Two wheelers, especially motorbikes, have aways had an edge over their Four wheeled counterparts in terms of style, attitude and overall coolness quotient !

Smriti Prasad, our next pathbreaker, CMF designer at Royal Enfield, Chennai, works on both local and global projects, researching materials and trends for prototype development of motorbike seats.

Smriti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about being fascinated by the application of textiles and materials in extremely high technology driven environments.

For students, Arts collaborates with Science to transform an idea from a concept to reality through inspirational designs. Make your inspirations real !

Smriti,  tell us about your background?

I was born in the district town of Darbhanga, Bihar to a middle-class family. My father who is an Electrical Engineer (IIT Roorkee and BHU, Varanasi), has been working as an officer with the Central Government. My mother is an MSc in Botany and Hindustani classical music (LN Mithila University). While my mother completed her post-graduation, I spent most of my childhood days in my hometown. 

I grew up in a very musical and artistic environment. Classical and folk music ran in both sides of my family. My grandfather was a renowned radio artist and ‘Bajjika’ (dialect from North Bihar) folk singer. Since my early childhood days, my parents and my grandfather encouraged me to cultivate a skill other than academics. I remember making clay houses, clay stoves and sometimes singing with my grandfather during his ‘Baithaks’ (a musical evening). 

Many in India won’t know but Darbhanga has been one of the most important cultural and educational hubs since Pre-Imperial India. Living in such a cultural environment, my mother sent me to a well-known art and painting school which is run by my guru Mr. Sunil Manjul. I believe my first foundation stones were laid there. During this time, I not only learnt drawing and painting but also Kathak and Hindustani classical music. This training kept building my interest and love towards art.

My father’s job involves transfers; hence, I also got the opportunity to live and travel across India. Through this time, I was exposed to various languages, cultures, and traditions. It helped me get acquanited with the rich diversity of our country. 

I believe a vast exposure to various art and craft forms gave me a flavor of art and design culture which is now my profession and an integral part of my life. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Although, I was under training throughout my initial school days, when it came to career choice no one in my family thought beyond the conventional fields. With my inclination towards art and design, I was convinced that I wanted to work in this space. Post my high school, I took Biology with Mathematics however, I did not leave practicing art. 

In 2007, at a school lecture on careers (at Army Public School, Lucknow) the tutor spoke about Art & Design as a career. This got me curious and I straightaway went to her to know more. It took a few months to gather information and with all the small research, I went to convince my father. Initially he wasn’t sure, however, hats off to him that he accompanied me to places in Lucknow and Delhi to meet artists and designers who were from NIFT, NID and other prestigious art schools.

During my 12th Grade, I parallelly started preparing for the entrance exams of NID and NIFT. In 2008, I got through both, however, I chose to go for NID. During my 4 years of graduation, I specialized in Textile Design. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career? 

As I have outlined earlier, one of the main deciding factors was my love and inclination towards art and design. However, I was fortunate to get trained by my gurus, Mr. Sunil Manjul, and Mr. Vijay Singh. Also, my grandfather, parents and husband have played a very important role in helping me realize my career. 

Further, I have been blessed to have a close group of friends and well-wishers who have supported my work, guided me and have inspired me throughout my school and university days. Some of my ex-colleagues from industry have mentored me well! 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I believe it all started quite early in school days. I was always enthusiastic to participate in various extracurricular events. My first gallery exhibition which took place at APS Lucknow in 2007 gave me an exposure on how to exhibit work for a larger audience. At NID, I got the opportunity to work as an apprentice for a month under the guidance of Mr Zakir Khatri (a well-known wax-batik artisan). It was an extremely rewarding experience. 

As I moved on in my semesters, I did an internship with Synergy Lifestyles in Mumbai, where I got a glimpse of working on home furnishing textiles in an industrial setup. As a part of our curriculum at NID, I also went to the remote areas Champa in Chhattisgarh to study the Kosa Sari weaving traditions. Many of the projects that I underwent involved a lot of travelling, field work, research, and connecting with people to understand how systems function in a textile setup in various parts of the country. These projects built a strong interest towards color and material study. 

