Taxi Fabric

Taxi Fabric collaborates with graphic designers to create exclusive theme based designs for the seat covers and ceilings of Mumbai’s omnipresent black & yellow taxis. We catch up with Sanket Avlani, founder and curator of Taxi Fabric, to find out how the project has evolved so far.

28 Jan 2016 | By Payal Khandelwal

Even when Taxi Fabric made its modest beginning as a Tumblr blog in 2013 that simply collected the bizarre and quirky, but often humdrum designs found on the seat covers and ceilings of taxis in Bombay, there was something unique about it. With names like The Moonlit Tides, The Dreams of Dali, The Lion’s Bedroom, The Ferns of Greece and The Coal Mines of Hefe for taxis’ original designs, it led to the feeling of how sometimes we need to see things we are always surrounded by in a completely new light. Taxi Fabric is now a full-blown project that mainly collaborates with graphic designers to create exclusive theme based designs for the seat covers and ceilings of Bombay’s omnipresent black & yellow taxis.
Taxi Fabric has unleashed about 23 refurbished and inimitable taxis into the city so far, designed by various designers including Sameer Kulavoor, Lokesh Karekar, Shweta Malhotra, Kunel Gaur, Shaivalini Kumar, among many others. The way the project has evolved so far is undoubtedly an interesting story. And to delve into this story further, I meet Sanket Avlani, founder and curator of Taxi Fabric, at The Taj Mahal Tea House nestled in a charming old bungalow in Bandra, Mumbai.
Taxi Fabric has pretty much constantly been in the news since its inception, and deservedly so.
“People were excited about this even before we had begun the project formally. They were reacting to it, and gradually I started thinking what it could mean if designers could experiment with the medium. It progressed from there quite naturally. Even when we work with our designers now, we want to make sure that we create designs that people notice and that lead to conversation,” says Avlani.
Taxi Fabric’s timeline is of course entwined with Avlani’s own professional expeditions. Avlani comes from an engineering background, which helps him focus on craft and to have a structural approach to things. His formal creative education happened with MICA. In between, he had stints with a friend’s t-shirt company and with Red Bull for their Street Style competition. He has also worked with digital agency Foxymoron in their early years. His advertising years started off with Publicis Ambience post MICA, and he then went on to work at Creativeland Asia (CLA). He says, “I cross collaborated a lot even while I was working, dabbling in various personal projects. When I was promoted to creative director at CLA, I got into film and photography as well, and met a lot of good directors and photographers who inspired me and told me to do my own thing.”
He was in CLA when Taxi Fabric took its first steps. After ending his stint at CLA, London was a big part of his plans. There he worked at the advertising agency Mother on a freelance basis, and then with Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) as a freelancer first before joining them on full-time for about nine months post a short gig at BBH. All this while, Taxi Fabric was slowly shape-shifting into something concrete.
He feels that W+K has played a huge role in not only supporting him to execute Taxi Fabric but also in terms of learnings. He was hugely inspired by many of his colleagues at the agency who were passionately working on their personal projects along with their agency work. This led Avlani to continue nurturing his long distance project. A conversation with Nathalie Gordon, who he was initially supposed to team up with for a job in London, led to formalizing the project as a showcase for local designers. After creating five taxis, Avlani and team (that also includes Gordon, Mahak Malik and Girish Narayandass) decided to put up the project for funding on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. After it got successfully funded, Avlani decided to come back to Mumbai to execute the project and to start delivering on the project goals.
The learnings from his experiences in London, especially at W+K, didn’t end there though. “Choosing efficient people has been a very important learning from there. I didn’t meet anyone in London who was under-qualified to do a particular job. They choose their people very carefully and that’s something we have applied in Taxi Fabric as well. We only want people who can really add value, and that’s why we are in no hurry to expand our team. Another learning is in terms of the way they work with their people. Basic courtesy and mutual trust can go a long way is what I have learnt. In our case, we want to train our vendors to the extent that they can handle things completely on their own. We completely trust them, and want them to grow with us. The freedom we give makes them more accountable.”
While Taxi Fabric initially used Mumbai city as its muse for the designs, the project is now flowing seamlessly into the direction of social commentary. With this new focus, Taxi Fabric is now collaborating with TEDxGateway, and as part of the collaboration, they recently exhibited five taxis at a TEDxGateway event that was held in Mumbai. Their most recent taxi in this direction, ‘Special Friends’, is designed by Shruti Thakkar and coloured by the students of Mann, an institute for individuals with special needs. “After we did the taxi ‘Monad’ which was a sort of collaboration between India and Pakistan, designed by Pakistani designer Samiya Arif, the impact it had on people from both sides of the world was humbling. And I knew we were onto something, and that’s when we started thinking about focusing on social commentary.”
While the project has gained a completely new dimension by bringing in a social angle, the Kickstarter funding is about to end soon, and now Avlani has his eyes fixed on the sustenance of the project. The project must be whatever it is due to public sentiments, but there are realities attached to it, he says. “We have studied this medium and we are figuring out what are the things we can do. We are exploring commercially redesigning private cars and other private transport, among other ideas. We are also looking at merchandising. We want to work with partners now, and not just collaborators. However, no matter what we do, we will always be doing a few taxis. Surprisingly, now there are designers who want to sponsor the taxis themselves, so we will leave that open but may be not at the same pace.”
