This month’s feature is Pooja Chalishazar, an interior architect and startup founder based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her intercontinental journey starts in a humble Gujarati household in Kenya, moves on to Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art, and is followed by a pivotal opportunity to work at Kengo Kuma and Associates in Tokyo. From taking Bharatnatyam classes in Nairobi to navigating immigration in the UK, Pooja’s story reminds us that opportunity is everywhere. Read her interview with #designstri about her Indian-Kenyan identity, cultivating her design and sustainability ideologies through eastern and western influences, and co-creating the affordable slow fashion brand ‘Nuno’.
DS: Let's start from the beginning! Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
PC: I was born in Ahmedabad, and pretty much a month later, we came to Nairobi where I’ve spent the better part of my childhood. I went to school here from nursery, kindergarten, all the way to high school. Growing up in Nairobi was pretty amazing! There are almost five generations of Indians here. There is a long history of the presence of the Indian diaspora in Kenya; with many, particularly from Gujarat migrating here as traders and merchants, as well as Sikhs from Punjab, brought in to provide labor for building the Kenya-Uganda railway during the British Raj. Indians are everywhere!
"Kenya is blessed with beautiful weather, nature, and people. I have fond memories of playing outside until the late hours of the evening, eating chili makai (maize) on the roadside, and going to the Giraffe Centre on school trips."
My parents were just newly married and moved to Kenya in 1990 - making them the first generation in our family from India. From a very young age, I saw their work ethic, the struggle, and the hustle. They came here with just an idea for a better opportunity. They were supposed to stay for just two years, which turned into thirty years, and this home for us now. Kenya is blessed with beautiful weather, nature, and people. I have fond memories of playing outside until the late hours of the evening, eating chili makai (maize) on the roadside, and going to the Giraffe Centre on school trips.
DS: How did you become interested in interior architecture?
PC: Being part of the Indian diaspora, you end up having family all around the world. From a very early age, my parents took us on trips to visit our family in India, which included trips to Rajasthan. We were exposed to travel, and that started opening my eyes to the incredible architecture in the world!
I always knew I wanted to do something creative but as the Indian stereotype goes of being a doctor or an engineer (of course that’s changed now), my parents always tried to explain to me that having a commercial sense in a creative field is just as important. Interior Architecture was a combination of that. And I was inspired constantly by being a young tourist and knew that I wanted to go down that line, eventually.
DS: How did your education and experiences shape your design outlook?
PC: Nairobi didn’t have a very thriving art or design scene whilst growing up - this is quickly changing now though. Not in a negative way, but my experience education-wise, did not have much of an impact on my design outlook. There wasn’t much importance given to arts & design in school. It wasn’t until I went to university at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland when I realized there is so much. So much still to explore. Learning beside multidisciplinary fields, next to artists, product designers, architects, and fashion designers all under one roof were really interesting- a thriving and stimulating environment to be in. And I realized that in design when you're creative, you can go across the membrane. Following on, Japan was a massive change in my design outlook which also showed how taste develops over time.
What I learned in art school, and then going into the real world - I feel there is a massive gap. They [schools] do not prepare you for the practical, ‘working’ life. What was amazing about art school though, was that you could be completely experimental with your ideas. It was more about concepts, but not necessarily if these concepts can be built into reality. I feel that students need to be provided with more industry knowledge, be taught more about materials and construction details, which are extremely vital. It was a lot of self-teaching, and as most people do, I learned mainly from my work experience.
"Learning beside multidisciplinary fields, next to artists, product designers, architects, and fashion designers all under one roof were really interesting- a thriving and stimulating environment to be in."
DS: Wow! That’s so diverse. So, you mentioned that your life had a massive change when you moved to Japan. How so?
PC: Yes, after studying in Scotland for four years, I was hoping to get a job in London or anywhere in the UK after graduating, but it was a pretty tough process especially as an international student. It was extremely difficult to attain a work visa - the rejections were not easy when you know you're good enough but don’t stand an equal chance.
So I moved back to Nairobi, pretty disappointed of course, and thinking, ‘what am I going to do next?’. A few months later, I decided to apply for an internship in Tokyo, which felt like a complete long shot. I was beyond ecstatic when I found out I got the internship at Kengo Kuma! It was a three-month internship but ended up turning into almost three years in Japan. I worked at Kengo Kuma & Associates for nine months, and then I moved to an interior architecture firm called Puddle Inc, where I worked for almost two years.
I worked as a Junior Interior Designer during my time there, mainly on cafe and restaurant projects. We were a very small team when I joined initially, working closely on projects with Masaki Kato, the director and lead architect at Puddle. Along with his lovely wife, Naka Kato, the brand manager of Puddle. I was exposed to Japanese work culture - very long hours, rigorous office cleanliness, attention to detail, loyalty towards your work among others, but I really enjoyed the hustle and the buzz of working and living in a city like Tokyo. I have to say though, the language barrier was not easy - because most of the meetings and conversations at work would be in Japanese.
It felt like a dream. I was introduced to a whole new style of design and architecture. Tokyo is such an incredible melting pot for creativity across architecture, fashion, lifestyle. Filled with experimental buildings, every neighborhood is different; yet this city has managed to preserve its culture both old and new in such harmony.
DS: How do you balance your Kenyan upbringing, Japanese design experience, and Indian roots? What was the impact of these on your design philosophy?
PC: Oh, this is a great question! Each culture and experience ingrains and continues to teach me something different every time. People sometimes ask, do you feel more Indian or more Kenyan? At home, my parents raised us very Gujarati - speaking our mother tongue, celebrating Indian festivals, our values; but then my outside world - my friends, my teachers, and everyday life in general, is all ‘Kenyan’.
