August 8, 2014

The Designer: Sheikh Sameer

By Preksha Sharma

We had passed this small furniture shop ‘Safiya Handicraft’ at the traffic infested junction between Mahim and Bandra a number of times. The intricately carved furniture and the relentless work force engrossed in their work, always managed to draw our attention. Discovering talented designers at the grassroot level is the pursuit of this column and Sheikh Sameer, the furniture designer who works at this shop, fits the bill quite well.

Sheikh Sameer is in his early twenties and has been working for more than seven years. Later when he acquaints us with his work, the finely carved furniture pieces clearly bear a testimony to the years he has put in the profession. “We have all learnt this craft while working in a shop somehwhere in the city,” he said and introducing a young fifteen something lad continued, “like this boy has come here to learn the craft.” Sameer’s reason to choose this profession is quite simple; his entire family is in this profession and business. He zealously points out to the adjacent furniture shops and shops across the road, while listing out the “exclusive” stuff we can get in each. A couple of these shops are managed by his real uncle, a few by distant relatives and others by family friends. When asked if he enjoys working as a furniture designer, he looked at us with amusement and questioned, “Isn’t creating all this fascinating?”



Sameer’s shop cum studio (owned by Mushir Khan) is hardly 6 x 6 feet, where three craftsmen including Sameer work. The walls are lined up with intricately carved photo frames, mirror frames, etc. up till the ceiling. On the floor, there are tables, chairs, cabinets and small temples, of all shapes and sizes. The whole look and feel of the furniture is very vintage and archaic– heavy floral patterns, animals and birds motifs, intricate carving and quite extravagant. Even the sizes of some of the furniture pieces seem a bit grand for modern space-crunched dwellings in a city like Mumbai. The clientele for his furniture, Sameer says, hails from the affluent section of Mumbai, and other parts of India. He also gets orders to design furniture for sets in Indian films; and has also lent the furniture for short durations for film shootings. However, the major part of the clientele is based in the Gulf countries. And this whole extravagant nature of the furniture suits their liking, he says. He claims that they have also shipped furniture to some of the western countries. We asked him if he can also create furniture which is simple and has no carving if required and he says, “We can make all kinds of furniture, but not everyone can do such carving.”

It is interesting to notice the same design language in the carving on all the furniture pieces, a style not original but copied and derived from the olden times. But to be able to understand this style and produce variations in each piece is quite fascinating. Sameer says that he knows these designs by heart now, and if a customer wants a customized design with a motif of their choice, he can easily design it for them, but with his unique design language. “This style is what I was taught when I was learning and this is the style that most of my customers ask for too,” he says. Customers who want to get furniture designed are first presented with catalogues where majority of the furniture showcased is similar to the ones Sameer produces. The pieces in the catalogue are often polished golden, emanating a very royal feel. These catalogues are usually a compilation of coloured photographs of the furniture set with a brand name, spiral-bound from any neighbourhood stationery shop.

DSC_0465 DSC_0492 DSC_0555 DSC_0570

Sameer doesn’t work for any of the brands that are mentioned in the catalogue, and doesn’t quite know who clicked the pictures or whose catalogue are these. He, in fact, is quite surprised with our question to him and says, “We just get these catalogues for reference. You can get them from anywhere. Some of the photographs are taken from the internet.” The customers then select the designs they like and discuss the possibilities of customization in the design or features. This helps Sameer understand their requirements fully. We further prod him that if a customer does not like anything from the catalogue, would he be able design something exclusive. Sameer affirms confidently that he would but confesses that this has never happened and cites the reason which reminds us of a famous quote by Steve Jobs, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

All the craftsmen in Sameer’s shop take up individual pieces of work and complete them independently. “The three of us in the shop are carving men. Our job is to carve out the design properly, which also includes smoothening the edges and dusting the piece after carving,” he says. A carver is supposed to only carve a single wood panel; for example, if a 5 x 5 feet frame is being made in eight wood panels, each will be carved separately. These panels are then passed on to a fitting technician who puts the entire frame together as neatly as possible. And if the carver has erred or damaged a piece somewhere, the fitting technician can fix that. Then the piece of furniture is sent to the polisher. While the fitting technician works on call, the polisher has a separate studio in the shop-cum-studio itself. “Whatever polish you want –light brown, dark brown, golden – we have them all,” says Sameer. The raw materials come from Mumbai itself. Interestingly, a major part of it comes from dilapidated buildings that fall off. “These are really old buildings and have a lot of wood work inside,” he says.


Sameer says that the process is quite standard to carve out any design. “First I draw out the design, which is to be carved on a paper, with accurate measurements. This paper is then given a firm support and cut as per the design so as to make a stencil out of it which is called ‘farma’. Once the farma is made, it is marked on another paper, and this is stuck on the wooden panel that has to be carved. Then the negative spaces are cut out with a machine and the rest is carved out with hand,” he explains. Sameer draws all his designs with hand, with acute precision. We notice that while the farma sketch doesn’t have any 3D marking or rendering, the actual design on the wooden plank is highly convoluted with many overlaps and underlaps. Sameer says that the 3D structuring is in his mind, and can be simply explained to anyone who has been working on these designs. Though we try to understand the ‘rules’ for this, Sameer calmly says, “You know it once you do it. You can’t go wrong in this. It is all in your head.” Looking around at the perfectly matched carved out pieces of furniture in the shop, we take Sameer’s word for it.

Safiya Handicraft, Shop No.1, Reti Buner, Mahim Causeway, Mahim, Mumbai 400016

Telephone: 022-24445618, Email:

A version of this article originally appeared in Kyoorius Magazine 18.

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