Home Boy: How Ashiesh Shah Became Bollywood’s Favourite Architect

Ashiesh Shah and Jacqueline Fernandez on ‘Design HQ’, which will air on Fox Life.

On a hot Monday in May, when most people were trudging to their work stations, we piled into Ashiesh Shah’s Range Rover and set off for Bandra from his office in Tardeo. All we knew was that we were accompanying the architect, 38, to a couple of his ongoing sites in the suburb. A day of shadowing Shah ended up being a tour of Bollywood celebrity’s homes. By sundown, we had spent a few hours each at the abodes of actors Aditya Roy Kapur and Jacqueline Fernandez. These glittery folk, whom he counts as pals, star in Design HQ, an eight-episode design and lifestyle TV show hosted by Shah that will air on Thursdays on Fox Life, starting September 7.

Each episode offers a glimpse of a celebrity’s home. “I wanted it to have mass appeal,” said Shah, who admires director Karan Johar’s approach to television. “Koffee with Karan is brilliant because it speaks to such a wide spectrum.” The purpose of Design HQ is to help the lay person “interior design his own space” by offering sourcing and styling tips, said Shah who has fast become a favourite of Bollywood A-listers. In 2014, Ranbir Kapoor, who he has friends in common with, became the first among the fraternity to hire Shah, followed by Hrithik Roshan. “If I didn’t have Bollywood, I’d still be an outcast in India,” said Shah. By outcast, he means he’d lack the visibility he enjoys today.

Nine years into his practice, Shah may not be the country’s most prolific architect, but he is among the most feted. He’s the darling of interior design publications such as Architectural DigestCasa Vogue, Elle Decor and Mondo Arc India, which regularly feature his work. Forbes and Hello are some of the other glossies that have run flattering profiles on Shah’s projects. A confidence-affirming clutter of awards from GQ, GoodHomes and Trends are strewn across his office cabin.

On average, his firm handles no more than six clients at a time, which by his definition makes it a “boutique business”. One of the reasons for this is that he is against cloning his past designs. “I end up taking only five to six projects at a time and all of them get published because I’m giving each venue that much new content, there’s no room for imitation or repetition.” He has a signature style and those who are familiar with his work can identify an Ashiesh Shah project. There’s typically one dramatic element in his designs or a “hero” as he refers to it. Features around this are underplayed or kept “quiet” so as to highlight it. Take Mahalaxmi’s fine dining farm-to-table restaurant Masque for instance. Here the attention converges towards the striking iron and brass installation by Kolkata-based sculptor Rathin Barman placed as a divider between the elevated bar and the earthy dining room.

At Aditya Roy Kapur’s breezy sixth floor apartment, the actor wanted doors to be added between the living room, guest room and kitchen, but Shah argued against them. “Space is energy and energy needs to flow in your home,” he said. “There’s no need for extra barriers in your personal space.” We hopped from Roy Kapur’s bachelor pad to Jacqueline Fernandez’s high-rise digs nearby. The actor was not in town and Shah, who knows her well, had been given free reign to redo her apartment. The thirteenth floor flat has an enviable 180 degree view of the sea and abundant natural light. Here he was working towards channeling Parisian chic and was focused on bringing the outdoors inside with the addition of plants and flowers. “She’s a city girl with a country heart,” he said.

The Rathin Barman installation at Masque.

In addition to residences, which make up 80 per cent of his work, Shah has designed some of Mumbai’s most buzz-generating restaurants and stores. His first F&B project was Nido, the now-shuttered European-fine dining restaurant in Bandra that opened in 2013. Nido along with Le Mill, the multi-designer boutique in Wadi Bunder (which relocated to Colaba in 2015), gave Shah public exposure.

The Raw Mango sari store in Colaba and celebrity chef Hemant Oberoi’s eponymous fine-dining establishment in Bandra Kurla Complex are among his more recent projects. Extravagant budgets are common to his commercial and residential assignments. “If you have money and taste and understand what we do, then by all means come to us,” Shah said. “Our aesthetic is expensive, but design to me is not about money. You can spend crores and make something look ugly.”

While he might seem like an overnight success, Shah believes he’s paid his dues. “There were days in this office when there was no work,” said Shah, who graduated from the Rachana Sansad College of Architecture in Prabhadevi. He then moved to New York for four years where he got his first job as an architect and also learned “how to hustle”. “I hail from a family of doctors and was regarded as a nobody in the world of design,” he said. “I still remained selective about the work we took up. I knew that it would be a short-term loss, but it’s paid off in the long run.”

Shah was born in Ahmedabad but grew up on Marine Drive or as he put it, “I was practically raised in the Cricket Club of India”. He took no interest in his father and brother’s medical texts but developed an early interest in art and is now an avid art collector. His Pedder Road apartment is overrun with art, as is his office. On our day out, Shah frequently dropped names of Bollywood stars as well as his artist friends such as Subodh Gupta, Dayanita Singh and Atul Dodiya.

He is clearly heavily invested in every small decision the firm makes. Sourcing takes him from the Juna Bazaar in Oshiwara and Chor Bazaar in Bhendi Bazaar to the annual Milan Design Week. He’s a regular at furniture and antique shops such as Phillips Antiques in Colaba and Mahendra Doshi in Walkeshwar and fabric stores including Splendour on Hughes Road.

The architect moves around with his cosseted team members including his protegee and jewellery designer Suhani Parekh of the label Misho (“the Aalia Bhatt to his KJo”, as he calls her) and friend and socialite Prerna Goel, whose sense of taste he admires. Together, they look into both larger design aspects and minute finishing details such as books to place on shelves, artworks their clients should invest in and what colour sheets to lay on beds.

Shah said he’s unable to shut off from work. He takes one annual vacation with family and balks at the idea of more holidays. “When you stop producing (work), you’re a nobody,” said Shah, who is conscious about “owning” his popularity and tapping media contacts for timely publicity. “I’ve learned from my friends in Bollywood that you’re only as good as your last hit.” Plenty has been penned about his illustrious projects and his aesthetic as an architect and interior designer. However, what truly makes Ashiesh Shah the popular brand that he has become is his pickiness with projects and, undoubtedly, his outstanding PR skills. “All the magazines support us unconditionally, so the least I can do is attend their parties.”

September is likely to be another press-friendly month for Shah, who said he “hired a PR agent five years ago because I did not want to be a loser architect; I’m not sheepish about liking the limelight.” Aside from his debut TV show, he will launch a limited-edition collection of furniture and lights called Wabi Sabi, created in collaboration with home decor site Urban Ladder. Even though his aesthetic is generally opulent, Wabi Sabi is positioned as an accessible brand of functional pieces suitable for daily use. He will also be preparing for the much-anticipated launch of Fernandez and Mishali Sanghani’s new restaurant Pali Thai.

The architect now has his eyes set on a dream project. He wants to revive and refurbish The Pearl of the Orient, the defunct rooftop revolving restaurant crowning the Ambassador Hotel in Churchgate. Shah was a regular at the restaurant in its hey-day. He has a detailed plan for its makeover that involves turning it into a “full-on, dress-up-in-ball-gowns kind of space”. He also hopes to rent and manage it if it ever reopens. “The unrestricted view it has makes it a rare entity and the perfect date space.” He’s damn sure that if this fantasy materialises, the restaurant is likely to “kill all the competition”. If anyone were to be tasked with making the spot fashionable again, media-savvy Shah is the man for the job.

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