From Graphic Design to
Spatial Design Perfection
By Yatin Srivastava
From Graphic Design to Spatial Design Perfection
Spatial Design Perfection
From a young Metalhead to designing experiences at the Ambani wedding, Aaquib Wani has come a long way from his early design days. Now, the Forbes 30 under 30 recipient has entered the Fashion world in full swing, designing a myriad of stores for the well known and up and coming Streetwear and Fashion brands in India! In our conversation with him, we talked about his journey, how he developed a penchant for graphic design and what that resulted in.
Yatin: How did you start your creative journey?
Aaquib: I think it all dates back to when my Dad was running his business of Kashmiri shawls and carpets. So essentially, karigars would come home and ask my dad for the briefs and come back after 6 months with a complete piece. To me that was incredibly interesting - they never went to any design school or fashion school but they were creating these incredible carpets and pieces. That was my first interaction with design. During school, I was never a good student and I struggled with school heavily. I never really had any interest in academics. I spent most of my time in the art room through the years. At the same time, I discovered Metallica through a Russian channel that used to come on the tv and my brother played the guitar - so one thing led to another and I ended up learning and playing the guitar, and I thought I’d become a guitarist in the future. I finished school and continued pursuing music and started my band “Phobia” - we started playing gigs and college competitions! That’s when I thought, we should promote these events. This led to making artworks for my own band and other bands started asking me to make their artworks and posters. At the same time, the Indian magazine Rock Street Journal approached me to join them as an design intern. This was comforting because my parents were content that I was in college but was also earning a living! Growing up in a Kashmiri house, doing anything creatively is a distant dream - they, along with most Indian families want their kids to be doctors or engineers. Rock Street Journal let me work on the magazine layouts and covers for the free CD’s that would come with the magazines, moving onto Magazine covers. This sort of led to me becoming the go-to guy for album artworks and designs for other bands in the Independent scene. That really helped in my creative energy and it cemented that I could do something on my own. I later realized that I was always creative, breaking down toys and rebuilding them, making planes out of thermaocol etc., I was always curious. It just took time to make that into a career.
Yatin: How did you go from doing work for Rock Street Journal and making album covers for bands to solely working on design?
Aaquib: After RSJ, I started working with a spatial design company. I worked there for around 5 years and it was during this time where I had the dream of having my own studio. In 2014, our band played its last gig and I got really busy in the design work that I was doing. I was just learning. Once I joined Sumant Jaykrishnan’s design studio, I learnt the aesthetics of design. Everyone including my boss was a designer and once I started working there, I realized that I could make stuff I wanted to make, but if someone approached me to make something, I wouldn’t have really been able to do it. This transition also took place in this design studio. I was still working as a graphic designer in spatial design, but it was surreal to see artworks in huge huge spaces - a hundred times bigger than I imagined. But this was where I felt that I learnt about design. They had an amazing collection of books. All the projects we did were theme based, so if we got a wedding that was venetian or Gatsby based, I learnt about those design styles and that’s what I absolutely loved. At the same time, I wasn’t completely fulfilled with the work, so I started doing freelance work on the side as well. I just didn’t want to do the same mundane thing. This one time, I did one of a spatial construction gig with an events company called Homegrown. I was unsure about how to make it work, but I went with my gut and the aesthetic worked. With the success of that and more work that I was getting on the side, by 2018 - I decided to leave the studio and continue on my own. The freelance gigs really helped me push myself and give me opportunities that I would’ve never gotten. By 2018, I figured out that I wanted to largely work in spatial design space and create and establish my own studio.
Yatin: What is also interesting thing is that you had the graphic design space tapped in, but you also started making Jackets and more fashion based projects. How did that shift come about? Was it deliberate?
Aaquib: That was a very interesting project! It was completely out of the blue. I had actually bought a fake Burberry Jacket and it had torn to bits, but I didn’t want to throw it away. I thought before throwing it away, I’d try something with it. I got in touch with a local street sign painter and I directed the ideas to him, took inspirations from some Gucci floral patterns and told him to come up with whatever he can. When I put that jacket on social media, everyone wanted one of their own! Soon, a lot of media and publication websites started writing about it. My main goal along with it was also to bring light to Indian art forms and bring the experience back to them because of fast fashion taking over. Without even knowing what to do, it worked out really well! Once I saw that need, I continued working on that because if people liked it, I could continue making it.
Yatin: That was a very interesting point in time because people in India weren’t really into fashion that much, but people were really interested in this idea of reworking and introducing art into the process.
Aaquib: Absolutely! And unbeknownst to me, this idea was incredibly sustainable! I didn’t want people to come and buy new clothes, but I wanted people to send their old clothes to have them reworked. All the money was given directly to the artisans. I just saw myself as a designer doing something small for the community.
Yatin: Fast forward to 2021/22, I saw Jaywalking’s new store and then subsequently the Almost God’s store, I figured out that this was done by you! So how did these projects come about? It was also interesting because these spaces were permanent, as opposed to projects that you’d done in the past that were semi-permanent.
Aaquib: These projects were also very similar to older projects. The teams at the brands hit my studio up and we went ahead with it! We had never done a fashion store before and it was a challenge! It eventually ended up opening a lot of gates for us and ended up with a lot more permanent space projects. It was more of taking whatever opportunity comes and making the most about it. It was also a different challenge because when you’re creating temporary setups, you’re thinking of the kind of materials that are easy to use because they don’t have to last for a long period of time. When it comes to a permanent space, you have to think about cement, woodwork, electricity, glass etc. the way of working is completely different in that sense. People also reach out to me because my studio does quirky, different things as opposed to other design studios. We always end up delivering that extra edge. When we did the Almost Gods store, I met Dhruv, the Creative Director of the brand, we just had a very small conversation and he already wanted me to design the store. He didn’t even look at my work - without even knowing if I did interior spaces or not.
