An intimate portrait of interior designer Ghazala Rahman!
Walking into the home of Ghazala Rahman, founder of In Design interiors, is similar to gazing into a mirrored kaleidoscope; there’s a delight in every corner with a restrained balance that doesn’t overwhelm the eye. Looking through a kaleidoscope, the colours and patterns steer the gaze from one corner to another. The geometry of it, the harmony of its symmetry is what truly captivates you to explore its intricacies. The house charms you from the minute you enter the main gate. In the front entrance hang two small replicas of Frida Kahlo’s consummate pieces. As I walk in the first thing I see is a gold-mustard armoire next to a painting of three women by Anwar Saeed.
“This work can’t be done by anyone,” says Rahman as she traces her fingers delicately over the hand painted armoire. “Look at the hand painting and patina, I finished it myself. In the early stages of my career I would sometimes do the colouring and layout and even draw with the craftsmen. This is one of my favourite pieces.”
Rahman proceeds to give a tour of her home which her and her family have lived in since the 1980s. In a time when stylists reign supreme, everything from the clothes one wears to the paintings in one’s home are, for many, dictated by the status quo.
“It’s totally commercial,” Rahman comments on the current interior design practices. “When I started working with interiors, people had collections to work with. You have a collection and then you build your interior around that. You don’t start with a blank slate. Now it’s like the house has been made, the decorator has come, you don’t choose items down to the ashtray. It’s impersonal, it’s brash, it’s over the top. There’s not participation by the client at all.”
Rahman’s home reflects her craft, her fashion and most significantly, her culture. The house was designed by visionary architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz.
“We both worked on it together. He was my teacher at college and I had a lot of respect for his work. I really appreciate Muslim architecture across the world and that was Kamil’s forte. Naturally, being a designer, I wanted to be involved with it at every stage of planning. I wanted the best he had to offer for my home.”
As we continue through the house, Rahman explains the traditionally Islamic structure of the house, which is defined by its structural symmetry distinctly measured by multiples of three. We walk onto the patio, which once again in traditional Islamic style, is invariably connected with the rooms of the house that surround it. As we reach the master bedroom we meet Rahman’s husband, Rashid Rahman, who, whilst sipping his afternoon tea, proclaims rather ceremoniously, “This is Ghazala’s house, I only live in it.”
Only a house this colourful could house such colourful inhabitants. Eventually we decide to sit in the family room, which boasts many of Rahman’s signature designs, including wooden jaalis (screens), which beautifully serve the function of venetian blinds. It also holds two striking paintings by Rooha Ghaznavi. Aside from their collection of Chugtais, the rest of the house is speckled with an assortment of artists.
“I haven’t bought expensive art ever. I’ve bought young artists who over the years; it’s just my luck – have become extremely well known and established. When I collected art there weren’t many art galleries. There was more intimacy in knowing artists; that’s how I got this collection of miniatures in the studies.”
We settle into the family room where tea is served. The room’s features epitomise the innate beauty of the house.
“I love natural materials, so a lot of the materials used in this house are wood, marble, and brick – but I don’t like too many patterns. The best way to design is when you know when to stop and if you don’t know when to stop that’s when you get into trouble with designing anything.”
When I ask Rahman, what she considers to be the ideal home she explains the utility of the home, which works in harmony with it’s aesthetic.
“What I wanted was a home that belonged to Lahore and not anywhere else. I love the climate of Lahore throughout the year.” She stops and looks around the room filled with daylight. “The light is very important so that the house breathes, and it’s got shifting light throughout the day.”
Rahman is dedicated to promoting a craft that she can call her own. Her commitment to building a home that is congruous with its natural environment is characteristic of her attitude towards her own craft.
“My own work was initially very steeped in looking at our own traditions. If you don’t look at your own traditions you really can’t be authentic. You can be as modern as you want, but your roots are there.”
Rahman studied fine arts at the National College of Arts in Lahore, after which she worked designing sets for PTV in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.
“After I graduated and got married, I was a designer for television. A bunch of us young people joined PTV and it was fantastic; a very creative environment. I did a lot of work in five years.”
Rahman’s career in furniture was an evolution: she began her foray into design with hand woven and screen printed fabrics which eventually turned to working with crafts, and skilled labour.
