Kozhikode (Kerala) | It is ironic in a way that wooden ceiling panels from a 100-year-old house — probably pulled down to give way to a modern lifestyle — redefine contemporary.
The panels are slid together — using long forgotten meticulous wooden joineries no less — to make a chic coffee table. The legs are carved from wooden beams that supported the ceilings once upon a time. They defy the traditional idea of a leg though —they are not limited to four corners, they are flat and they don't just support. They also play an important role in the cleverly crafted mechanism that lets users choose the size of the table. Slide in a panel or two and secure them with legs — using wooden pegs — and you get a bigger table.
The intriguing mechanism of the table, called ‘Asthiti', won the 2023 design award (under furniture category) of the Indian Institute of Interior Designers (Kerala chapter).
Asthiti is part of Smaram's collection, a luxury furniture brand conceptualised by architect Tony Joseph, the founding partner of Kozhikode-based almost three decades old architectural firm Stapati, and his team of designers and carpenters.
“We talk about green buildings and such, but the truth is, no matter how green it is, the moment you start building, you are contributing towards environmental degradation. But we have to build. And for me, reusing resources had always been one way to go about it. Smaram is just an extension of that principle,” Joseph told PTI.
But it was a no-brainer that the furniture range had to be different from the other reclaimed wood projects in the market, said George Seemon, partner, CEO and design director of Smaram.
“There have been situations where somebody will take an old door and use it as a table with a glass on top, for instance. But we thought it should be more than that. So, we created absolutely new furniture pieces that are contemporary,” added Joseph.
Initially, said the architect duo, they were just transplanting salvaged wood into their building projects that played around with traditional Kerala architecture, like the Kumarakom Lake Resort. But with Smaram — a wordplay of Sanskrit smara (memory) and Malayalam ‘maram' (wood) — they could delve deeper into design thinking, added Seemon. The project not only took into consideration how best to fit the wood as is, but also how practical a design can be.
Joseph, who is also the principal of Kozhikode-based design institute Avani, said the idea of reusing the salvaged wood from traditional houses — rafters, reapers and beams — in an entirely different way came up when he was building his own dream house five years ago.
“I came across somebody who was looking to dispose of the wood from their old house near Pala. It was not a very fine example of a traditional house, but being an old house, it had impressive wooden fittings that we decided to buy. We documented every single piece of wood coming from that house and then proceeded to use them differently. It became furniture. It became paneling. It became a whole lot of things,” added Joseph.
After that, said Joseph, they started buying entire lot of wood from old houses from across Kerala, whenever they came up for sale. And for the last two years now, Smaram has been transforming wood from old traditional houses into furniture that exude a minimalist vibe. Joseph said they decided on furniture as it got the best out of the salvaged wood — with zero to minimal wastage.
Smaram's cleverly crafted pieces that are both modern and modular, befitting the times we live in, but technically antique if one factors in the age of the wood, are nothing like those peddled as ‘antique'. The design vocabulary is unique for it lets the imperfections of the wood — its scratches, its textures and its character — come to the fore.
Akshay Salil, a National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) graduate and the in-house designer at Smaram, said while they were opening up the wooden houses to document the procured wood, they also invariably ended up learning about the intricate detailing and techniques used in these houses. Eventually, they taught themselves traditional joinery, a craftsmanship that is slowly running out of practitioners, he added.
“But it is not fully gone yet. You should watch the older generation carpenters dismantle old wooden houses. To me it looks so complex, but they do it so effortlessly, because they understand the joinery system even if they are not practising it anymore — they know which ones to remove first,” added Salil.
Smaram's master carpenter Ajith Kyinil, who comes from a family of carpenters, said the last two years have changed how he viewed carpentry even. Although he learnt joinery from his father when he was only 15 years old, he said he never thought he would be using that knowledge so extensively. What he does today, he said, is more like putting together a puzzle.
“Every day we try to devise new ways to lock wood in place or improve the existing ones. Before this, I just thought of carpentry as something to do to survive, now I feel like I am truly creating masterpieces,” said Kyinil, who has been working as a carpenter for 28 years.
Now, he added, he might even be OK if his son, who is in class three, decides to become a carpenter. “If it pays well and keeps one mentally engaged, why shouldn't he do the craft that his family has been doing for generations,” said Kyinil.