For me, Almost Gods turned out to be one of the best projects ever - right from the story to the narrative, to the final product. I was recently at the store and we saw people walking in and their jaws dropping. I saw a small kid running and just starting at the Griffin - and this is what I always want to do with my work! This was the 4th design that got finalized. We always want to make it work in a scenario where both the designer and the client come together to create a story. This worked very well with the space. Even today, even if people don’t know the brand - they check the store out and keep coming back.
Yatin: It was really interesting also to see both the Jaywalking store and the Almost Gods store, considering the former is completely minimal and the latter is as maximal as can be. So how is your usual process of creating a space?
Aaquib: The process usually starts with a questionnaire round that starts with the brand, get some keywords from the brand and get some specific ideas along with the same. Initially for Almost Gods, the first idea was to create a church like space with a confessions room and a cyborg type sculpture with wires etc, but then they came back to us and told us that they liked the idea but wanted to expand on more and create other ideas. We sat on a bunch of meetings, sketched a bunch of ideas. Eventually, we looked at Petra and the concept of carving a space out of stone. It matched with the collection they were launching as well because there was emphasis on Paleolithic stones and mythological elements. Because the space is also not that huge, there’s not much movement. But we had the ceiling height and that’s where the Griffin came from. We also looked at other space and ideas that brands used - especially the concept stores of Gentle Monster. They have this bakery thing that they’re doing on the side and that’s what I wanted to do as an experiential designer! We were lucky to find Dhruv who wanted to do something as experiential. We then started with the production of the store - started with 3D mounds and then eventually constructed the store in full.
Yatin: There’s a lot of brands that have pop-ups and sections they have in malls and then there’s a different league of brands like Rick Owens, Margiela or Chrome Hearts where the stores also serve as part of the brand identity and the clothes. So that being said, when you think about graphic design as owing to Fashion and other art forms, what role does it play in expressing that concept?
Aaquib: I’m still very much a graphic designer in its core. It is essential to my practice as everything I do is visual. Communication is something that I have learnt over the years, seeing what works and doesn’t work in the frame. The ideas of, what is the main hero of your frame, how are you supporting that with everything else in the background etc. All of these things that I have learnt through graphic design have stayed with me with any other art forms I have delved into. So even if it is say a Photobooth, or an experiential demo for Adidas, it’s all about how it works visually - and that for me comes from graphic design. Be it Jackets, interiors, weddings etc. the graphic design impetus is front and centre. And it’s something I keep practicing. Even during the lockdown, because we didn’t really have any major work - we made a lot of passion projects, for example, creating ten different wedding ideas. These are just things we keep doing to work on new and different ideas and keep it fresh.
Yatin: How did the Forbes 30 under 30 list feature come about? That must have definitely been an experience!
Aaquib: Honestly, it wasn’t even a dream, because I always felt that this was for kids who were way more educated than me and weren’t like me who were creatives and artists. You’ve already put yourself at a stage that is lower than most people. Sure, people like my work but there are hundreds of designers out there. But just a couple of months before turning 30, I applied for the list, I didn’t have anything to lose. The entire process was very lengthy - they wanted to ask me where all we were featured in articles. They checked if the articles were paid or not, they checked my company turnover and profits. All of these things really matter to be in there. I wasn’t thinking that anything would happen. After a couple of months, they contacted me and told me that I made it to the list. I literally had tears in my eyes because I had never thought I’d be a part of it. To be featured along with so many people who are so incredibly talented was amazing and also to be the first Kashmiri to be a part of the list was surreal. It really validated all the work that I’d done in the past. I always had self-doubt with anything that I worked on, but when that happened - to have a body like Forbes saying that there was as merit in this, I was really emboldened. Even my parents were elated.
Yatin: I think over everything, that’s what we as Indian people want, even Forbes isn’t as important as the validation from our parents!
Aaquib: Haha absolutely! Even when I got into the list, it wasn’t that relatable to them. When I also got featured in regional Kashmiri newspapers, that’s when my parents were incredibly happy!
Yatin: That’s amazing! But what is even more interesting to me is that even after all of the work you’ve done, you’re now entering the NFT space as well with your reworked jackets! How did this come about? Did you want to hold off on the NFT space or was it again just a natural process?
Aaquib: I had planned out a complete NFT series but I didn’t want to really do it because I felt that people were just clout chasing and doing it for the sake of doing it. But with this project, I wanted to bring attention back to the artisans and this time, also get them to do something new! They’re sort of tired of the generational process as well. This was very heart-breaking for me because if this is the last generation of these crafts, these crafts will fade into non-existence. So I wanted to do something interesting for them too! Slowly I realized, all the kids with the resources can reach the metaverse space, but they wouldn’t have any access! I just decided to jump into the space for these reasons. A lot of artisans came on board, artisans who made lehengas, home cushions etc and shine the light on them also! The idea was to support the movement not just physically but also in the metaverse space. The jacket we recently put up was made for RJ Abhinav (Radio Jockey) that he wore at Cannes, so I decided to put that up as an NFT so that there’s more to it than just one person wearing it and flaunting it.
Yatin: Absolutely! I think pieces have way more value than just their design language physically. That being said, what is in store for you for the future?
Aaquib: Massive massive things! But we sadly can’t let those details out yet! They will be announced in a couple of months. But we’re going to be doing a lot of music festivals and creating spaces there. Most of this year is music festivals. It’s always a comfortable space because of me being a musician and I want to be the go-to guy for festivals and the music industry as well as a design guy, because it’s all about communication and I want to bring that communication to the wider frame in India. But let’s see where it goes, I would love to design an experiential store with Louis Vuitton or any other brand like that which welcomes these design elements.