When Jeevan L Xavier, 42, moved to Bengaluru in 2006, he was clear that he would not use personal transport but take an autorickshaw to work. At that time, he could not have known the influence that a three-wheeler would have on his work as a young designer. Hundreds of trips later, travelling in these three-wheelers became an immersive experience as he noticed their workmanship and design. Then he acquired a camera phone, and began clicking away.
He gradually got to know that the process of making autorickshaw interiors was elaborate, and that there was a juxtaposing of LED lights, quilting, stitching and cutting, and all by people with absolutely no training. As Xavier describes the rickshaw’s design template, “the paintings at the vehicle’s rear window, posters or rexine interiors had developed its own visual language that was eclectic, hybrid and collaborative in its making”.
Also, travelling in an autorickshaw at night suggested the difference that lighting makes. As Xavier puts it, “The iridescent effect piqued my designer instincts.” Along the way, he got to know how autorickshaw interiors and their “customisation” took place at six hubs in the city which he describes as “craft clusters”. These hubs, he discovered, are also an ecosystem of financiers, brokers, spare parts and motor accessories shops, upholstery establishments, welders, tinkers, film poster painters, vinyl stickering artists and metal fabricators. It’s also largely men who do the decorative work in Bengaluru, or even for hand-pulled rickshaws in Allahabad or bullock carts, places that Xavier has seen in his travels.
Egged on by friends and given his background in textile designing, Xavier began talking about the autorickshaw designs with friends and colleagues, and decided to do a kind of moving installation. Inspired by the interiors, he clad three autorickshaws “like a swimsuit” in designs that were forming in his mind, and then took them around the city, hoping that “people would question what they see”.
From his point of view, “I decided to embrace the kitsch aspect in the original and then came out with something “camp” or “very street-like,” and that gave birth to a range of furniture for sit-outs, recreational areas, home bars etc.
Moving from patterns to the real thing was a journey in itself. It meant standardising the sizing, working on the stitching, quilting, piping and applique work. Then Xavier and his team developed a swatch book, and zeroed in on the colours. “I realised the autorickshaw didn’t come fully covered from the factory,” he said. The roofs are canopies and their making involves a process of cutting and sewing. Then there is upholstery too. So JLX Studio, the design company that Xavier started in 2017, began working with some of the kharighars making the auto rickshaw interiors, and “who could customise the products”.
Xavier used rexine, foams sheet, applique “which is abstract” and even chromium ‘a lot of which you see in a rick”. So, the seats, bar chairs and bar cabinets, for example, have legs burnished with stainless steel. Xavier decided to name his furniture range as Aakaar meaning form. In addition to the pure comfort and recreational artifacts, he also developed panels that can be simply hung on the wall or framed. The chairs cost Rs 90,000 a piece and are on the heavier side at 8-9kgs.
JLX Studio has decided that the Aakaar range will be only made on request, and be customised. The first range was shown in New Delhi in 2019 and just when Xavier and his team were ready to go full speed ahead, the Covid struck, and things pretty much came to a halt.
With things now returning to normal, Xavier and his team want to go all out working on newer and more innovative designs, all of which have their original creative impulses in the humble autorickshaw.
The feature was published in Autocar Professional's May 1, 2022 issue.