How to furnish and decorate your home in India

12:54 PM

I’m an interior decorator, and even if I’m no longer working the field and building sofas, hanging curtains, laying rugs and giving tips to customers, this is still pretty much part of who I am.
And decorating and furnishing a home in India is much different than in the West. First the concept of decoration and style in the home is a very new concept in India, space management included. Then due to climate constraints you can’t do the same in a urban Indian apartment as you would do in a urban Swiss one, this simply wont work.
Until recently living in a family house was quite common, the home was functional, generally had a big drawing room and tinier rooms and that meant enough space to put heavier dark furniture in the living room where they would stand out and make the appropriate impact. My in-law’s house is one of these, the drawing room is so huge that they partitioned it with a curtain with one side being the storage area hidden from the guests, and the other being the living room with one big wooden sofa and 4 armchairs, made of sculpted wood and padded cushions to sit on and there is still enough space for a high divan coffee table, corner tables and a TV stand.
Try to fit all that in a modern apartment building or an independent house that had be designed for rental and you will suffocate, if you even manage to cram it all in the first place.
In a city like Mumbai don’t even try, most decently sized apartments rarely exceed 1000 sq. ft. of carpet area with 700-800 being the average, older buildings have also an awful more wasted space in the form of long narrow hallways and crazy corners that more modern buildings managed to eliminate.
This new type of living needs a new type of furnishing, and sadly the market hasn’t completely caught up with it, at least not in the affordable prices range of home furnishing.

To live in such quarters, you need to have a more western approach to what goes into a home, heavily carved furniture while looking stunning in a big family home, will dwarf a room in your average apartment and keep your eye from noticing the space around you. If you still want a desi feel to your home, look for smaller furniture and floor sitting solutions such as ottomans, you can still find wooden frame sofas that will not impose themselves in your space, look for less carving, and neutral fabric on the seat’s cushions.
If you want to go for a more modern approach, keep it simple and functional, and that is where it might end up being tricky, big store brands such as Home Stop, Home Centre and @Home have things that could work for compact urban living quarters, but they also come with a higher price tag and the quality isn’t always up to par either, though there is a way around it, should you know a good carpenter, browse online, get your inspiration from websites, ask relatives to bring you a IKEA catalogue from abroad, or if you are good at designing furniture draw your own and ask your carpenter to do it custom made for you, it won’t be dirt cheap, but it will cheaper than a big store model, and will in all like hood be of much better quality.
The guidelines with furniture in India be it desi style or international, go for good material, a hardwood piece of furniture will last you far more longer than the cheap laminates I’ve seen around here (which by the way aren’t even cheap).

I’ve made the mistake to buy laminates, they last you 3-4 years and then they loose shape, chip and look tacky in your space, especially if you bought them from a road side independent dealer, the biggest mistake we made was this one:


These are two bookshelves that we bought with wedding gift money in 2006, 3500 a piece in a store in Infantry road in Bangalore, this picture was taken in 2009 3 years later, and while you can’t see it here, some of the laminate went off, one or two of the cabinet doors lost their plastic handle and the shelves started tilting, and we didn’t even use them at their full capacity storage, 7k well wasted, these shelves never made it out to another flat, one got trashed in 2009 shortly after this picture was taken, and the other got donated to our made when we relocated to Navi Mumbai in 2010.
The small desk where the laptop is was bought in Chennai in 2004, our dog chewed it, the laminate started chipping a year after we purchased it, the ergonomic sucked, and the weight of the computer made the wheel mounted at the bottom break, I don’t remember how much we paid for that thing, we had a limited budget back then, so it was cheap, but in the long run still too costly. The corner desk is the only laminate piece that we kept until our recent move as there was no space for it in our new place in Mumbai so I sold it to a friend, but that is the sturdiest, bought in Home Stop during the sales for 5k if I remember correctly.

We knew a good carpenter in Bangalore so I designed my own furniture and asked them to be made of rubber wood with a dark taint finish:
Drawer unit
I had a drawer unit made to store baby clothes and diapers, and what I drew is exactly what I got, the drawer unit is now in my living room and hold my craft supplies, after 3 moves it sadly got damaged a little, but nothing that a carpenter can’t fix, the price of that drawer unit was 14k if I remember correctly all hard wood in visible areas and the bottom of the drawers and the back is made of plywood to cut cost a little, we never saw any similar units at less than 19k in stores across town, design, size and quality taken into account, so we saved 5k and 3 years later it is still in good condition minus that crack in one of the drawer panel curtesy of careless packers and movers.
The desk next to it is also my design, DH needed a laptop/reading desk as he was working from home and the corner unit had our desktop PC on it, this was again rubber wood and plywood and did cost 4k, we still use that desk, it is still in mint condition, and we have no plan of getting rid of it anytime soon.

