Aahana Miller: Altering the course of ABM

This month’s feature is Aahana Miller, an architect and interior designer based in Mumbai, India. With a Fine Arts degree from RISD and an M.Arch from UPenn, Aahana joined the field with an all-encompassing design heritage. Her mother is an artist, her father is the founder of ABM Architects, her sister is an architect and graphic designer - and they all happen to work in the same building! In Aahana’s interview, we talk about her journey carving a unique path for herself in architecture, her challenges and successes taking over ABM Architects, her day to day relationship with her family, and some of the women who have inspired her along the way.

DS: Tell us a little about your upbringing and childhood.

AM: My early years were spent in Mumbai and I went to an all-girls school growing up. So from the start, it impacted a lot of my decisions and the way I perceive women and education. From class 10th to 12th, I moved to a boarding school in South India because I wanted to get a different perspective on life. I wanted to stay on my own and see what it would be like to be independent and my cousin was in a boarding school so I just thought it was kind of cool, too.

I come from a multi-religion family where my dad is Muslim and my mom Hindu, so my upbringing was very unique. My parents decided that they wouldn't raise us in any particular way; my grandma used to take me to the mosque sometimes, I used to go with my maid to church on Sundays, and I went to the temple with friends for Ganpati pooja. The religion part wasn't forced on us in any way and they left us to decide what we wanted to do or follow. We do Eid lunch, we do Raksha Bandhan and Diwali, whatever the family organizes - everyone celebrates. So we had a balance of both sides.

DS: How did you become interested in architecture and design?

AM: At first, I didn't want to do architecture, I wanted to go to art school. Back then, I didn't even know what my dad did, I knew he designed houses but houses were the only thing I had in mind - I didn't know what else he did. My interest in art came from my mom as she is a painter and I spent more time with her. She would paint at home and I would watch her paint. I also went to art classes as a kid and wanted an art education.

Luckily, I got into the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Very few people got in then and my year there were no Indians. People at RISD were very unique... In boarding school, I was the unique one, and then when I went to the US, I was the normal one! So that was a culture shock for me, just being with people who are so individual, and at art school, you can imagine the personality types. At RISD, I got interested in interiors, especially because of its adaptive reuse of old buildings. So I ended up choosing Interior Architecture as my major.

"My interest in art came from my mom as she is a painter and I spent more time with her. She would paint at home and I would watch her paint"

DS: After doing interior architecture for your undergrad, what motivated you to get a Master of Architecture Degree?

AM: I came back to Mumbai after my undergrad, and I worked for Brinda Somaya, a very well known- one of the top, architects in India. She did a lot of heritage projects and I was working with her interiors team. I was the liaison between interior and architecture for a residential project. Also at RISD, I did a study abroad in Japan, which didn't have interiors; they only had architecture. And then I went to my dad’s firm and I was working on residential architectural projects. So, it happened that I was put into the architecture field again and again which led me to consider doing a Master's.

Also, my sister went to an architecture school for her undergrad and I heard stories from her, I saw her in her studio and all the piles of models and I wasn't sure if I wanted that. You have to be mentally prepared to work hard at architecture school. But after working in the field, I matured a little bit and then I felt that this is the right thing to do, just kind of... it was an intuition. It felt like the path that I was supposed to take.

DS: How would you define your design philosophy?

AM: At Penn, I did a minor in historic preservation, then living in Mumbai you have that mix of the old and the new. I was fascinated by adaptive reuse, so that's what I've been working in and what I've become interested in. I want to work with historic buildings, I want to work on interiors. I like those projects a lot more, especially adaptive reuse, so through all this experience I’ve come to realize that's where my passion lies, but it doesn’t apply to all projects.

I don't know exactly my style or sensibilities yet. My firm doesn't have a style, but it has an ethos that I have to carry forward. I have to sync how I would like to design with that. My dad loves tropical architecture, as soon as he gets a project of that style he jumps on it. I would say the style is very contemporary; it's in keeping with the times. But as my father says “it has to be timeless”. So, whatever it is, it has to last long. It has to be aesthetically timeless as well. That is the ethos which I connect to. So it's always context-driven and it's always client-driven. I'm taking up a little bit of what he believes, and at the same time trying to find my style.

I would say the [firm's] style is very contemporary; it's in keeping with the times. But as my father says “it has to be timeless”... I'm taking up a little bit of what he believes, and at the same time trying to find my style.

DS: What is the project that you're working on right now?

AM: Previously, I was working on small projects, but currently getting into larger ones because I want to grow as an architect and get work experience. Right now, I'm working on the new domestic lounges for the Bangalore airport and I'm also working on a bungalow in Delhi for a woman who's disabled. It's very challenging, but it's exciting and it's a little bit new for me because I've never designed for someone like that before, it's a different type of client. The airport project will be done next year but the residence will take at least two years.

For the Bangalore lounge, the design is very contemporary, the client wanted it for millennials. So it's very full, it's very bright, it's vibrant, and I like that because my mom's work has a lot of colours, very saturated! So it was a really interesting experience to choose those colour palettes, to go into the fabrics, to choose carpets. We're going into every single detail and everything has to be coordinated and there are so many areas, it's not just one lounge. Each of them has a team, which has to be designed individually, making sure that the whole lounge comes together as a whole. I enjoyed that and now we're getting into actually sourcing the materials, getting the furniture, getting the drawings done. Everything is very coordinated and I'm enjoying that process.