Towards my final year, I got interested in how textiles and its applications work in an extremely high technology driven environment. Hence, my quest led me to venture out in the domain of Color Material and Finish Design for products and automotive. I knew nothing about the field, as it is very niche, and a little literature was available for research. After all that I could gather, in 2012, as a part of my degree project, Groupe Renault offered me a 7 months CMF project at their studio in Mumbai. These 7 months were dedicated towards building my own brief for the project. The project brief was to come up with CMF trends and design concepts for a futuristic concept hatchback for the year 2020-25 keeping the Indian consumer in mind, ( This was followed by building concepts and samples, do research and documentation and also work on some of the live projects at Renault. I remember being considered for a job in the 3rd month itself!

After completion of the project I joined Renault as a full-time CMF designer in 2013. Being from a textile design background, I took a new path and entered an automotive space. As a CMF designer my role was to work on exterior and interior concepts from a CMF point of view, prepare renderings that support the ideas for management presentations, trend research, developments of samples both textile and non-textile with suppliers and others. During my time there, I could learn many new skills and software. I was a part of the wider CMF team and worked in close collaboration with Mumbai and Paris studios on projects like the KWID, Duster, Lodgy and others. For my work on KWID, I was awarded the prestigious Renault President’s Award in 2016. Further, to learn more about the industry, I got the opportunity to visit various auto-shows and events globally.

In mid 2016, I decided to leave my job to fulfill my aspiration of doing a postgraduate degree in design. My graduation at NID and the 3 plus years of work experience had laid a strong foundation to take that next leap. Over time I had cultivated interest in research led design explorations. PostGraduation was a way forward to move ahead into research. The biggest question was from where and how? 

In between the preparations for SOP’s, IELTS etc, I worked briefly with Tulips Ammbience, Pune where I got the opportunity to work on projects with various architects and interior designers. In this time, I felt that no knowledge goes in vain. Although, I was mostly working with home furnishing fabrics and materials, my CMF knowledge came handy while designing the upholstery and patterns, colour selections, client presentations, site visit and drawing preparations.

I applied to colleges internationally and got interview calls from a few, like the Royal College of Art, London, RISD, UAL and others. The interviews went well and in Feb 2017, I was offered a place at both the Royal College of Art and UAL. In Sep 2017, I went on to pursue a 2-years, Masters’ Degree at the Royal College of Art, London and I specialized in Textiles Mixed Media programme at the RCA. 

In 2017-18, I undertook my first research assignment on the folk embroidered traditions of Bihar. The Academic Board at the RCA found this dissertation credible enough and awarded me a Distinction. I also got the chance to present my work at the RCA Symposium. After the completion of my 1st year at the RCA, I was offered a 6 months Internship at Audi Germany, which unfortunately could not be realised, due to some technical reason. This was quite disheartening, and I still look back and realise that sometimes one needs to accept things as they come. Along with this, I got to work on an exciting project with Priestman Goode, London to generate concepts for a hyperloop project. It was a live project of 3 weeks where I was one of the participants from RCA Textiles MM. My concepts revolved around looking at Anthropocene as an overarching theme and work on materials and surface solutions that were made out of food waste. 

My time at the RCA and London, was more of an exploratory and introspective journey. I got the chance to travel and get exposed to an incredible art and design culture, museums, events, shows, and many others. I did many collaborative projects with my cohorts from across the world. It was a self-driven, research oriented programme which helped me to grow not only as a designer or artist but also a human being. My biggest takeaways through this experience is developing an aptitude for personal practice in art and design and working together with people who are from different cultures, acknowledging the differences of opinions.

I returned to India in Sep 2019 and founded my studio ‘Flowergarden Designs’, taking a resolve to develop my own art and design practice. Meanwhile, I got interview opportunities and considerations for CMF design roles from Skoda India, Pininfarina Germany and Royal Enfield. Additionally, I also wanted to contribute whatever little I know through my education drive. Hence, I took guest lectures at NID Ahmedabad (Textile Design and TAD), Vishwaniketan Institute of Design and volunteered as a visual arts facilitator at The Apprentice project (a Pune based NGO under the Teach for India, who works on alternative education and skill development for underprivileged children).

How did you get your first break?

I believe my first break was the day my mother took me to the art school in Darbhanga, which opened up the world of art and design to me. From a career perspective, I believe the internship opportunity with Groupe Renault was a huge milestone that opened many doors.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Being from a middle-class family who always believed in conventional careers, my biggest challenge was to convince them to let me pursue my own career path as a designer and artist. I believe, to gain their trust, a lot of research, a constant dialogue and discussion was helpful. 