My crappy shelves got replace by this in 2009, though this is the picture of where they are right now in our current flat in 2011:
The bookshelf is on the right, the cabinet on the left is yet another really crappy laminate thing we bought because our old Bangalore apartment had not much storage units in the kitchen and we didn’t want to invest a lot of money into a pantry cabinet we weren’t sure would be needed should we move, this cabinet ended up in the storage room in Navi Mumbai sucking humidity during the monsoon which made the laminate bubble, the packers and movers broke a glass door and if you go on my craft blog you’ll see I gave it a makeover. But back to my designed bookshelf, I wanted basic, minimalistic and functional for it, so that it could fit anywhere. If you browse this blog home decorating labels you might see it went into various rooms over the moves, the price for it was 9k if I remember correctly, keep in mind my crappy laminate ones cost me 7k so not that much more for something made of rubber wood, this one hasn’t chipped, or lost shape since 2009, my daughter even climbed it a couple of time without deforming the shelves which are glued and nailed into the frame. Again a piece of furniture we plan using for years as it is versatile enough to go anywhere.
And then there is the once upon a time DVD wall mounted unit I designed for our living room that now stays in Ishita’s room to hold her toy and books:
We just mounted it lower on the wall so she can reach the shelves, slid the two guest mattresses under it so that it makes a reading corner (when the room is tidy which isn’t often), 4k spent in 2007 and still standing, the only damage is a big dent courtesy of the packers and movers, by daughter used it as a ladder too and it’s still standing.

All this to say that YES minimalistic western style design is possible at more decent prices, we of course have store bought things too, and yes they were pricey but DH knows that when it comes to spotting good quality, I’m good, so since we now have a budget that can allow us to buy quality, we do it. We will never go for laminated MDF board furniture again, we know they don’t cut it.
So yes in short regardless of the style you want to go to, invest in solid wood, and keep proportions in mind.
A smaller space also calls for more hidden storage space and definitely less clutter. A thing I’ve seen is an issue in many an India household, not in the form of decorative items but in the form of lots of boxes of old stuff people find hard to let go of, even in my in-law’s place that is big there is a lot of things that are never used and never will be that are crammed into the wardrobes taking valuable space.
And contrary to homes in Europe, there is no basement in houses, and no basement storage cells in apartment building for people to keep their empty suitcases away when not needed so you need to get inventive there. Since we can’t get rid of the suitcases, they are on top of our wardrobe in the bedroom, but because we are no different than other people, we have our lot of almost never used things too, so when we aren’t traveling, they stay inside the suitcases for storage until one day we will have enough of lugging the dead weight back up the wardrobe after each trip and will get rid of them.

And while we are at the topic of clutter, the European houses I know all have a lot of trinkets and sculptures and figurines on the shelves that I haven’t seen in that much abundance in India, the reason being that here they are a pain in the butt to keep clean. India is a dusty place, I dust in a day what I would dust away in a week in Switzerland, that’s how polluted and dirty cities are around here, so unless you trust your maid to do a good job or you don’t mind spending an hour daily to get your crystal figurines and glitzy photo frames dust free, just don’t have more than one or two accent pieces around.
For us the problem is solved as with a dog and a toddler we just can’t have too man of these things around, the never last long enough anyway.
Better to decorate the space with bright cushions and curtains that don’t cost a fortune and can be tossed in the washing machine when icky

This is a long post, I’ll stop there, more pictures of how to make a space look nice in the future, not that there is a shortage of pictures already posted on my blog in this department anyway.

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  1. I use my bangle rack as decor. The bangles that don't fit on it I have stacked around a spray disinfectant bottle. It makes for a nice look and they don't take up valuable closet space. They do get dusty but aren't so bad to clean with a duster. Now the glass shelves they sit on, that's a different story. Those things are like dust magnets.

  2. I have tons of bangles currently sitting in boxes in a closet, most of them are glass so I don't wear them as often as before thanks to my daughter, and I've been thinking of getting a wall mounted rack made for them for years but never figured out where I would mount it in each of the flats we lived in, time to start thinking about it again :)
    And yes I have two glass shelves in my kitchen to hold my cookbooks and tea mugs, these are the biggest dust magnets I've ever seen even my bookshelf in the living room doesn't attract that much dust as these two 1 foot wide ones do in the kitchen...sigh

  3. I read that you can use 1 part liquid fabric softener to 4 parts water to clean your glass surfaces and it will help repell dust.

  4. Thanks for the tip, it's worth a try


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