5 South Asian Designers On How Their Heritage Informs Their Style

South Asia is a treasure trove for design. Make your way through the bustling markets of Sri Lanka, Nepal, or Pakistan and your senses are immediately overwhelmed by the beauty. Think: ornate Islamic architecture, vibrant rugs, and ancient craft traditions.

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Growing up, my immigrant parents sought to transport some of this magic from India to America. They’d bring half-empty suitcases to their native country, only to stuff them with gilded brass plates, sculptural sari-clad figurines, and thick tapestries. The bursting suitcases were then upacked in our California home, each piece lovingly dotted around on walls and corners. It was a way for my parents to not only be reminded of their roots, but also to pass down their heritage to us. 

Our home also reflected my family’s migratory experience: The Indian decor was mixed with American furniture inside a Spanish-style bungalow. The hodgepodge melted together as a beautiful, authentic style.

Many South Asian designers have honed in on a similar vision, infusing their culture into their work. Some decorate solely with traditional patterns, while others more subtly blend in elements from their upbringing. To learn more about the modern landscape of South Asian designers working stateside, I spoke to five designers about their unique interiors, furnishings, and journeys ahead.

For Washington DC-based interior stylist Mitesh Trambadia, home serves as the ultimate creative vessel. His spaces are deftly embellished with vibrant paintings and patterned duvets — all of which harken back to his love for India. “I was always fascinated with the subcontinent from the art to the architecture to the textiles,” says Trambadia. “I would check out any books from the library on India and spend hours staring at the photos and all the details.”

Trambadia took the most design notes from his mother, who served as one of his earliest design inspirations. “When she and my father immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, they were eager to furnish their home in the mid-century modern style, since that was trendy. At the same time, my mom also brought family heirloom embroideries with her from Gujarat and our walls were covered in them,” he elaborates. “It was that fusion of the East and West and contemporary and traditional that always stuck with me.”

One such example of this fusion is a jhula, or a traditional South Asian swing, that Trambadia installed in his sunroom. “It really reminds me of the summers spent in India on those swings,” he says. “Along with grasscloth wallpaper, folk art, and the greenery it feels like an indoor-outdoor space that is reminiscent of the homes [there].” 

Another favorite project is his guest room, where Trambadia hand-painted a lush madhubani-style mural. “It is a traditional folk art from Northeast India and I thought the ‘tree of life’ — which is a common theme for those paintings — was perfect as a focal point for the room. The rustic colors also invoke traditional earthy village homes to me,” he notes. 

This use of traditional designs isn’t merely an aesthetic choice for Trambadia, though — it’s a way to preserve an age-old culture. “I love the folk art of India and unfortunately much of the crafts that have been passed down for generations have been dying,” he explains. “It is really important to me to not only be a patron of those local artisans, but also to showcase the art in everyday modern homes.”

Utharaa Zacharias and Palaash Chaudhary

Utharaa Zacharias and Palaash Chaudhary, founders of the design studio Soft-geometry, based in the Bay Area and India, are reimagining luxury furnishings with a playful eye. Chocolate-hued coffee tables and curvy velvet chairs offer just a glimpse into their aesthetic. 

While totally modern, their designs are inspired by ancient techniques. The duo grew up in India, seeing craftsmen create objects in real time — and it’s that honest, skillful touch that carries through in their work. “The relationship between the maker and every piece is so sacred and meaningful,” says Chaudhary. “We aspire to that relationship when we make each lamp by hand, or hand-weave our cane tops and yarn chairs ourselves.”

They also make it a point to evoke specific Indian philosophies and habits — which they dub “Indian-isms” — in their designs. “To be Indian, for example, is to despise same-ness,” elaborates Zacharias. “To match is almost a crime — often a plastic chair, a wooden chair, and a metal chair happily co-exist around a dining table, beaming in their individual specialness.” 

And so, Soft-geometry’s furnishings feature a mix of traditional and modern, bright and subdued, sharp and soft — all at once. “The point is not to make Indian-looking objects,” says Zacharias. “It is to identify and study these innate Indian-isms and draw lessons from them, and that has led us to our collection today.”

Another Indian-ism the duo adopted is sustainability. Their Donut Coffee Table, for example, is made from the leftover wood cut-offs of another company, and has since become a favorite piece. “Both of us, like many Indians, grew up within strict instructions to never waste anything — not a grain of rice nor the last inch of a pencil,” recalls Chaudary. “We can still hear our parents’ voices saying exactly those things and that became the context for the [design].”

Raji Rajakrishnan’s love of interior design was born unexpectedly, and from a young age. “I was a Bharatanatyam [Indian classical] dancer before and for my performances, I started traveling around the world when I was 11 years old,” says Rajakrishnan. “Seeing some of the places, especially museums, certainly sparked my curiosity and interest since aesthetics were already kindled with dance.”

Her interiors are thus cosmopolitan in nature. “My work is very European — particularly French — in its outcome, though rooted in Indian sentiments and cultural values,” explains Rajakrishnan, who now heads her eponymous design firm in Washington DC. “However, it is also quite ironed out and proper in a very American way.”

So, why the penchant for French? “Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris — or Le Corbusier — was my greatest inspiration, not only for pioneering modernism in a huge way, but more for his multi-faceted approach to design, architecture, and art and how he perceived everything as a whole and not in an isolated way,” says Rajakrishnan.

This approach is certainly evident in her designs, as she superimposes artistic murals on walls so it blends into the architecture — one of her signature styles. Though Rajakrishnan surprises herself with just how often Indian inspiration pops up, too.

For example, she called on childhood memories to transform one of her client’s homes, where there was a small, dark vestibule that led to adjacent, brightly lit rooms. “I proposed we make that little space as dark as we can, with a deep silver paint sponged on the walls so that when you pass through the darkness and come into light, there is a profound feeling of enlightenment so to speak,” she says. “I realized later, that was a feeling I experienced so often in my grandparents’ home.”

Ayesha Usman’s interest in interior design was similarly sparked during her childhood in Pakistan. “We used to get a prize to keep our rooms clean and tidy and me and my sisters used to compete over who decorated their room the best,” recalls Usman. “So, we were always rearranging our furniture, and playing with color, pattern, and textiles.”

Now based in Seattle with her eponymous studio Ayesha Usman Design, Usman’s heritage continues to inspire how she puts a room together. “I am always using a neutral color palette to keep the spaces I design grounded and cohesive,” she notes. “I love pottery and ceramic pieces, too, and a lot of that reminds me of artisans back home.”

Additionally, Usman’s house growing up was designed to be a welcoming haven for guests and neighbors. This plays into her style today: Warm textures, vintage rugs, and handcrafted objects are some of her favorite elements to cultivate an inviting space. “I collect many of [these items] from my trips back home, or I ask friends and family to bring them back for me,” says Usman.

Usman believes that if you’re proud of who you are and where you belong, it naturally shows up in your work — even subconsciously. “I have been living away from my home town for almost 16 years now and although things and memories have started fading a bit in my mind, I still have pretty strong roots with my culture,” she says. “I find it important to incorporate that in my lifestyle and work to keep the legacy alive.”