Made in India

June 6, 2011 8:31 am by
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Before he moved to Mumbai in 2009, Thierry Betancourt was a specialist at Sotheby’s in New York and London, dealing in 18th-century French and European furniture. “I was at one of these big Bombay weddings in 2007, and on a day I had off and I could escape, I saw a different world to the glitz and galmour and it really was an electro shock,” says the 28-year-old furniture maker from Paris. “I thought, ‘There is something to be done here’.” Fast forward a few years and Betancourt, now a bonified Mumbai resident who takes the train and speaks a smattering of Hindi, has his own workshop of craftsmen in the city. Betancourt makes furniture and design pieces that he describes as having a certain playfulness. His work, which uses everything from steel chai cups to 100-year-old recycled wood, has been featured at the Prague Biennale, and in Mumbai can be seen at concept store Le  Mill (he did the wood panelling), and soon-to-open Khar restaurant Nido (he made the exquisite wood carved bar). We spoke to Betancourt about his work. Edited excerpts:

How would you describe your furniture style?
I’ll be first one to admit I didn’t study design, though I did do history of art at university. Like the workmanship of 18th century craftsmen, furniture making in India is very much the same way it was 300 or 400 years ago. The tools are very basic, there is very little machinery, and everything is made from scratch. I hate to use the word eclectic, because it doesn’t mean very much. But there is a certain element of form that you can see throughout. Even though there’s a certain playfulness with the furniture, there’s a certain form, a certain rigeur, which is very much trying to keep proportion between say the height of the piece and the legs. It’s about making something that may look quite bulky, but still has a lightness.

Tell us a little about your craftsmen.
They are a team in Mumbai but originally from Jodhpur; they have been in the profession from father to son for generations. The way it works is that there’s a foreman and he has his team and they’re all from his community. He has a larger team of 50 to 60 people under his direction. I only have 15 people working for me, half of whom are carpenters and half [of whom] do the finishing. Everything is made in India. Nothing is imported.

Why do you use recycled wood as opposed to new logs?
All the wood has been naturally cured of its water content and resin. When you make a piece from old wood, the wood won’t move. If you buy a new log…wood is quite a living being and if it’s put in a dry environment, it will start to crack, and once it’s back in a humid atmosphere, it will expand again. So I use wood that has been naturally aged over time to prevent that from happening. In the 18th-century, they would let logs dry for 10 years in the elements for the same purpose.

Where do you shop for “great finds”?
Chor Bazaar is definitely a place to look for stuff; also, local markets like Crawford market. I also like to see what’s going on at bigger shops like Le Mill and Good Earth, and going back to Europe to see what people are using there, what they’re exploring, [and] if there’s something out there that could be of use in the Indian market.