An Indian summer


Two of our Founders, Lucinda Waterhouse and Sue Jones, announced they were off to India to inspect new collections, here’s what happened…

It’s 9am. An orange Rajasthani sun shines through cascading bougainvillea. Over a breakfast of steaming hot porridge and scrambled eggs, battle plans for the day ahead commence. Amidst the sun-dappled gardens of Samode Haveli, the roar of Jaipur’s archaic old town is a distant rumble. “More coffee Ma’am?” a waiter in a starched white Nehru jacket asks. “Yes please,” the reply. “We’re going to need it.” Half-an-hour later, bags packed, stomachs filled, two of our Founders, Lucinda and Sue, are bundled into a white Toyota Innova, careering its way towards the outskirts of Jaipur, past camel carts, dare-devil motor-cyclists and chaiwallas.

Welcome to India. First stop, one of our oldest manufacturers. We are greeted by three magnificent white cows. Considered sacred in India, it is believed that they will bring their owner their deepest needs and desires. Over tiny cups of overly-sweetened chai and milky coffee, we discuss the new collection. An Aladdin’s cave of fabrics and furnishings, carpets and curios opens before us, overlooked by hand-painted family portraits of this third generation business. Where to start? Rugs. A kaleidoscopic collection of dhurries, kilims and runners are paraded in front of us by a pair of experienced workmen, who make light work of this laborious task, flicking through them like pages of an enormous book.

OKA first travelled to India for design inspiration, then delved deep into Jaipur for its technical know-how. The craftspeople we work with all come from a long line of carpenters, weavers, and printers, whose skills have been passed down through the generations. Famed for its artisans, Jaipur is something of a hub for these traditional skills. Lucinda explains: “When we travel to India, we’re looking to have our imagination ignited through its vibrant colours and textures, whilst being mindful of what is comfortable, and what works within the UK market. It’s very easy to get what we call ‘India goggles’. The piece arrives in London, and it doesn’t work at all! The aim is to create something that is in keeping with traditions yet modern. Block prints and paisley patterns done in a contemporary way. Eastern designs reimagined for a western palette.”

“We’ve been travelling to India for interior inspiration for 20 years, and have had relationships with some of our suppliers for just as long. We know their families; we bring gifts for their children,” Sue elaborates.

We are familiar with their strengths and their weaknesses, and we have developed long-standing relationships, based on trust and transparency. It makes working and returning to their workplace that bit more fun. Indian hospitality is unbridled, and you always feel as though you are returning to visit old friends. Amazingly, “In all that time, we’ve never had a disagreement between the three of us,” says Lucinda, sounding somewhat surprised herself. Three is the magic number after all, and this interior design triumvirate know how to keep things cordial. It does make casting decisions that bit easier. And if something doesn’t work? We never say “I told you so.”

Back to the factory: having lost track of time, we are whisked into the block-printing room… where there is not a soul to be found. “On lunch” a gentleman informs us. Yet another chance for a cup of chai and the opportunity to educate the OKA team on the complexities of block-printing.

“The print will differ ever so slightly, depending on who completed that particular patch, and at what time of the day.”

“A print made in the afternoon, by a craftsperson having enjoyed his khana (lunch), will have more colour and depth, compared to one printed before lunch.”

“The same goes for block prints created by heavier or stronger workers. The print will have a different look.” Yet these anomalies are part of what makes block-printing, in particular, ,such a valuable skill, and one that must be kept alive, despite easier and quicker alternatives in screen and digital printing. There is a human element to it, and one that makes block prints so unique. From the pattern to the block, the colours, to the print: all are drawn, carved, mixed, and administered by hand. Hang around for long enough and you can watch as a plain white ream of cotton is transformed in a matter of hours, into a decorated tablecloth, bedspread, or napkin set.

One last meeting with the owner of the factory, where we discuss in person some of our more niche designs for the upcoming collection, influenced by some antique camping gear from the USA. At OKA, we really do source our inspiration from all over! We part ways for another six months, over yet more thimble-sized cups of chai. No wonder people drink so many cups of the stuff here.

Having waved the three white bovine beauties farewell, we battled back through Rajasthan’s capital city’s “office time” traffic, ruminating over our favourite designs of the day. A roadside seller hawks print blocks on the side of the road, next to a florist bearing marigold garlands. “Perhaps those prints would go nicely with that orange?” we wonder. In a country as frenetic, and filled with organised chaos as India, it’s amazing what you find when you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking for.

But for now, it’s back to the hotel. Just in time for dinner and a well-earned gin & tonic.