DS: What was like to join an established firm?

AM: Initially when I decided not to pursue architecture for undergrad my dad was a little disappointed in me, but whatever decisions I made - I did them because I wanted to, not because they wanted me to, including eventually joining the firm. I wasn't very sure, and I didn't know what to expect. There are days when I'm like, why, why am I running a firm and then I'm like, oh...but I'm running a firm. How many people get the opportunity to do that? so I think career-wise, yes, they influenced me but the decisions I made were very independent of what they wanted for me.

Joining an established firm comes with challenges. I can say the firm already has a reputation and then you just step in and take over. The clients are used to my dad, so the transition takes time for them to be accustomed to me especially since I have less experience. Initially, it was very challenging, but slowly the clients are getting used to me and I interact with a lot of them. They still like to talk to my dad, but he took a step back. So if there's anything critical they go to him, but if anything immediate then they just come to me and then I discuss with him.

I am establishing myself and need to get myself known in the design community. In February, I attended India Design in Delhi, we won two awards, so I have become that person for the firm. The second challenge is you have this firm and everyone is used to working in a certain way, and coming back from the US, the culture shock was just too much for me to handle. The same thing happened to my sister.

There are days when I'm like, why, why am I running a firm. And then I'm like, oh...but I'm running a firm. How many people get the opportunity to do that?

DS: What changes did you bring to the firm?

AM: Firstly, it was about efficiency, you're in the office on time, you set goals for the day and get things done. You don't have to stay late. Go home so that you don't get burned out. We changed the rules of the firm and made flexible hours so that if you started on time, you could leave early. We upgraded our timesheets, so we can track the project hours. We did a punch-in punch-out rather than signing on the register and an off-site so that if you go to the site you check an app, so there were a lot of these little technological changes.

I started introducing software tutorials every week, on Thursdays. Revit is a new software so I started teaching Revit classes. And I wanted employees to do their own Photoshop rather than rely on the graphics team. I'm struggling with the software change - a lot of people aren't able to adapt. And then there were a lot of things that were organizationally missing, I set up proper contracts, fee proposals, folder systems, CAD standards.

I found in the past that designers would go straight to 3D modelling without exploring the concept and then change things. I switched that around. I said no- first you establish the design through references, drawings, and materials, and then take it into 3D, so you better understand the design. It's better for you. Any change that has to be made has to come from the team heads, it has to go through either me or my dad well in advance, so time is not wasted. Everyone has to be involved from the initial design stage, and not just at the end. I want them to spend more time on designing, rather than design for two weeks and then execute for six months. No. Take more time on your design because that's what's most important.

"Firstly, it was about efficiency; you're in the office on time, you set goals for the day, and get things done. You don't have to stay late. Go home so that you don't get burned out."

DS: You come from a design and art family. How do you differentiate between family time and work time?

AM: We all work in the same building. My mom's studio is there, I’m working with my dad, and then my sister is also an architect. We decided that when we sit for dinner, we don't talk about the office. Because you get pulled and you just get into it and then you start talking about work. But we try very hard not to do that. And because now I'm not staying with my parents, our lunchtime is the time when we're all eating together before the lockdown. So that's our time to kind of discuss any issues and anything we need to talk about privately.

DS: What is the best part of your day, do you have any interests or hobbies?

AM: I like to do afternoon naps, a cup of tea, and then I feel very rejuvenated and good! This is only during lockdown though.

Before lockdown, I used to have this thing called Art night Thursday, which I was a regular visitor to. All the galleries are open till nine o'clock. After work, it was a fun thing for me and my friends to do that. And during lockdown that's not happening so I started gardening. I have so many little plants collected! I'm propagating plants, growing from seeds and there are mysterious plants growing barks, I don't know what the growing things are. So that's my newest hobby.

I've also always had a collection of Postcards that I put up. Some of these are from Philly and some different countries, wherever I've collected them. Some are from RISD, some from here. I have a box of them.

DS: Name a woman who inspires you.

AM: A woman I've been thinking about in particular, and just getting in touch with so she's been on my mind- my professor from Penn, Pamela Hawkes. She was in the preservation department and taught me contemporary design for historic sites. She's an architect by profession and practices with her husband at their firm Scattergood Design. Her work is excellent. It's something that I would aspire to do. She's very well-spoken, fast, and her readings were so interesting. I didn't like reading, but those readings every week? I looked forward to them. She's someone I look up to and I want to be like.

DS: What would you like to recommend to our readers? You don't like reading, but, you know, something to watch or listen to.

AM: I love podcasts and look for new podcasts, every day. So I'm going to recommend a few

  • My favourite one is called “Reply All”, it's about technology and the internet, so good, it's the best,

  • and listen to radio lab,

  • listen to 99% invisible which is the design podcast.

  • I listen to this podcast called The cut. It's about a lot of feminist issues political issues tied to feminism, that's a good one.

  • Women of illustration.

  • Serial! Serial, the first season was so good.

  • Another favourite revisionist history, Malcolm Gladwell podcast again. Excellent.

These are my favourites. All recommended.

DS: Wow! That’s an eclectic list. Can’t wait to listen to these. Thanks for having a candid conversation with us.

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