India has provided French designer Paul Mathieu an inexhaustible source of inspiration. From designing the Gyan Museum in Jaipur to restoring an 18th-century haveli in Udaipur, he reminisces about everything that connects him to the country. By Aindrila Mitra
T+L India: When was the first time you visited India, and how would you describe your connection with the country?
Paul Mathieu: I visited India in 2003 with the design entrepreneur Stephanie Odegard, who had asked me to develop a line of furniture with the master craftsmen of Rajasthan, especially those of Udaipur, for their tradition of marble sculpture and silver-clad furniture. I immediately felt a connection with them. The language difference vanished, replaced by the vocabulary that we had in common: that of applied art. It became an advantage, allowing us to get closer, to connect and understand each other spontaneously and passionately through their skills and my vision. My connection with India is primarily through my creative work and the many relationships that have been forged over almost 20 years of dialogue and inspiration. The culmination of which is the Gyan Museum and my involvement with Dhun Jaipur, a community that’s aspiring to create a blueprint for the future of living, terraforming degenerated lands into thriving microcosms.
T+L India: You restored an 18th-century haveli in Udaipur. What drew you to the place?
Paul Mathieu: When I acquired and renovated the house in 2004, I was taken by the charm of Udaipur’s Old City and heritage architecture and the life of the neighbourhood, which is authentic to its location and history while simultaneously existing in harmony with an international community of creative people attracted to the city and Rajasthan’s distinct cultural life. The four years of renovation brought me even closer to the local traditions and community.
T+L India: Has India had any design influence on your work?
Paul Mathieu: One of the major influences is the sense of freedom India gives me. When I collaborate with my Indian colleagues, I am completely free to explore ideas and create without the perceived limitations and constraints often found elsewhere. India invites me to follow dreams and connects me with people who are not only open to making those dreams a reality, but take true pleasure in our succeeding together. This freedom was fully realised in my design of the Gyan Museum. For example, I revisited the MADELEINE chandelier, which originated in Murano, Italy. For Gyan, the glass masters created a one-of-a-kind smoke-grey piece. In this creative space, perceived boundaries dissolved. Inspired by the lapidary masters of Gyan jewellery, I embraced the opportunity to carve a monolithic block of Makrana marble like a precious stone, and created my first sculptural FLOW collection washbasin. Another enduring Indian inspiration is the carved stone jali screen. From memories of my early visits to Chishti’s Tomb and Jaipur’s Palace of the Winds to recent memories of Suryagarh Jaisalmer, these masterworks of light and air embody rare beauty and intelligence and remain a lesson in eternal style. The dance of light, the appearance of motifs on the faces and figures of passers-by, the stretching of shadows as they mark the passage of the sun—these images continue to make an impression and can be found throughout my Udaipur haveli and in pieces like the now-iconic Jour Table for Stephanie Odegard.
T+L India: What does travel mean to you? Do you think the way people travel will change significantly post COVID-19?
Paul Mathieu: For me travel will always mean exploring, meeting new people and discovering the beauty of the country through their eyes. Travel also means pleasure and keeping an open mind, which invites inspiration. During Covid, I have been forced to stay in one place, which has led me to reflect on what I have done in the past but also to dream of new creations. I’m looking forward to returning to India and discovering new approaches, and to see what has changed while I’ve been away.
T+L India: What are your favourite places here?
Paul Mathieu: Mumbai for its size and location on the sea, my friends in the design and arts communities there, the mix of contemporary and traditional architecture, and the cosmopolitan feeling of neighbourhoods like Colaba and Bandra. Jaisalmer for the beauty of the desert and the many wonderful memories at Suryagarh. Rawla Narlai, where I received one of the most beautiful birthday celebrations: a village stepwell illuminated by thousands of candles. Panaji and Goa are also very special to me for the blend of local and Portuguese architecture and culture I discovered there during Still Life, an exhibition of my work alongside that of Gunjan Gupta at the Sunaparanta-Goa Centre for the Arts in Altinho curated by [author] Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. Fort Tiracol, a Portuguese fort turned heritage hotel located at the northern tip of Goa, is another special destination.
T+L India: Is there something you never miss out on doing when you visit India?
Paul Mathieu: I never miss a motorcycle getaway in the hills and the villages around Udaipur, especially during monsoon. I also never miss a jog around Fateh Sagar Lake that leads to the Neemach Mata hilltop temple overlooking Udaipur and the lake, where the sound of bells echoes as agarbatti smoke fills the air in the morning puja.
T+L India: Which design marvels in India would you recommend to a traveller?
Paul Mathieu: The village stepwells. They are amazing, and there is nothing like them in the world. Additionally, they exist to preserve one of the most precious, endangered possessions in the world today: water. The first time I discovered one was by chance. I was lost while walking through a village back to my hotel when I happened upon one. I thought I was dreaming [up] this place, open simultaneously to the sky and to the earth with deep water at the bottom and birds crisscrossing and singing in the sky above my head. While many of them have been abandoned and neglected, many are also being rediscovered and restored like Toorji’s Step Well in Jodhpur. Other favourites include Rajasthan’s Kuchaman Fort and the Jantar Mantar astronomical monuments of Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura, and Varanasi.