Additionally, a continuous questioning from them about the monetary prospects of my career choice was overwhelming. I had to educate them every now and then with examples of the importance of design education in our day-to-day life and also shared the work of established people from the field.

Another challenge was the transition from a purely textile design faculty to its applications in an automotive industry. There was a lot to unlearn and relearn. Also, a very few women get into this industry especially in India, hence, it was difficult to understand the ways of working. However, thanks to my superiors and colleagues who helped me in my journey so far. 

Last but not the least, post my masters’ my biggest boon and bane would be to keep up to my own practice which wasn’t the case earlier. I am now looking forward to building more personal projects wherein the approach is towards art. However, time management is something I really need to look at and resolve.

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as a Deputy Manager- CMF at Royal Enfield (Eicher Motors Ltd.), Chennai. The switch from a four-wheeler to a two-wheeler product has been even more challenging. The playground remains similar; however, the scope of work has reduced relatively, which tasks me to think more in terms of constraints. 

In this role, I work on both local and global projects, trend research, and CMF developments. In the process, I often look at vinyl, leathers, paint finishes, its development, various metal and plastic finishes, prototype development for seats. As of now I haven’t worked on textiles in this role however, again as I have highlighted earlier, no knowledge goes obsolete, my earlier experiences of working in both industry and academics has helped me to grow. Addressing the needs of a motorcycle customer and adding value in their daily lifestyle, through the team and my work is what we practice. I believe this role gives me a chance to add on to my knowledge in the domain and gain experience and skills in working with mobility products other than cars. 

CMF design is an industry in itself. Off late many young designers are venturing out in this field. I believe one needs to have a keen interest in mobility solutions/products. May be an avid driver or rider! Skills are a part of the process and it gets developed with practice. To start with, a good understanding of colour theory, elements of design like composition, balance, forms etc. is necessary. Popular software skills like photoshop, illustrator, keyshot, Vred are very helpful. Sometimes a few organisations require the knowledge of 3D software like Rhino, Alias. 

Additionally, a knack to work with different kinds of materials is valuable. Especially, in motorcycles, workshop skills like welding, spray painting, using basic tools etc. is always a plus. I believe the foundation of this field lies in ‘an eye for detail’ and a sensitivity towards materials. Furthermore, presentation, communication and other soft skills are very important to cultivate. 

My typical day at work would revolve around a lot of research, thinking and planning next steps for the project, looking at sample developments, spending time to read books, magazines. Actually, a lot of my time goes in looking at colors and getting inspired. Meetings and discussions with various teams like engineering, product planning, marketing and others are inevitable and not to forget many cups of coffee!

CMF design is one such area where you constantly get the opportunity to collaborate and work as a team. I cherish this a lot at work! In this process, one gets to learn new things from each other and eventually it becomes a healthy learning environment.

How does your work benefit society? 

Art and design play a pivotal role in the development of society, hence, a nation. The initiation of any project, product or service happens through an idea which is realised through art & design. It acts as a medium to express and communicate intangibles into tangibles. It not only benefits in uplifting the experience or lifestyle of people but also provides a platform for them to think and question. A large part of my work involves working with colours hence, I have to consider my end user while deciding on a specific palette. Also, as an overall product it gives freedom of mobility for people to commute.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There have been many projects both in academics and in industry that have been very interesting and rewarding at a personal level. One such project is my MA dissertation ‘The embroidered cloth’( . It was a fully research oriented project at the Royal College of Art. It involved a lot of discipline and a constant motivation. For more than 2 months I went to various libraries across London to bring out the best I could do. After a long time, I felt so happy and satisfied with the outcome of the research work. Moreover, receiving the letter of distinction from such a prestigious institution and getting the research recognised at a global platform has been humbling.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I believe that everyone has their own individual journeys to make. Many times things don’t work as we plan, however, we must put our best efforts in whatever we do, keep on trying and move on in life. Though success is good, we need to acknowledge and celebrate our failures too. It teaches us more. Furthermore, as humans we have to evolve with time, hence, keep unlearning and relearning. As you progress in your respective careers, the most important attitude to build should be to believe in the power of collaboration. I believe, anything that we as humans do, involves several stakeholders and collaborators. Similarly, when it comes to art or design careers one needs to collaborate much on projects rather than working in isolation.

Future Plans?

Every day something new happens, hence, I won’t say that I have a concrete plan ready for the future. However, I do wish to give more time to my own practice, while collaborating on exciting projects and becoming a full time researcher and mentor for budding students.