In Mumbai–a city of nearly 19 million people–over 50,000 taxis pick up at least 25 to 30 people every day. For the majority of Mumbaikars, the iconic black and yellow taxis are the most convenient form of transportation in the city. For designer Sanket Avlani, they can also be a way to showcase local designers.
Avlani started an initiative called Taxi Fabric that asks emerging Indian designers to create textile designs for the inside of the city’s cabs. The project, which Avlani now runs with the help of project manager Mahak Malik and writers Nathalie Gordon and Girish Narayandass, connects designers with taxi drivers to brighten up the taxi’s interiors and showcase the work of local designers. By giving designers an opportunity for their work to be seen by thousands throughout the city, Avlani says the project aims to bring awareness to design as a profession in a culture that often takes the potential impact of art and design for granted.
In Mumbai, the taxi system is regulated by the government and taxi unions, but most of the cabs are owned or rented by individuals. Even for rented vehicles, Avlani says, the upkeep of the car’s interior is left to the driver, most of whom decorate their cabs with trinkets and rosary beads but pay little mind to the make or design of the seat fabric. Decking out their interiors with bold, colorful patterns not only adds character, it also makes the cab recognizable to passengers. Taxi drivers are starting to want in.
“I used to take taxis a lot, and a lot of those guys are regulars at the taxi stands so I know a couple of them,” Avlani says when I ask him how he found the drivers he works with now. “They themselves are very proud of the change and they talk about the project. We have a lot of guys who I know are looking forward to getting their taxis done.” Drivers participating in the project get their seats reupholstered free of charge.
Taxi Fabric has facilitated the design of six cars to date and are hoping to expand the project–which at this point is mostly self-funded or supported through sponsorships–with money raised from their Kickstarter campaign. They play the middle man, matching up designers with drivers and overseeing the production of the fabric. Some drivers have given designers free range to do as they please, while others have more of a hand in the design.
Avlani is a graphic designer, as are most of the designers he’s worked with on the project so far, so he consulted with textile designers to figure out which fabric was best to use. After considering the practical elements–how long it will last, how it will hold up against dirt and water–he settled on a polyester-blend that looks and feels like canvas. Once the design is finished, it’s transfered onto fabric using special heat sensitive dyes through sublimation. The fabric is then handed over to a tailor who handles the upholstery and sews on a fabric tag with the name of the designer and the sponsor.
As the project continues, Avlani wants to use it as a means for students and young designers to have their work shown around the city. He feels that right now, Mumbai doesn’t take design as a profession seriously, and is losing talent to other countries as a result. Avlani himself left Mumbai for London to work as an art director and designer for the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy. “There is this whole thing about artistic professions [in India]. It’s like how music was a few decades ago–there are all of these misconceptions and preconceived notions. It really becomes one of those niche professions and one that nobody understands at all,” says Avlani. “My parents don’t even fully understand what I do.”
Public reaction so far has been encouraging–with only a handful of Taxi Fabric’s pimped-out taxis on the street, it’s already generated a lot of buzz around the city. Avlani knows that if they can get people in Mumbai onboard and talking about it, the rest of the country will start to take note as well. Eventually, he hopes that it will bring a greater international awareness to talented Indian designers, even if it proves to be a slow process. “The point is to take these steps slowly and correctly,” he says.