December 23, 2014
Preserving the 200-year-old art of lac-turnery, Varnam – a venture by Karthik Vaidyanathan to revive the ancient lacquerware craft of Channapatna and showcase it to the world – has grown from a family of 4 people to 20 in the three years since its birth. The label produces home and lifestyle products and toys, using lac-turnery, a method that involves a lathe (a hand-held machine) that rotates and carves wood to yield rounded shapes of varying sizes. These are then coated in paint and lacquer and buffed to give them their characteristic colourful, glossy sheen.
A 100% eco-friendly craft involving minimal wastage, the brightly coloured objects are inspired by animals and remind us of the toys we played with as kids. The Stories from Channapatna product series began in late 2011 after Karthik Vaidyanathan visited Channapatna, his hometown, and decided to settle in Bangalore to create his lacquered menagerie, Varnam.
Varnam recently opened their first flagship store in Bangalore. We caught up with Karthik, an engineer/MBA-turned-entrepreneur with more than a decade of experience in the radio and music industry, to find out how his brainchild Varnam has grown over the years.
Incorporating design in the early stages of Varnam:
Having worked for several years in design management and branding, I was very clear from the beginning that packaging was an essential part of Varnam’s visual communication. In the corporate world, I have often found that packaging ideas often get shelved due to ‘budget constraints’. I decided to be smart about it and worked on three parameters –
(i) Keep the costs low and apportioned across a wider range of products; most of my products are packaged in a standard 4″ x 4″ x 8″ brown corrugated box. Only the outside sleeves differ depending upon the product within.
(ii) Create a design template that could then be replicated for future designs with ease. The design language is consistent across all products which includes keeping the product names simple and clear, a mention of product dimensions upfront, an illustration that shows the functionality of the product within, a note on the craft and the enterprise, instructions for care and also its salient features.
(iii) Since packaging often makes products bulky and thereby increases courier costs, I worked on a simple structure that could be assembled at the retail end or customer end. So all the boxes can be constructed afresh.
On working with Locopopo for Varnam’s packaging design…
I wanted an illustration-based approach for my design and a contemporary take on it since the craft was traditional. I was referred to Lokesh of Locopopo Designs by a friend in this regard. Lokesh understood my vision and brought in his spectacular sense of an illustration-based design that I wanted for my products. His interpretation of my Channapatna characters have helped me achieve a very distinct and unique look for Varnam’s Channapatna line. And also helped my product sales as they enhanced their appeal as perfect gifting options.
Now that the organisation is three years old, have you made any additions/changes to the design/craft processes and to the organisation?
There is a bit more structure in the way the production is handled at the craft unit in Channapatna. There are random checks on colors and wood used. Stringent quality checks happen at my store by my staff before an product is passed on to the consumer. All rejects are reused in new designs. The artisans are able to interpret my designs faster now since we understand each other better. The actual prototyping process for my designs has hence come down as my design language is familiar to them now. We have also started training women in the craft as trainees with a monthly stipend.
Have you seen a renewed interest among the youth of the craftsmen communities to come forth and keep the traditional alive (now that the crafts are seeing a revival across fields)?
I definitely see more designers approaching the Channapatna artisans for design work. Varnam’s work over the years has created a stir in the market and people now see its versatility and true potential. Craft-based companies are reviving their interest in this craft and I would like to believe that Varnam has played a role in the same, even if in a small way.
What’s next for Varnam? What are you up to currently?
Varnam has recently opened its first flagship store in Indiranagar, Bangalore around 5 months ago. The response has been fantastic and the Christmas season has been our best ever. I am hoping the good run continues into the New Year. This is India’s first exclusive Channapatna store and am hoping it becomes a destination point for people coming in to the city. 2015 will also see us combining other materials with the Channapatna craft to release a newer range of products.
With Christmas and New Year around the corner, perhaps some old-school Channapatna products could be the perfect Indian gift for your dear ones this year. Browse through Varnam’s New Arrivals and pick out what you like.
Or visit Varnam’s Flagship Store at No. 444, Basement, on 5th Main, After 13th Cross, Indiranagar 2nd stage, Bangalore 560038.
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