A soulful box for art

Playing by the rules of being unpretentious and subtle, interior designer Kunal Shah creates Tarq, a contemporary art gallery, where the carefully choreographed space brings art to the forefront.

 

Kunal Shah copy
Interior designer Kunal Shah

It is extremely rare to be able to create a space that respects the significance of its context in history and simultaneously become the setting for engaging with anomalous objects and their narratives. All this while, ensuring that the space does not lack soul. Kunal Shah, a young interior designer based in Mumbai, receives a brief to create a contemporary art gallery from Hena Kapadia, a young gallerist who has been involved in Mumbai’s art world and abroad for over five years. Braced with logical reasoning and an acute aesthetic sensitivity, Kunal creates a deceivingly simple shell for a new art gallery called Tarq in the venerable Dhanraj Mahal, an Art Deco building built in the 1930s.

 

Interior Photography by Kunal Bhatia of TARQ Gallery designed by Kunal Shah Designs. Only Editorial Usage rights granted to Kunal Shah Designs. Copyrights belong to photographer.
The unassuming shell of the main gallery provides programmatic flexibility. It serves as a space for displaying art and for conducting workshops.

Kunal explains succinctly, “When we walked in, we were very clear that it is not a white cube gallery, it is not a modern building and the bones are already in place. I had to make sure; one respects the heritage aspect, brings it out, and enhances it at the same time, without going too period. It has to be a white cube with a soul. “This space was designed to be a residence, so the process takes into account adaptive reuse. Kunal strips the space of the redundant elements and tries to go back to what the architect had intended, as much as possible. He uses delicate interventions and tactful tweaking to inject soul and character to the gallery with the central theme of art being the focus.

The cassette AC is efficiently hung from the ceiling, thereby retaining height and adding character to the space.
The cassette AC is efficiently hung from the ceiling, thereby retaining height and adding character to the space.

The art gallery is unpretentious right from the entrance. The letters Tarq cut out in metal grace an art deco, two-toned panelled door. It opens into a vestibule with a small storage on one wall that also doubles up as a counter for displaying art and a descriptive board explaining the events on the opposite wall. This leads one to the reception area where the furniture is custom made to suit the needs of the receptionist and does not belong to a particular style. However, the woodwork and the polish play a crucial role of visually connecting this piece to history. “We at our firm, put a lot of effort in ensuring that the furniture is just gently placed in the whole scheme of things,” says Kunal. In keeping with the ethos of the furniture being a non-obtrusive addition, subtle things like not taking the console right till the end of the walls, help achieve this effect. “I have built storage that doubles up as a partition wall and left this little gap on the side and the top to give a sense of beyond.” explains the designer. Tarq is filled with such gestures that use subconscious registration to make it very comfortable and easy for one to navigate the space.

The custom-made bench is carefully crafted with a width that renders a sleek look without drawing ungainly attention to it.
The custom-made bench is carefully crafted with a width that renders a sleek look without drawing ungainly attention to it.

On the other side of the partition is the gallery where an extremely thin and continuous band of skirting that’s visually unobstructed by any object, gives the white display walls an effect of being gently suspended, almost like a light fabric. “These subtle things always play a role in how we think and feel,” says Kunal, summing up an essential design parameter of his practise.

The heritage building, with all its grandeur and a fascinating story, also has its challenges. “The existing flooring was a beautiful terrazzo stone but very badly damaged and patchy. So unfortunately, we couldn’t restore the gallery’s main floor,” explains Kunal. “When we hit the site, we explored various ideas like filling the cracks and crevices with molten gold pigment, going back to the Japanese concept of filling tricky spaces with something more precious, so you add value to it. But we couldn’t go ahead with that as it would be too distracting to have such an engaging floor in an art gallery. At the same time, we were very conscious of the heritage aspect so we didn’t want to rip it off keeping in mind that in the future, this flooring might work for some other user.” In response to these factors, Kunal and his team decide on doing a soft intervention that is removable. They decide to go for solid old Burma wood, installed with a tongue and groove joint. “We wanted this flooring to almost feel like it came with the heritage building.”

The white canvas on the partition between the reception area and the main gallery, deliberately leaves a border, playing with the notion of furniture being gently placed.
The white canvas on the partition between the reception area and the main gallery, deliberately leaves a border, playing with the notion of furniture being gently placed.

“In a gallery, the lesser the details you show, the more sophisticated the space is. It would be too distracting to be able to see the door to the cabin,” asserts Kunal referring to the entry to the gallerist’s area. So a simple gesture like pulling the passage wall between the two rooms further to hide the door does the trick. It is a simple solution but cracking it is what showcases the restraint exerted by the designer. As a result, the main gallery is a perfect rectangle, with space for unusual artwork on the cabin wall just beyond the gallery wall, adding depth and arousing intrigue amongst the art enthusiasts. The flooring in the gallerist’s cabin is retained and polished and the entire end-to-end library is gently placed such that the flooring borders and patterns are not unceremoniously hidden.

A wall-to-wall library, made using reclaimed Burma teak, is positioned against the wall.
A wall-to-wall library, made using reclaimed Burma teak, is positioned against the wall.

Kunal takes a similarly simple approach in handling the lighting and the AC units. “We suspended the tracks instead of touching it to the ceiling. It’s far more delicate, the shell remains the shell and very fragile lights are hanging. Also, this display area is one space;the suspension helps in keeping the track complete without having to break due to beams,” he elaborates. “Similarly, installing the AC is particularly tough in this kind of space with low heights. Ideally, you would pack the ceiling down with cassette units flushed with the ceiling. I can’t do that here as the ceiling heights are not very generous and the volume keeps getting cut. As a solution, we hang the cassette units in the gentlest possible manner,” explains Kunal. These tricks ensure that it does not make the space look and feel ungainly and at the same time, it does not lose out on efficiency.

The console behind the reception desk is designed to not span the width of the wall.
The console behind the reception desk is designed to not span the width of the wall.

Tarq attempts to create a strong core, a shell that amicably houses art without once over-powering it. The shell is like the master puppeteer doing his job in the background without being noticed, striving to get the people mesmerized by the action, always ensuring that the focus stays on the puppets. Remove the puppeteer and the play falls flat. And Kunal is that puppeteer… who delicately pulled the strings to create an environment conducive for the artists’ work. Tarq has an unusual combination of being a modern contemporary gallery in a heritage set-up. Kunal uses simplicity and distillation to create an inconspicuous shell that artfully loses its identity to the magnificence of the art it houses.
CONCEPT 
To create a contemporary art gallery within the confines of a Grade III heritage structure, such that it becomes a platform for showcasing and inviting conversation on art from various contexts.
MATERIALS
Furniture: Solid teak and linseed oil polish
Walls: 
Paint (base white shade from Dulux)
Lighting: Track lights
FACT FILE
Project: Tarq Art Gallery
Location:
Dhanraj Mahal, Apollo Bunder, Colaba
Client:
Hena Kapadia
Design team:
Riddhi Doshi
Contractor:
Nirmaan India
Master carpenter:
Jeevaram Suthar

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