Old wood, fresh purpose

The co-founders of Bengaluru-based Woodlabs, Abhirup Dutta and Deeptashree Saha, are plugged into the past, re-purposing used wood to make heirloom furniture. And yes, they retain a clear vision for the future.

Dining room options include the Vleen Sandhara with trestle legs (L) and the traditional low-level Bhu Asana (R).

By KHUSHI RAWAT & ROY THOMAS

The popular perception about startups is that budding entrepreneurs have their ‘Eureka!’ moment before they go about incubating an idea. But for Abhirup Dutta and Deeptashree Saha, co-founders of Woodlabs, a workshop for hand-crafted wooden furniture in Bengaluru, the idea of re-purposing old wood and getting to design entire home spaces with it came about gradually.

For them, several years of interactions, experiences and observations eventually coalesced into a workable business model. And when the business is something you are really passionate about, then even the stars align to make it a reality!

Abhirup, a Bengaluru-based architect, had always been interested in old furniture and designs, but felt a disconnect between the demand and supply of good and reliable timber, and hence the difficulty in sourcing it.

His stint with the award-winning and globally recognised firm, Studio Mumbai (run by Bijoy Jain) was an eye-opener for Abhirup. Bijoy had developed a body of work that continues to reference aspects of both Indian and Western cultures. “What sets that studio apart is the brilliant combination of tradition and modernity,” Abhirup says. “Local resources and Indian craftsmanship form the basis for its highly contemporary architectural designs.”

Thoughtful and uncompromising to the last detail, the architecture of Studio Mumbai showed Abhirup the deep concern for the relationship between man and nature. He now insists on the importance of the genius loci, the protective spirit of a place.

It was while working here that Abhirup came across carpenters from Bagawas, a village in Rajasthan, who were exceptional artisans and craftsmen. “These artisans embody the old-world concept of carpentry, which seemed to be dying in the face of modern, mechanised, mass manufacturing,” Abhirup notes.

Artisanal design

Abhirup and Deeptashree started Woodlabs in 2015. Deeptashree is a Kolkata-based interior designer whose background allowed her to hone her passion for spaces and sharpen her aesthetic as a connoisseur of rural craft.

With a handful of motivated artisans from Rajasthan who joined Abhirup in the venture – and loads of enthusiasm to go with it! – the workshop started operating from a tiny garage in Bengaluru. Fast-forward to 2022: Woodlabs has moved to a new, modern location on the northern outskirts of the city.

There are no monstrous industrial sheds or factory-like structures here. Instead, neat, pre-fabricated modular structures abutting a lake greeted us during our visit to the workshop. Neatly marked-out extensions in the vicinity tell us that expansion is on the cards.

According to Abhirup, “Woodlabs is a one-concept wood workshop that gives life to ideas with expert craftsmanship and a motive to innovate, while also being a conscious step towards the slow life.”  With a hands-on, artisan-centric approach to design, the company strives to produce heirloom pieces that can be passed down for generations.

Abhirup, with his training in architecture and product design, dedicates himself to experimental research through a deep investigation of materials and engineering. His experience with renowned architects has definitely helped him discover a love for wood that combines architecture and engineering.

 

 

Souls of trees

“Understanding wood is very important, and our woodworking story is very personal to the soul of the tree. The approach tries to highlight the subtle nuances in the grain and figure that gives us a small glimpse into the past of the lumber,” Deeptashree tells us.

Woodlabs’ furniture and products are made from solid wood.  “Good quality wood is a scarce commodity; so it needs to be used consciously and judiciously. All pieces here are built keeping in mind the lost value of old teak, which is at least 80 years old,” she adds.

The material is sourced and reclaimed from old buildings that are being demolished or renovated with the intention of giving them a second lease of life. Woodlabs stores an inventory of wood that lasts around three months before restocking it. Each piece of wood is labelled and documented as it is processed into new furniture.

Abhirup and Deeptashree believe in having a purist approach; that good quality wood should be appreciated in its natural form. As testimony Woodlabs completely refrains from artificial staining or colouring of their pieces. It has developed a curated range of finishes which celebrates various lost techniques of wood finishing.

Cutting waste

With an emphasis on artisanal hand-crafting and wood joinery, interlocking joints are used to execute accurate joinery and to minimise the use of screws. The workshop is equipped with the basic machines and tools, which include an SCM Nova 15 Arbour saw, a Combi planar, a wood lathe, a band saw, a chop saw, a scroll saw, a sanding machine, a router and an assortment of miscellaneous hand tools from Makita.

A metal lathe is also available and, along with wood finishing, brass metal bolts for folding chairs (perhaps the only metal part used) are also fabricated in-house.

