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All it takes is a scroll through Akanksha Sharma’s Instagram feed to know that design runs through her veins. I chance upon a sofa that looks like it is made of raw steak and a ring that is all teeth with braces. It’s probably also why Ikea singled her out to work for them as their youngest designer and the first Indian one at that. She describes herself as a very visual person and loves the depth of indigo and the sensuality of red, something that she hopes to infuse into her work for Ikea’s India launch later this year.
Please tell us about yourself?
Akanksha was “always interested in art, but I didn’t know until I joined Delhi University as a B. Com student that I wanted to pursue design professionally.” She sneaked out of home to take the entrance tests for NIFT and eventually flew the coop, ruffling some feathers while breezing past: an “original, independent” streak, she tells us, often landed her in trouble. “I was always the rebellious one,” she says.
Akanksha Sharma is IKEA’s first Indian hire and the youngest designer at the Swedish furniture and homeware retailer. Her first collaboration with IKEA was when she was still a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in New Delhi.
Headlined by Swedish designer Martin Bergström, the furniture giant worked with a group of students from NIFT to create the SVÄRTAN collection. This home furnishings collection was manufactured in monotones of greys and blacks and established an Indian connect with the use of textiles native to the country while maintaining the minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic that IKEA is known for.
Tel us about your Journey to the center of design.
“I grew up in a strict, conventional family and it made me curious to explore unknown realms”. By now you’d be forgiven to think Sharma has always known where her passion lay. As it turns out, she once studied commerce at Gargi College! “My parents wanted me to get into science, but I was scared of physics, so commerce was the next best thing,” she sheepishly admits, before exclaiming how college opened her eyes to a “new world that existed outside of me”. “I was part of the art, dramatic and photography societies… This gave me a lot of exposure in cinema, arts, music and design,” she says.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
So Sharma sneaked out of home to take the NIFT entrance exams. Her rebellious streak did not die down at design school, where she confesses she often questioned its rigidity of curriculum. “A year after, I enrolled myself into NIFT where my thoughts found structure. The ball of energy in my head found an outlet, and I discovered that I was drawn towards an aesthetic that was bold, graphic and expressive”, she says.
But those years also brought her stints at 11:11 and modelling assignments with Raw Mango — she has a penchant for saris and she ombre dyes them herself. A graduation project, of natural indigo block-printed knitwear, with Arvind Mills, is something else she is proud of. “Ikea’s workshop was another highlight, where 25 of us created over 2,000 prints over three days. We went out on to the streets to explore pre-existing textures and surfaces, and made impressions using everything around us — from Hauz Khas Fort’s pillars and brick walls to rocks, railings and even grass,” she reminisces. Fifteen of these were finally shortlisted, to evolve into the 2016 India-inspired collection, Svärtan, and were used in its limited-edition fabrics, prints, sketch books, small furniture and homeware.
“The interesting project came my way in the form of a collaboration between Swedish designer Martin Bergström, Ikea and NIFT after which Ikea’s Creative Leader Karin Gustavsson extended an invitation to work for them. I had to turn it down because I was in my third year then and needed to graduate before I accepted any job offers. They were gracious enough to wait the year out and handed me a design internship to hone my skills. I finally joined them as an in-house designer in February this year.”
Tell us about your first project?
“My first project for Ikea was a collaboration between Martin and NIFT that entailed an alternate representation of India. The collection was called Svärtan (meaning blackness) and highlighted modernism through a monochromatic lens. When I left for Sweden to officially work with Ikea a couple of months later, it was quite unnerving to find a unique voice in the massive pool of talent. The company focuses on creating a better life for millions of people and that gives you perspective when you’re working. You also get to learn so much! Viktigt and Sinnerlig designed by Ingegerd Råman and Ilse Crawford are all about simple forms, natural materials, and honest imperfections and they’ve altered my own thinking. I have to say though, of everything I’ve learned here, my favourite is ‘fika’ – it’s a Swedish coffee break and boy, do the Scandinavians take theirs seriously.”
What did you learn at Ikea?
Her time in Sweden (during her internship) was an “explosive experience in the middle of a tiny village”, not least because she could leave the rigidity of college behind and enjoy the freedom Ikea gives its designers. “It’s a pool of madness and an ocean of talent, where you can easily get lost if you don’t know where to start. Nobody tells you what to do, so I hustled a lot, talked to people, and managed to get really exciting work,” shares Sharma, now an ardent fan of fika, the Swedish coffee break “that the Scandinavians take very seriously”.
“Working at Ikea has taught me a lot about what goes behind the design. Here, you are on the factory floor a lot or meeting the craftsmen,” she says, insisting she is still finding her “own voice”. And while she isn’t ideating or travelling, her alter ego is exploring mixed media like photography, illustration, collage and video, and reading up on artists. “I am working on a few photo essays and working towards an exhibition in Norway,” she signs off.
What are your strengths?
“Iam a visual artist along with being a textile designer. Having specialised in Indian textiles, I work heavily with structure, construction, pattern and fabric manipulations and the technique of dyeing and printing. My alter ego explores mixed media like photography, collage, illustration, audio, and video. This is why I like to travel and get acquainted with new surroundings, cultures, tastes and smells; it inspires my design process. I am currently working on Ikea’s India launch collection and here you will find hints of anything that has ever moved me.”