In terms of design, I derive from all three cultures in different ways. From India, I would say, the colors, patterns, and boldness are always iconic and such an inspiration. In Kenya, everything is so raw and unfinished, there’s a lot of beauty in that. The application of materials is very different, so the way they use wood here, for example, is quite unrefined. Whereas in the Western countries, especially Scandinavian countries - they use wood in a very clean, refined form, so it's about finding that balance. Japanese design focuses more on functionality, details, and durability. My experience in Japan taught me about designing spaces and objects that are simple and well-made, for the long term rather than following trends. It makes you realize that designing something simple is often the most difficult. I am still figuring out my design philosophy but I want to continuously keep learning, keep growing, and understand new ways of working, but these are some of the core values. Create something that people will love and use for a long time, rather than what is in trend.
"From India, I would say, the colors, patterns, and boldness are always iconic and such an inspiration. In Kenya, everything is so raw and unfinished, there’s a lot of beauty in that. [...] in the Western countries, especially Scandinavian countries - they use wood in a very clean, refined form so it's about finding that balance."
DS: What are you currently pursuing?
PC: After moving back to Nairobi in January 2020, from an intense couple of years in Tokyo, I needed to come home and just do nothing for a while, and then COVID-19 fell upon us. I started experimenting with natural dyeing which I was always interested in and finally found the time. I collaborated with a friend, Jasleen Matharu, who comes from a fashion background. We began the process of plant dyeing together, the idea slowly evolved which led us to start our brand, Nuno. It initially started with plant-dyed masks, because in Nairobi there were mostly just disposable surgical masks available.
It started as a small project but quickly responded well to the market here. After the masks, we developed some plant-dyed tote bags and now we're experimenting with other products. I’m also freelancing on some furniture design projects on the side. I want to continue down the path of interior architecture, and thinking of new prospects for next year. I’m excited to see how Nuno develops and where this journey will take me!
DS: What's the best part of your day and what are your interests or hobbies?
PC: The best part of my day would be my four o’clock cup of chai. I look forward to having something sweet with my chai *haha* It's always a really nice feeling in the moments where you're creating stuff when work just flows and get deep into the zone.
Music is also a really big part of me. I love collecting vinyl records too, my collection is slowly but surely building up. Some of my favorite artists are Khruangbin, their style is an eclectic mix of Thai, Mexican & West African influences. I also love Bonobo, Anderson Paak, Maribou State, Leon Bridges, Tom Misch, Lianne La Havas, Notorious B.I.G - oh the list could keep going!
I used to do Bharatanatyam for the longest time. I did my Arangetaram in 2011. Wow, it's been nine years! I started at the age of five, and I trained, both in Kenya and India. Oh, and I love badminton - such an Indian thing to say - but I love a good game of badminton.
DS: What is it that you'd like to see more of in the design industry?
PC: When I started Nuno, I began researching a lot of slow fashion and sustainable brands, organic products that are good for the environment. I quickly realized it's really quite expensive, and unaffordable to be wearing or living a ‘sustainable’ lifestyle. Of course, I understand there’s a large cost of materials, research, and production in small quantities. However, I would love to see sustainable brands be more accessible and more affordable for people. Perhaps in an ideal world, if we're trying to change the world to be more environmentally friendly, why should it have to be such an expensive lifestyle? That's something that I feel strongly about. Good design, well-made things in general, should be more accessible to more people.
In Kenya, the general mindset for architecture is to clear all the land before construction. So, they just cut ALL the trees and surrounding elements which I feel is terrible. It's about respecting what's already existing in the space, and if you've got a 100-year-old oak tree, why don't you build around the tree instead of cutting down the tree. These small things are the mentality in the industry here and are something I would like to see a change in.
"I would love to see sustainable brands be more accessible and more affordable for people. [...] if we're trying to change the world to be more environmentally friendly, why should it have to be such an expensive lifestyle?
This may not be related directly to the design industry but, cultural appropriation also touches a nerve for me. Yoga, for example, has been heavily commercialized in the Western world but lost all authenticity- aerobics yoga, goat yoga, Afro yoga - it’s all a bit absurd. Another example is something like haldi doodh, something that’s been around in our culture for generations is suddenly discovered in the Western world and turned into trends like ‘golden milk’ or ‘turmeric latte’! Just like Ayurveda has existed in Indian culture for thousands of years, please don’t make it a ‘new’ discovery without any credit to its roots.
DS: Describe your ideal life in five years personally or professionally.
PC: Well, I hope to be living simply and happily, have a family of my own, and be working on projects that I’m passionate about. I hope to give back to the community through design. I think this year has taught us all that you never know what’s going to happen, so be grateful for everything.
DS: Who inspires you and how?
PC: Personally, I look up to my mum - she has always been a Boss Lady. When she had me, she continued to work full time. I remember sleeping on her office sofa as a baby, even when I was sick she would take me in and barely missed a day of work. She's seen her own struggles in life and has been an anchor in mine.
In the design world, there are so many inspiring women! Tiipoi is a brand-led by Spandana Gopal - I really like her way of thinking, she's trying to change the dialogue of the narrative of Indian design. Tiipoi is based in London and Bangalore. Grassroot by Anita Dongre is also one that I really like. She has changed the livelihood of so many women in the villages of Rajasthan, keeping the Indian traditional craftsmanship alive and bringing it onto a global platform. Kangan Arora is a designer specializing in pattern and print, based in London. Her work is beautiful. Oh, there are so many inspiring women!
DS: Agreed, in fact, this conversation has given us a lot of inspiration already! Thanks for a lovely conversation for sharing your story with us Pooja!