Ageless Asia

Some traditions can never be uprooted… only newer, more exciting and engaging ones sprout from them. Latika Khosla contemplates classic Asian design in a contemporary light.

Latika Khosla is on the board of the Color Marketing Group USA and the founder-organizer of Colors India. She is also the founder-director of Freedom Tree, a wholly-Indian, colour-led lifestyle brand with retail presence in Parel, part of Mumbai’s trendy mill district. Her studio, Freedom Tree Design, undertakes colour onsultancies and design assignments. Latika is also on the trend panel for Azko Nobel Colour Futures


This morning, an email about grandparents was forwarded to my inbox. Many of you might have read it. Words collected from eight-year-old  children, somewhere in the west, who have written about their grandparents. Here is a sampling.
“Grandparents are a lady and a man who
have no little children of their own. They like other people’s.”                
“When they take us for walks, they slow down past things like pretty leaves and caterpillars.”
“Grandparents don’t have to do anything except be there when we come to see them.”  
“When they read to us, they don’t skip.
They don’t mind if we ask for the same story over again.”
“They don’t say ‘Hurry up.’”

Traditional dolls, contemporary design. A family hierarchy of salt and pepper shakers stands guard at the museum shop in Taiwan.

These phrases make us laugh, and with that laughter, is a fierce welling up of fond memories. A recollection of wonder years with grandparents; patient and wise, they have a terrific exchange with curious minds and share child-like innocence.

Distilled aroma of hair care seductively entices us through glass vials.

Patience and wisdom… key words that describe my overall impression of Asia. So am I comparing us to grandparents? No, it is more the agelessness of Asia, where fantastic architecture and conventional techniques are constantly being re-invented. Modern testimonials are created as a counterpoint to longstanding monuments. Lacquered dolls and paper ephemera capture a timeless tradition.

Timeless comfort
Despite the current frenetic activity of daily lives in cities, time and results in Asia are not counted in quarters of a year. It’s a long-term view, measured in decades if not centuries. Timelessness in the plastic and graphic arts is always a conversation with age-old references.

Grid structures made of tiles create solace in a pantry.

The brush stroke of calligraphy is transformed into a sensational sumi-e (inkwash painting of East Asia). A temple with a thousand Buddhas is an inspiration for an acrylic installation. The carved holy cow is now an arresting graphic on a t-shirt. We never forget the sentiment or the sanctity of the original. But irreverent grandkids can afford to give the raspberry to age-old tradition (the grandparent) because they have the comfort of knowing that timeless, inherent values of a form or concept will not be diminished with their interpretations. In fact, allusions lionize the age-old and give them continuity and new life.

Handcraft and knitting makes a comeback. Lovingly covered chair backs are toy-like objects we love and cuddle.

Divided harmony
A couple of decades ago, when I briefly lived in Japan, I felt like I was in two worlds that lived in harmony. The aesthetic of traditional Japan, the concept of wabi-sabi, seemingly collided with all that was modern, just across the street — tall steel-and-glass structures, brash lighting, electronic sounds… and, within that, enclaves of solace. Wabi-sabi is described as an object or expression that can bring about a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing. People drifted easily between the two, acknowledging the place each had in their lives. In the evening, they could be at a karaoke bar in frenzied Roppongi, where multicoloured lights and mechanized lobsters reached out lividly. And a week later, they could head outdoors to picnic all night under the trees during the sakura season. And still another time, they’d be having tea at a ryokan and bathing in hot springs.

A thousand Buddhas light up a pillared temple sanctum.

All these activities are quintessential Japan. Similar examples exist in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, China, and even India, where multiple avatars endure in our daily lives.

Things I have seen, places I have been
Among memorable impressions from my visits to places in Asia is my first one to Kobe, Japan, in the aftermath of an earthquake. Much of it new and rebuilt, with cracks in sidewalks and major walls. However, those were wrinkles of time on the brave new face of a calm city. I’m fascinated by the perfection of corners: that of a trapezoid communal table in a noodle bar; one in a room where slate floor meets a wood-and-plaster-wall; and the centering of a noren (short curtain at entrance) and graphic lettering. The strong graphite greys of Seoul, Korea, capture the eye: multiple textures deftly juxtaposed; the tarmac, concrete inlaid with marbles, wooden planking and rough plaster strokes. The central district of Insadong adjoining the palace complex is a jewel, where timelessness is best seen in small shops, cafes, studios and art galleries.

Slotting things in place in an organized way is the way of the east. Calligraphic tools neatly arranged, and looking for directions made easier in Insadong with coloured blocks marking stores and pathways.

A contemporary cosmetic store, with its state-of-the-art method of dispensing shampoo, enhances the experience of buying the right one. Delicious fruit cocktails and herbaceous clusters are placed in giant distilling tubes, and distinctive essence comes out in tiny vials for us to drink in the aroma. Around the corner are old stores selling multicoloured papers. It’s akin to a sari-matching centre in India. The most traditional commodity of all, incense, is now available in fluorescent shades. In an inner sanctum in Taiwan, a temple has a thousand lit Buddhas. Outside, temporal paper lanterns light up smiles of delight on the children’s faces.

Studio pottery, infinite variation in hand-glazed spoons, handmade paper with calligraphy.

Tradition can be the alphabet to create a modern, contemporary vocabulary — one that challenges preconceived notions, yet is respectful of the original. Just as two generations meet each other halfway to start a meaningful dialogue.