The design of the furniture is lean and sleek, in contrast to the bulky, carved-out works of traditional Indian wooden furniture. Part of the reason this style is preferred is to keep the wastage of wood to a minimum.

Sustainability is the pivot around which Woodlabs functions and the idea governs every aspect of its working.  The excess cut-out blocks of wood are not thrown away or burned, but are re-purposed differently.

Their lines of wooden toys (Musing Thing) and home products (Woodlabs Objects) make use of such pieces that are not suitable for making furniture.

They also collect live edge slabs of wood to create unique table tops and benches, to display the unique grains on each slab and create exclusive pieces of furniture. Inspired by Japanese and Scandinavian styles of furniture-making, the pieces produced are muted and modest, so as to blend in with the interiors.

Most of the products made are inspired by existing designs. “We re-designed a swing into a sofa and the sofa into a day bed. The ideas are always evolving,” Deeptashree says.

Oils & finishes

To stay true to its mission of not utilising any artificial materials in the making of its furniture, Woodlabs uses the ancient technique of hand-rubbing oil as the finish. This consists of polishing the wood with up to seven layers of linseed oil and insecticide.

Not only is oil water-proof and alcohol-resistant, but it gives wooden furniture an attractive natural sheen and texture. The penetrating and durable nature of oil finishing keeps the wood moisturised and enclosed in a breathable coating.

“Wood is a living element, even after being converted into a piece of furniture. It exchanges moisture, ages and reacts to the environment very similar to skin,” says Deeptashree. “Our practice focuses on natural oil finishes that, over time, become a part of the furniture and develop a patina that lasts generations.”

Another method of finishing used is shou sugi ban, a technique that originated in Japan in the 18th century, primarily as way to make cedar siding weather-proof. The technique has caught on recently as a treatment for contemporary exteriors and indoor furnishings alike.

It involves charring cedar planks and then burnishing the burnt wood with wire brushes and sandpaper. It gives the wood a dark, almost black, look while still showcasing the natural grains.

The gravitas imparted by the process and finished result are undeniable: the blackening of the wood reveals clean, distinct lines and an inherent textural beauty. This process can also help make the surfaces last longer, because charred wood is fire-retardant as it lacks the oils needed to feed a flame.

Even the paint used at Woodlabs is hand-made, using the age-old process of ‘Sudha Ranga’. This paint is made using milk, natural pigments and lime to stabilise it.

Different pigments react differently with subtle variations, making every piece unique. The colour is almost translucent, which allows the wood grains to show through. The wood that is painted using this method does not peel off and is highly resilient.

 

Woodlabs’ artisan-centric approach to design promotes traditions of Toshok (cotton bedding), Kantha (quilted embroidery), cane weaving and Madur (mat weaving with grass).

 

Business model

Abhirup and Deeptashree’s determination to preserve the culture and craft of rural India is not limited to woodworking. They have other initiatives that promote the use of traditional Indian practices such as the making of Toshok (cotton bedding), Kantha (quilted embroidery), rattan (cane) weaving, Madur (mat weaving with grass) and many such upcoming ideas. Woodlabs incorporates the products of these crafts into their furniture.

Woodlabs has completed projects in Kolkata and Chennai. A majority of their clientele is from South India; but they have done projects in North India too. Their clients are usually people whose principles align with the idea of slow construction and consumption, those who appreciate and value the process behind the creation of these bespoke pieces.

These clients have most likely already explored and experienced a majority of the other products available in the furniture market and have reached a conclusion to purchase furniture that can last their lifetime and longer.

Most of Woodlabs’ projects extend to furnishing the entire house and customising furniture pieces according to the requirements of the client. It also has multiple lines of designs that they make on order.

Future plans

The co-founders trust their work to speak for their brand as their marketing is done primarily by word of mouth. They have only recently hitched onto Instagram to showcase their products and keep their buyers updated.

Since the supply of good quality old teak is depleting, Abhirup and Deeptashree look forward to easing of timber import restrictions, so that they can work with more A-grade timber. They are prepared to work with fresh-sawn wood in the foreseeable future, but their hearts will always lie with using reclaimed wood to make their products.

Sometime in the future, when necessary space and infrastructure can be set up, Abhirup and Deeptashree would like to start workshops for design students who are interested in wood. For around 4-5 months, the student(s) will be tagged to an artisan, who will teach them the ropes. “It will be akin to a finishing school,” the co-founders say.

It is definitely the road less trodden; but if there is anyone who could carry it off it is

Abhirup and Deeptashree, who have the drive and passion to make things happen. Curious

still about Woodlabs? Write to them at abhirup@woodlabs.in or deeptashree@woodlabs.in.

 

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