He redefined the product and space design in India - the iconic bookstore Higginbothams, which is reopening on M.G. Road today, is one of his recent creations, blending heritage with the contemporary. Noted designer Michael Foley talks to Darshana Ramdev about design being a driver of innovation bringing technology and art together with functionality.
Michael Foley is one of the pioneers of industrial design in India, although his clean-cut, corporate style does very little to give this away! Until he whips out his trusted sketchbook, of course, a pocket-sized catalogue of everything that inspires him. "I write down my ideas when they come to me," he said, adding with a laugh, "In terrible handwriting!" Working out of his office in Richards’ Town, Foley’s schedule is tightly packed even on a Friday evening, although he did manage to scrape together the time for this interview! “I don’t really stop working,” he admits. “I do try to draw a line now, at least to spend some time with my daughter on weekends!”
Industrial design has a nascent presence in India, our collective preoccupation with functionality and cost leaves little room for artistic or innovative experiments. This is the space in which Foley is something of a pioneer – In 2006, he set up Foley Designs, which went on to design the Commonwealth Games Baton, the Kabaddi World Cup Trophy, redesign Himalaya's lip care products and create a brand experience for Titan eyeplus. "You need to push the boundaries. Product design in India is not well-popularised, not even from a career perspective. Creating a strong footprint in impactful design is one of the goals we have always had as a studio and it involves going beyond perceived boundaries." This is innovation at its finest, a process that involves an understanding of the consumer, finding gaps and working out design-based solutions. "It marries aesthetics with the many expectations a consumer has of a product." Smarter engineering, core functionality and use of materials come together with design to make a product innovative, he explained. "It's an evolving process, one which requires us to bear in mind that not everybody wants to experiment!"
The iconic bookstore, Higginbothams, which will re-open its doors on M.G. Road today, is one of the company’s latest creations, an experiential design that finds harmony between heritage and the ultra-modern. Wrought-iron doors and painted glass windows come together with elegant glass facades and artistic lighting. “Higginbothams comes with a legacy and that's the perspective we wanted to keep," Foley explained. "Heritage properties have a brand of their own and our design brings back memories of the original store in Chennai. We have contemporised the experience of course, through elements that don't conflict with the architecture." What’s the difference between space and product design? “Every product is an experience, isn’t it,” Foley responds with a question. “Whether it’s a product or a space, graphic design and spatial sensibilities come together and bring your creation to life.”
The maverick designer started out working for Titan Company back in 1994, rising to the helm of the company in under a decade. There, he designed the Titan 'Edge, ‘Xylys’ and 'Fastrack' watches - "I was fortunate to be in a company where design plays a strong role," said Foley, who realised along the way that the principles of design contained a world of applications.
And he's been through a gamut of experiments, from re-designing consumer products and building brands to making Channapatna toys! "We made some products for kids," said Foley, who believes the segment has great potential. "There's a lot happening in this space, but we wanted to bring natural materials back into play. Channapatna craft is very singular in terms of material and we wanted to bring natural materials back into play."
Today, he collaborates with companies and start-ups, presenting them with feasible, innovative designs. “Ultimately, I want to offer pre-emptive design solutions – that’s what I’m working towards.” Urban solutions are part of the agenda too, although he does find himself up against a wall, like many others with similar aspirations. “We need to keep at it, I think,. We have reached a stage where people who understand design have a role to play in the growth of the city. We understand manufacturing processes too, it’s not just a sketch on paper!”
Design is in his blood, as is the irrepressible curiosity of an inventor. "I would watch my dad paint and that gave me a good eye for aesthetics. I was always an inquisitive kid too, with a great interest in nature, science, anatomy and art." His sketchbook is constantly in use – Foley finds inspiration everywhere, often in the unlikeliest places - “Even a bad design can motivate me to create something new!”
Oldest bookstore with the newest look
Higginbothams, the iconic bookstore on M.G. Road, has always held pride of place in the heart of every Bengalurean and evoked much sadness when it closed. After having stayed shut for about a year-and-half, the iconic bookstore is back, bigger and better than ever. Renovated by noted designer Michael Foley, the building retains its historic stone facade, blending innovation with history. Established by a British missionary named Abel Joshua Higginbothams in 1844, it faced losses and was eventually bought over by S Anantharamakrishnan in 1945, it is India’s oldest book store with a retail presence.
Gautam Venkataramani, the grandson of Anantharamakrishnan and the present director of the chain, says gratefully, “I’ve been getting heartfelt letters from the old customers and it strikes such a nostalgic chord with them. I am so thankful for the love we are getting now that we’re going bigger.”
The bookstore is opening its doors to the public today, with bestselling author Amish Tripathi flying in to do the honours. “Simply as a voracious reader and a book lover, I am so happy they are reopening it and thankful that I am a part of it. It is an honour! Higginbothams is literally like a synonym for bookstore.”
There are parts of the store which will be open to the public for the first time, Gautam says. The tiled courtyard outside, with a small stage that is about eight feet long complete with lights for easy reading, the walkway that passes through the gates of the store between MG Road and Church Street and the first floor along with the backyard of the store have all been renovated to offer a refreshing appeal to the book lovers of Bengaluru. “We plan to have a coffee shop in the back soon after re-opening. The idea was to make visitors feel at comfortable and at home.”