“Salima Hashmi had a lovely gallery in Pindi called Rohtas. She had my first show and no one could believe it was done in Pakistan. I’d sourced from textiles, from wall paintings, from frescos, I did hundreds of patterns.”
Rahman eventually started a company, now known as In Design, in 1979. For the first 6 years it functioned as a workshop. In 1985 the showroom was established, with another visionary architect, Nayyar Ali Dada.
“The traditional Islamic structure of the house is defined by its structural symmetry distinctly measured by multiples of three.“
At this point, Rahman’s two sons, Taimur and Jamal walk into the room.
“Am I going to sit with the entire family and do this interview?” Rahman quips. “This is extremely difficult for me!”
“This is what you do to my interviews!” Taimur, her elder son, retorts.
Rahman’s younger son, Jamal, is the successor of In Design as he has grown up with the business and recently joined on full-time. Rahman herself did not have similar support when she began her career.
“I found the business side very tough; to pioneer on your own, not to be dependant, to work with labour, do your accounts, to build a shop, to have a separate working place from the home, to run a home, to bring up three small children…” Rahman is cut off.
“Two, ma.” Jamal reminds his mother.
“Third was the husband.” Rahman ripostes without skipping a beat. Her humour, much like her resilience, is indubitable. “Looking after the family was very tough. Rashid is very liberal but I had to do my own work, I discussed things with him at home but he doesn’t interfere and tell me what to do. The responsibility was and is entirely mine, and this was thirty years ago. Women from my period are pioneers in their own field and are opening the doors for other women to come.”
I ask Rahman what her biggest struggles were as a working woman in her field at the time.
“People ran away with my work all the time and I didn’t have a clue – how can you when you’ve been living in a protective environment? Customers, clients, workers, staff, labour – my work was auctioned! There are smart people out there who see your weakness and exploit it. Designers copied my work, big shot designers were picking up chairs from each other’s homes. I thought it was so pointless, because I had the recognition, but how could I run my business day to day?” She takes a sip from her tea. “When I felt like giving up, I talked to my children, my husband and they helped me. They pulled me out of it.”
Rahman was business savvy, but she made a name for herself purely because of her innovative design.
“I looked very hard and closely at what was there before me. I don’t feel designers feel the need to do that today, whether it’s in fashion, furniture, or textiles.”
Rahman’s devotion to local craft is clear through her incorporation of it in her life and work.
“We look at culture in a very superficial way, we don’t understand what it means. Culture is your language, your literature, and your skills. We can build beautiful homes, and give recognition to our craftsman. I am the catalyst, as a designer, for that skill. I can’t do it without him. That respect, that relationship, you need to develop that. In India, they cultivated their local crafts and textiles and it gave them an identity. When they built that base it was a state enterprise. They’ve made a lifetime commitment to build that sense of identity and pride in themselves. We have always imported, we have not recognized what is our own.”
I ask Rahman about the pieces she considers successes and which ones are close to her heart.
“My furniture has never had that snobbery, everyone has bought it. When it started getting copied it was selling to everybody. I have a chair, which sits in my bedroom. It was one of my first chairs, and thirty years later it’s still selling. It gives me enormous pleasure that my design is still going into so many homes. All of my designs are original, but they don’t all come out of my head; I research a lot.”
“If you don’t look at your own traditions you really can’t be authentic.“
Rahman’s initial work explored the Raj period, looking at British influence in India and how local craftsmen interpreted it. Her design has manifested into many different aesthetics since, ranging from Chinese household furniture featuring clean lines, to modern art deco from the 1920s and 1930s that has a more classic and elegant feel.
“It makes sense to look at what is modern today because you always have to be with the times – not in the sense that you’re following a trend, but to evolve naturally towards it.”
Rahman‘s home is a testament to her talent as well as her perseverance over the years. Each nook reveals details that have been arranged with great thought and care, which only makes them more wonderful to discover. It is rare in this age of immediate gratification to find a space that has developed over time with such reverence to its innate structure. The house has evolved organically, each addition and modification reflecting the families’ changing needs and priorities. Most significantly, it is a home that could never be bought; only cultivated by a true eye for natural beauty and through a holistic understanding of its environment.