort precinct.
In retail, it was Viya Home and Rivet which kick-started their journey in this domain, leading to a series of stores for fashion designers at Emporio, including Rohit Bal, Rajesh Pratap, Namrata Joshipura and Ritu Kumar. These, in turn, led to stores for Good Earth in Khan Market and Bengaluru, which were followed by mainstream retail design such as the global retail rollout for Royal Enfield.
Among restaurants and bars, it was Khaaja Chowk and the F Bar that resulted in Studio Lotus’ specialisation in F&B interiors with over 40 projects, culminating in their currently best-known projects – the Antara Clubhouse in Dehradun, The Quorum in Gurgaon, and Masti Cocktails & Cuisine in Dubai.
In hospitality architecture and interiors, the Studio started with Raas Jodhpur, which led to Raas Kangra (yet unfinished) and Raas Devigarh, as well as interiors of public spaces for a luxury hotel in Theog, and the Aloft Hotel in Aerocity. Studio Lotus is currently working on a new property for the Oberoi Group, and a new hotel for Raas at Chhatrasagar, Rajasthan.
The designer insists that he doesn’t have a fascination for structures per se and what they look like from the outside. “Even today, I might have an academic interest in what a building looks like – but rarely have I looked at a building and said, ‘wow, that’s amazing’,” he clarifies. “I am intrigued more by what they would feel like from within – the study of which, I believe, is called the phenomenology of space. I realise that since I was a child, I have been keenly aware of the spaces around me. I think I can draw a layout of every single home I have lived in since the age of five (we lived in multiple places, as my father was in the Navy and got posted to a different place every couple of years).”
Certain memories remain etched in his mind – for instance, the corner window (in his room as a 13-year-old in Delhi’s Press Enclave) that opened out against a stained distempered wall. “There was a Peepal tree that would cast shadows on that wall that would bleed against the mildewed stains on the paint. I remember spending hours staring at the flickering shadows, brooding over lost loves during my troubled adolescence,” reminisces Arora. “Another vivid memory is that of the aangan in my Dadi’s house in Shakti Nagar in Delhi, from when we visited her during winter vacations. The courtyard was shared by six other families over three floors, and as a 10-year old I would spend hours leaning over the parapet on a stool...watching the goings-on through the open doors and windows, fascinated by the intensity and colour and chaos [I could see] in the various homes.”
Apart from such memories, Arora tells us that the people who have influenced his thinking are far too many to enumerate – but he adds that he is grateful to them all. While none of them are design icons, they have all been personally iconic to him. The designer calls out a few that are at the top of his list, though – “my father, for having built the foundations of my understanding of integrity, Gandhi for having proved that one’s whole life can be an experiment of truth, and Werner Erhard for making me understand how Being is much more powerful and at the source of all Doing.”
Arora adds that he loves a lot of the work that is coming out of South America, South Africa and Japan, and mentions that the one structure he has been in awe of over the past couple of years is the Neues Museum in Berlin by Chipperfield, “for its gorgeous sensitivity and restraint in proportion and form, and its incredible craftsmanship of detail and materiality.”
A big part of what gives Arora his raison d’etre in his practice is the role of mentor he plays. “I go in each day committed to push myself to create whatever it takes to bring out the best in every person I interact with, whether it is colleagues at the studio, clients, contractors, vendors, or even the environment and the city – every touch point possible.” He says it best when he says, “Building on this planet is a sacred act and, above all, has to be extremely considerate and responsive to Nature.”