The day I meet Arthur Duff at Studio Praxis in Naranpura, he’s busy preparing for a trip to Mumbai, where Praxis is having a furniture design exhibition. “This could be a breakthrough. Mumbai is Mumbai after all,” he says excitedly, as he shoots off an email to Tranceforme, the showroom in Mumbai’s Laxmi Mills premises that is curating the show.
The 60-year-old architect has returned to Ahmedabad after a longish stay in his native Ireland during the pandemic and his enthusiasm is charming, especially when compared to his young business partner Maneesh Kumar, who sits quiet and serious in the background. Before the pandemic, the duo had designed Kamla Café for SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), a project located in Bodakdev which has since garnered much praise. After that, Praxis took up another project for SEWA, for the construction of a flower market in Jamalpur. This was meant to decongest the area, which is choc-a-block with hawkers selling fruits, vegetables and flowers on the road, but the project seems to have hit a roadblock, with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation developing cold feet. The model for the flower market now sits forlornly at the entrance to Studio Praxis. “We hope the idea might be revived soon,” says Duff.
Duff first came to Ahmedabad when he was still a student at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He was part of a team of students roped in by architect George Michell to help document the monuments of Hampi. At Michell’s urging, the students took time off to visit the School of Architecture at CEPT (Michell later co-authored a coffee table book on Ahmedabad with fellow architect Snehal Shah).
For the 19-year-old Duff, it was love at first sight. “The openness of the campus really appealed to me. In Dublin, our buildings are closed, partly because of the climate. The architecture in Ahmedabad was all very new and fascinating,” he recalls.
Duff transferred from his college in Dublin to CEPT in 1981 and stayed on in the city for nine years. He was a contemporary of several now-famous Ahmedabad-based architects, like Bimal Patel, Mihir Bhatt and Achal Bakeri. He did his thesis on the development of the sea-side temple town of Dwarka, a place he still likes to visit every now and then. “I just hop on an overnight bus and go. Dwarka has changed so much materially, as has the rest of Gujarat. Ahmedabad was a small place in 1981. I used to ride my Hero Jet bicycle on the roads, where I navigated with Ambassadors, Fiats, as well as camels, cows and donkeys,” he says.
India was not an unfamiliar place for the Duff family. Many of his relatives had come to the country to seek their fortunes during the Raj. Arthur had a maternal uncle living in Kolkata and a paternal uncle born in Darjeeling . Those days, Ireland was almost as poor as India, and people there were desperate to move out for better opportunities. Though his father was a well-to-do doctor in Dublin, young Arthur chose to finance his stay in Ahmedabad by providing drawing services to architects and authors. “I made a lot of connections this way. People are so hospitable in Ahmedabad. I maintained these relationships even when I returned to Dublin in 1990,” he says.
Duff was in Dublin for 25 years, running a furniture design studio that did the interiors for Irish embassies around the world. Then, on one of his frequent trips to Ahmedabad, he got a call from CEPT Director Bimal Patel, asking him if he would be interested in setting up a Master’s program in furniture design at his Alma Mater. It was a prestigious assignment and Duff decided to make the move back to Ahmedabad. “I wasn’t 19 years old any more, but I could still do it because I lived with my parents and was not married,” he says.
Duff joined up as a partner at Studio Praxis while he taught at CEPT and now he works at the firm full time. The furniture business, which is closely linked with real estate development, is doing very well post-Covid. Duff’s designer furniture is marketed under the brand name Amolakh and mostly uses teak. How do Ahmedabadis choose their furniture? “People here buy expensive houses but they don’t spend that much on furniture. In the west, people buy furniture that is meant to last them the rest of their lives. Here, people think in terms of changing their furniture. They dispose of old furniture and buy new stuff.”
The Amolakh range of products is fairly expensive, with a single chair priced at Rs 25,000. Clients include a leading lawyer of Ahmedabad, for whom Praxis has designed an entire office.