If you appreciate a blend of East/West design, you will adore Leah Singh and her line of home décor and fashion accessories. A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York City, Leah returned to her roots in India to work with local artisans and rejuvenate their craft. By adopting their age-old techniques, she is able to bring a traditional flair to her modern design and provide a new market for these artisans. She has already made a mark with her vibrant textile collection and sustainable bone accessories. Find out what Leah has to say about her style inspirations, why it’s important to go green in India, and how working with local artisans has transformed her business. Plus she’s a fan of my home state of Rajasthan so I already know she has good taste!
BB: Where do you think your creative side comes from: your mom, dad or both?
LS: From both! Although neither of my parents are artists or designers, there are a lot of creative people in both my mother’s and my father’s families.
BB: Describe your style.
LS: Simple, casual, yet edgy. I tend to wear mostly jeans and solid colors with my standard leather tote. I keep my clothes simple, but I love to accessorize with my jewelry and shoes. It is important to have one interesting detail like a flattering silhouette, an interesting piece of jewelry, or a deep cut back. Sometimes I have experimental days, too – when I wear bright colors and bold prints and cropped tops.
BB: Whose street style do you love?
LS: I like how Charlize Theron and Zoe Saldana dress — effortless and chic. And I love how fun Solange Knowles and Rihanna are.
BB: What is your favorite recent purchase?
LS: My favorite recent purchase is a chunky bone and silver bangle I found at an antique shop in Delhi.
BB: Where in India are you from? If a friend from New York were to visit, where would you take them?
LS: I grew up in New Delhi, but my mother’s side of the family is from the state of Rajasthan, which is located southwest of New Delhi.
If a friend was to visit from New York, I would take them to Rajasthan because I love the desert landscape, the colorful clothes, and the old palaces — most of which have been turned into gorgeous hotels. There is so much history and character in every city and town in Rajasthan.
BB: Raised in India and educated in the West, how do you incorporate both worlds into your design aesthetic?
LS: It happened very naturally. I combined all the things I love about both places and cultures. The techniques (embroidery, printing, weaving) that I use to make my products are traditional Indian craft techniques, and the colors I use are a direct influence of the bright, colorful environment I grew up in. The Western architects I was exposed to while at Parsons inspired the geometric patterns in my designs.
BB: The jewelry line currently available on your website features bone and is named after Kilimanjaro. Do you find much of your inspiration in nature?
LS: In addition to being inspired by architecture, I am inspired by desert landscapes and rock formations.
BB: Tell us about the sustainable bone pieces. Can you describe where the bone comes from and how it is sourced?
LS: The bone for my jewelry is a byproduct of the agricultural industry in India. Wastage is frowned upon in India because people feel that everything can be reused either to earn money or to improve someone’s life. When an animal in the agricultural industry dies (typically buffalo and camel), the farmer sells the skin, meat, and bones — anything that can be reused. In this way, he is able to earn some money, and no part of the animal is wasted. It is the same for buffaloes that are killed for their meat — the butcher sells the skin and bones as well. After the bones are cleaned, the femur (shin bones) of the buffaloes and camels are cut into small tiles so they are ready to use, and are then sold to artisans who use the bones to make a variety of different products (jewelry, furniture, decorative objects, etc). This is an established industry and the artisans who work with bone have direct access to the suppliers of this material.
BB: Why is it important for you to work with sustainable material, particularly in India?
LS: My goal with using this material was to not only rejuvenate the age-old craft of bone carving, but also to use a sustainable material to create my collection.
Being around my sister (a sort of environmentalist), growing up in a country where harming a living being is a sin, and going to Parsons, have exposed me to the environmentally unsustainable practices that most of us follow. This is why I wanted to work with a material that was sustainable, to try and keep my footprint small and light.
It was important for me to understand the life and culture of the people I work with, to build relationships with them, and to be able to communicate with them easily. Being half Indian and having grown up in India, I felt that India is where I could do this. Also, I found that although there are hundreds of different craft techniques in India, the aesthetic and product categories haven’t changed much over the years. This was also the case with bone carving. So I wanted to rejuvenate this craft technique and create something very different than the typical products that are made.
BB: Why is it important for you to work with local artisans? And how do you manage that process of working with them?
LS: I wanted to work with local artisans for the reasons I listed earlier. Also, India has so many different craft techniques, but the ways in which they are used have barely changed over the years. When I travel around India and go shopping, I get so excited by the colors, patterns, and techniques – but the products seem outdated and too ethnic. As a result, the craft techniques start dying out in their native region because no one wants to buy them. The craft is not appreciated or valued, and the artisans have to look for new avenues of income. I didn’t want all these gorgeous techniques to be forgotten and go to waste! I wanted to give some of these crafts a new look, create a new market for them, so that people could enjoy them once again.
The artisans live and work in remote villages, so I do not get to visit them often. We communicate over the phone, mostly in Hindi, and I send them artwork for new developments in the mail. Over time and after having visited the artisans, I learned their capabilities and limitations, so I am able to design and work with them accordingly. I always allow for some flexibility in my designs; sometimes, the artisans add their input and suggest changes on elements such as color, the scale of a pattern, certain shapes, etc. I often don’t get exactly what was in my artwork, but I like their personal additions to my pieces.
BB: What medium are you excited to work with next?
BB: What advice would you give the next class of Parson’s graduates?
LS: Be flexible! Have plans and goals, but don’t be rigid about them. Things don’t always go as planned, so be open to new experiences and opportunities.
All images courtesy of Leah Singh.