In the latest of our monthly series profiling designers based in the UK and Europe, our editor at large Katie Treggiden talks to London-based designer Kangan Arora.
Born in Northern India and resident in London, surface pattern designer Kangan Arora takes inspiration from everywhere and, as a result, her work is every bit as bold, vibrant and colorful as you might expect.
She was born in Ludhiana, a city known for its hosiery mills and industry, where her family still runs a textiles business originally established by her great-grandfather. “From a really young age I was surrounded by beautiful fabrics, embroideries, and prints,” she says. “I remember going on buying trips with my dad and helping him choose stock for the showroom and feeling quite pleased that I had made a small contribution and my opinion had counted.”
Despite this early start, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that she would end up working in textiles herself. “I actually wanted to be an accountant at one point,” she laughs. “I loved math and figured it would help me in the future with running the family business – I am so glad I didn’t go down that route!”
After a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas that Kangan describes as “Wes Anderson-esque,” she applied for university and design seemed like a natural choice. “It all happened quite serendipitously,” she says.
She studied Fashion Design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, a state in North India known for its rich craft and textiles traditions, where she gravitated towards surfaces and textiles. “I realized that all my work was focused on the fabric and the surface ornamentation, rather than the shape or silhouette of the garment,” she says. In 2005, she moved to London to study Textiles at Central Saint Martins.
“Moving to London has had a profound and lasting impact on me,” she says. “Having the world’s best museums and galleries at your doorstep, housing many of the art collections that I had previously studied, while opening my mind to new movements and masters. It’s almost prohibitively expensive to live and work here, but I thrive in such a cultural melting pot, full of energy, new people, and possibilities.”
Kangan uses screen-printing as much as a tool for designing as for execution. “It generates ideas and happy accidents that I couldn’t plan beforehand,” she says. “When you print one color over another, a kind of magic happens and moreover, there’s a certain ceremony and chemistry to it that I enjoy – mixing the inks, exposing the designs onto the screen, pinning the fabric to the table, selecting the perfect squeegee to print with.”
That creativity has given her license to move beyond her own screen-printed products and start working as a design studio for other brands. “Print design has given me the freedom to design across different disciplines, which I find very exciting – not being limited to one area,” she says. “In the past few months I’ve been able to explore soft furnishings, brand packaging, ceramics, upholstery…”
She has designed a series of rugs for Floor Story, packaging for beauty brand REN, merchandise for Hackney Empire, wayfinding signage for the London Design Fair, bespoke acoustic panels for The Office Group, and is currently designing a large collection for a big brand that she can’t talk about yet – but watch this space! “Working to a brief has liberated me – the pressure of working on your own collections can be quite stifling and inhibit you creatively,” she explains. “I love working in a team and collaborating with people who can make things happen quickly as they already have the infrastructure in place. My partnership with Floor Story is the perfect scenario as I can design freely without the pressure of holding stock and growing a new distribution network. I have the freedom to design and grow on my own terms.”
Alongside all of that, Kangan also finds time to teach at her alma mater Central Saint Martins and firmly believes in “sending the elevator back down” to bring up the next generation of designers. “Working on my own projects and teaching I feel it is a really healthy and fulfilling balance,” she says. “Running your own studio can be quite a lonely pursuit and I miss having colleagues, so working at CSM provides the perfect interaction and exchange of ideas that I crave – plus the enthusiasm of young design students is contagious and keeps me on my toes.” She tells her students to “Be resourceful. Be social. Be authentic. Be adaptable.” If they follow her advice perhaps they will achieve the things she’s most proud of – survival and the opportunity to adapt and evolve her practice. “I’ve been extremely lucky,” she says, with typical modesty. As Samuel Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” and a good dollop of talent doesn’t do any harm either.