It is peak summer heat, but I’m in for a treat. I’m in a workspace flanked by terrace gardens on either side, and a Picasso inside. There’s a third distinguishing feature as well. For the first time in this series, I encounter an office building entirely designed by the company chairman. This is the Ahmedabad office of Achal Bakeri, a trained architect, chairman and managing director of Symphony Ltd, one of the world’s largest air-cooler company.
Let’s start with the vibrant Picasso, hanging on a wall to the side of Bakeri’s desk. It’s a piece of textile, a woven tapestry, not a canvas, Bakeri clarifies, saying he couldn’t afford an original Picasso painting. “Ever since I studied architecture I have been interested in modern art and specifically Cubism. And then I saw these in Spain, and loved them. So I bought this one and another one for the boardroom.”
A wooden wall clock behind his desk, bought in the early 1990s in Germany, is another much-loved object. It consists of “different coloured pieces of wood, which are inlaid on another wooden surface and then laminated over. The workmanship is outstanding, it’s not machine made,” he describes. Next to the meeting table in front of his desk is a vintage typewriter. “It was gifted to me by someone and it was in a fairly bad shape, but I saw potential in it. I had it copper plated and mounted on a piece of wood, so it looks like a work of art.” Together, the trio reflect an occupant with a keen eye for design.
The Minimal Approach
Next, the terrace gardens. Bakeri acknowledges the occupational luxuries of corporate life in a smaller city, with more real estate available for such amenities. “We step out for meetings sometimes in the winter months.”
Finally, the building. Bakeri studied architecture, followed by an MBA with a specialization in real estate finance, intending to join his family’s real estate business, where he worked for some time before starting Symphony in 1998. Although he never practised architecture, he has designed a few projects, including his parents’ home, his home and the Symphony office.
The office reflects a distinct design philosophy—modernist, accessible and warm—for the most part. “We didn’t want a tall, imposing building, so we made our footprint as big as possible and cut down the height. We have also paid a fair amount of attention to vaastu in this building, just the basics, we didn’t really go to the extremes…. Since we had a large footprint, we didn’t want one big hall, we divided it into two. This allowed us the courtyard in the centre. And finally, I wanted something minimal, which is why we have unplastered rock, exposed concrete walls. I have always liked wood, natural materials as far as possible,” Bakeri describes. The cabin is generous, with enough space for a 10-seater conference table, sofas and a large desk.
As the office highlights, Bakeri is more than a trained architect—he is a design strategist.
The ground report
Design thinking is a business buzzword today. It simply means the ability to take decisions and make choices by leveraging one’s affinity for creative problem-solving, as Bakeri does in a number of ways.
First, superior product design and innovation. Bakeri’s workspace expresses his intuitive “feel” for beautiful objects; his business life is entirely predicated on mass-marketing equally inventive products. “At Symphony, and as it should be everywhere, design is not for design’s sake. It helps us fulfil the consumer’s need. Most of the time that need is unarticulated. And it is a need we believe that exists because of our consumer insights. So, it is the intersection of marketing and design, to a great degree, that is the role that I play.”
He hones his own consumer understanding by making short trips to various markets each year. “You have to remain close to the market. I would make about six-seven trips in a year within the country. I go and meet dealers and I speak to the trade. Also, almost every month I am travelling abroad to our subsidiaries in Australia, China, Mexico and US. So, I make these short trips. I just need to do that, that’s my fuel. I feel insecure if I am not in touch with what’s going on at the ground level. I need my ear very close to the ground,” he explains.
Second, as the presence of the terrace gardens and the meeting table suggests, being a design strategist is a team sport. Symphony’s long-running partnership with Elephant Design, a Pune-based multi-disciplinary design studio, is iconic in India’s design landscape. Ashish Deshpande, co-founder of Elephant, is one of the few industrial designers to serve on a client’s board as director. “Since Ashish has been associated with Symphony for nearly 30 years, and because design plays a very important role in Symphony, he brings a strategic vision, how design can play a strategic role beyond just something that looks good,” Bakeri states.
Third, being able to make good choices is entirely based on the ability to say no to bad ones. The office building represents a certain design sensibility, and a personal aesthetic choice—some may not like to live with exposed concrete but it’s a choice Bakeri made. Similarly, being a design strategist is about being able to say no to areas outside of one’s focus areas. “The only competitive advantage that we have is our ability to innovate, and our ability to create products and our brands, whether in India or Australia or Mexico or China or the US. Most importantly, our focus on this category. People come and make pitches (for new businesses) but the most important thing is to be able to say ‘No’. You have to recognize and understand that you can’t be good at everything and we’d rather not do something which we are not very good at,” Bakeri emphasizes. The statement underlines lessons learnt—Symphony filed for bankruptcy several years ago because of excessive diversification into new product categories, after which it recovered and focused solely on the air-cooler market.
Finally, cross-pollination. Just like the objects from around the world in Bakeri’s room, his to-do agenda is populated by ideas from Symphony businesses from around the world. “When we acquired the US company, which has a plant in Mexico, we hadn’t till then known about industrial coolers. It was because they make these large industrial coolers that we decided to experiment with those, bring some of them to India and launch them here. Had it not been for that, we would have never ever probably ventured in that direction,” he says, adding that now a dedicated manager is based in corporate headquarters, “cross pollinating ideas across the four geographies. And also, not only ideas, but also leveraging opportunities. So, his role is that. Just connecting those dots.” Perhaps the most essential trait of being a design strategist.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.