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Knock on wood

Author: admin

In times of disposable furniture, Sailaja Paturi goes completely against the grain. She designs and makes vintage pieces for true connoisseurs of the craft, finds Shyamola Khanna

 
Sailaja Paturi is in her happy place. Seated on a low wooden stool, the 57 year-old is talking animatedly to a carpenter even as freshly cut sawdust carpets the floor. And wait… what’s what? Give it a minute and you realise there’s a distinct scent in the air, sweet yet rugged. It’s almost as if the wood in Paturi’s workshop is alive. It may well be, for it is pure teak and of vintage quality.

Paturi makes furniture, but not just any furniture. In her workshop, on the ground floor studio in her home in Hyderabad, she fashions cupboards, tables of all kinds, queen and king-size beds, armchairs, footstools—you name it, she makes it. All of it is made of old teak, which Paturi sources from old markets and vintage homes that are torn down.

Amid all the rough and raw wood, tools strewn about and an incomplete sofa that leaps out at you, there’s something missing―nails and screws are conspicuously absent! It’s no accident. Paturi designs and puts together every piece of furniture the old-fashioned way, which means using wooden plugs and mortice and tenon joints, words young carpenters haven’t even heard of. And she’s been at it for 20 years.

Paturi says her inspiration stems from her own home. “My home is my fulcrum and everything I do starts from here,” she says with a smile. From her kitchen hob to the carved wooden trellis work on the wall that separates her kitchen from her living room, from the gleaming wooden staircase to the elegant banana leaf patterned pair of chairs, everything exudes a muted elegance and a definite sense of design that is practical as well as artistic.

Her designs are vintage with contemporary overtones. For instance, the sideboard in her living room has a very modern quality although the look is vintage. And the banana leaf chairs are truly modern—in essence, she refurbishes vintage stuff, adds some contemporary touches and it fits right into any modern home.

When she started working with wood, Paturi used to wield hammer and saw herself. She used to work alone and is completely self-taught. Ye, making wooden furniture wasn’t her first love. Always driven by an artistic bent, Paturi has a diploma in fine arts from Kalakshetra in Chennai, where she mastered the art of watercolors. After marriage, she drifted into designing garments for sale as her husband was in the textiles business. Her brand, The Silk Route, thrived for 15 years, and her exquisite embroidery and quilting were much sought-after. She discovered her passion for wood by a quirk of fate, when she went furniture shopping while setting up home in Hyderabad, where she and her husband moved in 1992.

If she could design clothes, she thought, she could make furniture as well. It was the beginning of an eventful journey. Paturi gleaned most of her knowledge of the craft from books and carpenters. As she was quite clear that she did not want to use nails and screws in her furniture, she had to work harder—the old method of using wooden plugs as joiners has very few masters.

In 1998, her first, self-made small table became her pride and joy. Thereafter, she started making picture frames and other small wooden items before she went on to larger objects like cupboards, dining tables, side tables etc. “Initially, I gave away what I made to friends and family,” she shares. “I could not bring myself to charge money. Then, in 2005, the son of a dear friend got married and needed furniture for his house in Switzerland. It took me a little more than six months to complete the order and ship it out. And, yes, this time I did charge money for it.”

Thirteen years later, Paturi is making furniture on order as well as restoring period pieces she stumbles upon or seeks out in old markets. “When I take on a furniture project, I first look at the person’s house and their existing furniture, the design of the house and their personalities. I then suggest a piece that compliments or contrasts with their furniture. I make a drawing; after the client approves, we go ahead.”

With regard to her design style, Paturi says, “I use both straight and fluid lines. I feel there the right kind of tension is maintained when you combine both.” She reveals, “I restored an old Art Deco sofa set and coffee table for a client’s drawing room. I also I designed a low dining table with a glass base. The cots had legs of keyhole design of Chinese inspiration.”

As with most creative people, Paturi’s inspiration comes from various sources. Sometimes, it strikes like lightning. “One day, I was seated in my garden and my eyes fell upon a hibiscus flower,” she recalls. “It became my inspiration for a hibiscus motif centre table that my workmen and I carved. Again and again, nature provides ideas for the furniture I craft. The profusion of bird life on the tree outside my bedroom once prompted me to carve a panel I mounted on a glass sheet. I fixed this into a recess in my bedroom wall.”

As she only works with seasoned teakwood, Paturi is always on the lookout for old beams and pillars. She gets a call whenever an old home is being demolished—she has the antique teak collected, brought to her workshop, and starts work. Currently, she has four carpenters working on a two-seater rosewood sofa that has come for refurbishing; as the paint peels off with the sander, you can make out the strong wood and its beautiful grain underneath.

Paturi’s work is, by default, eco-friendly. “I use only recycled wood, reusing old beams and columns, without cutting trees. I then treat the wood with natural hand polish. Natural polish is organic, pleasing to the eye and adds to the mellow, hearty beauty of the grain of the wood, rather than melamine or polyurethane.”

Does she still get behind a planer or handle a saw? “For many years, I did everything myself, including using saws, planers etc. Then I got a lesion in my eye from a bit of flying sawdust and my back gave up. So I do not handle tools any more. I work with carpenters and they follow my instructions.”

Paturi’s husband Ajay Kumar, now a consultant who works from home, has been urging her to take it easy but the creative urge does not allow her to rest. She loves to explore designs and is reluctant to repeat anything she has already done. For anything new, she makes a prototype, checks it for comfort, style and looks, tweaks it if necessary, and then begins work on the actual piece.

Indeed, Paturi exudes a contentment found very rarely in today’s rat race. She has found her métier and has no intention of going any more commercial than she already is. With great reluctance, she has agreed to let a young niece make a web page of her work. Meanwhile, she is all smiles as her granddaughter is calling from London and wants to speak to her. Everything shuts down for the day—she walks up to her alcove and her smile makes her face come alive.

Photographs by Shyamola Khanna

October 2018

Read about Paturi’s work on restoring antique furniture here.