By Nidhi Raj Singh
I vividly remember meeting designer Tarun Tahiliani for the first time in 2008. His tall frame loomed over me and most others waiting to interview him before his show at India Fashion Week. As an earnest (read: anxious) reporter for Fashion Design Council of India (it used to bring out Designer Mode magazine back then), I had a long list of questions. As we sat down for the interview in quietest possible corner of MSA in Ashoka Hotel, he asked me in his baritone voice: “Yes kid, what would you like to know?” Needless to say, I froze. My piece was more about his persona grata than his collection.
I met Tarun on several occasions after that. More often than not, it was for a different reason, a new project, unlike the previous one and yet connected on a sublime level. He has dabbled into designing exquisite rugs and jewellery, offered patronage to antique Oslers and many things in between, while staying strong in Indian fashion fraternity.
And all this is only a follow up to setting up Ensemble in 1987 with his wife Sailaja —what can be touted as first-of-its-kind multi-designer store — and establishing his eponymous label. Most designers I talked to told me stories of his keen sense for fashion and a knack for discovering talent. Designer Ashish Soni, who is among those celebrating their two decades in Indian fashion, told me in an earlier interview about his first meeting with Tarun. “I was busy in my non-descript studio in Lajpat Nagar, when Tarun came looking for me after tracking me down from a store in Bangalore that retailed my menswear. He walked up the staircase and told me that he would like to stock my creations.” Like me, Ashish too, was speechless.
So, this time, when I heard about Tarun Tahiliani formally setting up an interior and architecture firm, I wasn’t surprised, just intrigued. Not surprised because he has taken up interiors projects for hotels in Goa and a dozen homes before. Intrigued because of his unfailing enthusiasm for creative processes. Apart from his son nudging him to diversify formally into interiors, it was Tarun’s love for architecture that led him to start Ahilia Homes. “I like the permanence of architecture. I love rearranging things and spaces. Interior architecture comes naturally to me,” Tarun says. For his fashion shows too, he treats the runway as a canvas, as an extension of his drape-heavy collections, be it those giant flower spheres, the golden façade or the enchanted garden.
Tarun is a perfectionist. I remember him fussing over music and ‘just right’ volume at his rug collection showcase at Bikaner House in Delhi. “I want everyone to listen to each other while enjoying the music. Background music should be, well, in the background,” Tarun said, fidgeting with his signature black shirt and waistcoat. His sister, Tina Tahiliani Parikh, who takes care of Ensemble as its Executive Director told us about her brother’s obsession with perfection. “By 1990, he had already turned the family business around, converting it into fashion retail, and still felt a strong desire to study design,” Tina said. He came back from FIT, New York consumed with a passion for design. The talent spotter became a talented designer. Rest, as they say, is history.
History is what Tarun is busy creating, brick by brick. With Ahilia Homes. We did our calculation to deduce that the name is inspired by mythological character Ahalya, the most beautiful woman created by lord Brahma. But, it is actually derived from Tahiliani, removing first and last three letters. Over the years, Tarun has transformed the way Indian brides dress. He now plans to transform how we live. “A home should be a reflection of its owners. Aesthetic is subjective, but comfort and luxury are not,” Tarun says. Since preferences are subjective, he does not mind incorporating its clients’ wishes, such as specific colour palette or motif. “We will make such detailed plans that every square inch of the house is planned beforehand. It will help the client to see the concept before execution and we can adapt in any way we need to before the actual work begins,” he says.
Tarun Tahiliani is a master storyteller when it comes to amalgamating traditional textiles and modern sensibilities. No surprises then that his love for tradition, fabrics and drapes will follow through. “I have always loved the sense of drape. So, I will definitely be using layering… laterite juxtaposed with black stone and off-white marble tumbled walkways balanced with wooden deck.”
By using locally sourced materials (handmade bamboo blinds, chattai on the ceiling, antique Goan furniture), he plans to integrate elements of nature and make the sustainable, sensible choices. “It has never been an option for me to stuff a house with Italian marbles. I would use elements, say exotic onyx, because of a project’s demand, but will always prefer to use local materials,” Tarun says.
This message was taught to him in the brief retreat visits he made to the Sarabhai ancestral home and from seeing Mani Ben Sarabhai’s Corbusier cement home. “It was so natural and beautiful with art, tradition, modernity coming together as one, even while it invited peacocks to wander about. I have never seen anything exist so beautifully with nature,” he adds.
Tarun would rather re-examine what they have and find ways to contemporise it rather than creating sometging that sticks out in its surroundings. Take for example, the home he designed in Goa. He used a lot of laterite walls, Indian stones, mosaics coupled with traditional handmade brass. “It gets layered and evolves in an Indian way, but because we are interacting it with every day, it is modern too, much like architects Sameep Padora or Ini Chatterjee’s works,” he says. Interior design space hasn’t even been scratched on the surface and is just about picking up in India, according to him.
But homes and hotels are not the only spaces that fascinate Tarun. “A lot of monumental buildings have been destroyed. The Red Fort is one of them. I understand that after the mutiny and the uprising of 1857, the British destroyed a lot of it and decided to house their troops and barracks within the fort. But, it can be looked at differently now.” He doesn’t feel that any of the monuments in Delhi are in a state to inspire awe. They need to be looked at as living spaces, he feels. Is restoration on the cards, I wonder.
For now, he is concentrating on interiors projects for villas and residences he has undertaken in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Goa. So, one can find him in Ahilia Homes studio almost every day. “I leave my couture studio and head straight to the architectural studio in the evening. The runway is my first love and designing homes is an extension of that expression,” Tarun says.
He might have accomplished a lot in his career, but still feels only halfway through. Even as he toys with the idea of doing a very severe tailored line, I am reminded of something that singer and guitar virtuoso Prince once said: “the key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.” Tarun Tahiliani seems to be doing just that. His music being design.