Another collaboration in the pipeline is with a magazine for its anniversary issue for which the publication house is sponsoring a series of taxis, and bringing together designers from different backgrounds. There will also be “some small collaboration” with the government in the future.
“A lot of people think our project is just about beautifying something. That perception has to change,” feels Avlani. If we look at the larger picture, though, each taxi has led to some kind of conversations among people from different spectrums. The social communication channels of Taxi Fabric have been able to amplify those conversations even further. Sometimes the conversations and reactions have even been negative but that only goes on to show that it is triggering something in people, feels Avlani. “There have been a few issues in the past but we are an amicable organization, and therefore, anytime our drivers have had an issue, we have sorted it out immediately. But I am very happy that people are reacting. They are noticing and having conversations. Public transport should be very universal. Style is one thing, but relevance is what is more important.”
Avlani feels that this relevance of the project is something that keeps him going personally. “For the first time, what I am doing is resonating with my mother. In a very purist way, it is inspiring conversations and I don’t want it to die,” he says.
While earlier the Taxi Fabric team used to get in touch with a set of graphic designer friends, they now work with people who get in touch with them. “This particular designer Chithkala Ramesh, for example, wrote to us from Bangalore, and she was someone we had not heard of before but her work was great. And that’s what gets us excited. That’s our focus,” says Avlani. They don’t put a full stop to the selection with just the designer’s portfolio though. It’s a huge responsibility when you are talking about 10 meters of fabric, and the designer has to show the ability to deal with that, he specifies. And the specific concept that the designer comes up with for the taxi itself also plays a huge role.
After the concept is finalized, the design process kicks off with some rough sketches. Then comes the whole process of creating the final artwork which involves a lot of back and forth in terms of style and minor arrangements. “For me, that is actually curation - developing along and giving the designer the taste of what is it like to work with another designer and another medium.” At this stage, the Taxi Fabric team also advises the designer on little but important details like how the design should be placed keeping the corners and edges of the taxi seats in mind, and what can potentially be cropped in the process. This whole process of arriving at the final design averagely takes about a month. “During this whole process, we constantly require a very high level of initiative and enthusiasm from the designer,” says Avlani.
The taxis chosen for the project usually belong to friends and families of the taxi drivers that Avlani knows. An early inspiration for Taxi Fabric, in fact, is a taxi stand situated right below his house and his father’s habit of frequently taking taxis to travel. “Now we have about 200 drivers who want their taxis redesigned by us. The designers ultimately get the freedom to choose the type of taxi they want to work with.” Most designers opt for fiats, which will soon be rendered defunct but are still considered the quintessential icons of the city.
When the production process starts, Mahak Malik comes into the picture. She is Avlani’s friend and his other half at Taxi Fabric. She is the only one who works on Taxi Fabric on a full time basis. “She is the heart of the project. She takes over when we are done with the artwork. Among many other things, she creates liaison between drivers, vendors, designers etc.,” he says.
The vendors including printer Shyam Mahindrakar and workshop seat vendor Ravpreet Bhasin also enter at this stage. Talking about Mahindrakar especially, Avlani says that he has really added a lot of value to the project. “He is a visionary. He came in through a lot of recommendations from screen printers and he has worked with a lot of fashion designers as well. When I first met him, it took me two hours to go through all his work. He has not only been a part of the project, he has really taken care of us. He has adjusted his work so many times to put us into his massive printing schedule. He also makes sure that he doesn’t charge us a lot. He has an ever-growing set up and he himself has shifted from technique to technique.”
Post the final artwork, the Taxi Fabric team fixes a schedule for production which starts off with printing. The designer is present during the entire production process, and sometimes there are changes in the design even on the day of printing. “We then do color matching and reprint if required. On the go, we also experiment with materials.
Now after many experiments and mistakes, our ceiling material is different from that of the seat and the door. The ceiling has a coat that’s water and dust proof, and there is a thin removable plastic cover on it. Now the glue doesn’t seep out of it either, which used to happen a lot earlier. For the seat cover material, we use polyester but we keep experimenting with different GSMs and weaves in that as well. The seat covers are washable and can easily last from anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the driver.”
They use the process of sublimation, done through heat transfer, for printing. They first print on transfer paper on a regular Epson printer, and the design is then pressed onto the fabric. Sublimation is specifically used in this case to reproduce the exact colors in the final product. One of the challenges of this technique though includes shrinking of the fabric and bleeding of design, but now with a specific quality of polyester that problem is being taken care of, informs Avlani.
The day after printing is marked for the fitting of the new upholstery onto the vehicle. The fitting process is quite organic, says Avlani. The placements are done at Bhasin’s workshop in Khar in the presence of the designer and some members of the Taxi Fabric team. “We tell our designers to be very forgiving when it comes to the final placement as things might move a little. They can’t be very finicky about it. They need to embrace the medium. In fact, the overall texture of the project requires one to be very open.” Post the fitting, the next day is kept for shooting of the revamped taxi, and then for eventually laminating the taxi.