Designers and artists are using Mumbai's taxi interiors as a canvas

The cabs in action. Image: Taxi Fabric.

The black and yellow taxis that fill the streets of Mumbai have long been iconic symbols of city life in India. Now, some are undergoing a transformation, thanks to the work of a new design platform which is turning the interiors into contemporary canvases.

Taxi Fabric, which launched last year and connects young designers with taxi drivers, has so far turned more than 40 vehicles into works of art. Each unique work by an up-and-coming Indian designer tells a story, featuring anything from Indian freedom fighters to Bollywood heroes, as well as other local tales inspired by the city.

  

While originally the project was funded simply by a Kickstarter campaign, the initiative has now proved so popular that one of the taxis has featured in a Coldplay video, and brands such as Google  and Architectural Digest are commissioning the makeover of yet more taxis. The waiting list for drivers awaiting their turn has at least 200 names on it.   

The project is the brainchild of Sanket Avlani, curator and art director at Taxi Fabric. He grew up using the taxis as his preferred mode of transport, but began to look at them with a fresh perspective when he began working in the arts.

While documenting the industrial grade fabrics used in the vehicles for a blog, Avlani and a few others began thinking about designing more engaging interiors themselves. “We were all designers and illustrators, so we could digitally create it and come up with these patterns and graphics and prints,” he says. “But it took us a long time to actually interpret them on fabric and finally execute the whole thing.”

After two years in preparation, the project formally launched in 2015. And while it had initially began as an idea to simply makeover some taxis, by the time of the launch, the intention was that it’d act as a platform for designers, too. The first driver to have his vehicle transformed was someone whose began work each day at a taxi stand near Avlani’s home.

Word soon spread, however. “The drivers initially felt that it was only like a free makeover for them,” says Avland. “But when they started interacting with the passengers, they realised these designs are engaging – they’re not just a blast of colour but they’re rich in their content and people are starting to ask them about it.”

“It was very surprising for all of us involved, the way people accepted the project and the way they are reacting to it,” he goes on. “Small things, like kids refusing to get out of the taxi, and grandmas going ‘I’m never going to forget this ride’, and people taking photographs with the drivers.”

 

Each design is the result of a collaborative process between a designer and the drivers, who are encouraged to communicate about what they would like. The development stage, during which the designer is working on ideas for ten metres of fabric, can take between two to three weeks, while the fitting process takes two days.

For the designers themselves, the platform is also changing perceptions in India, where the concept of design as a medium for communication and social good has had limited scope.

Taxi Fabric has already moved on to working on the interiors of Rickshaws, as well as expanding the project to Delhi; they’ll soon begin work in Bangalore, too. And, while taxis will remain the core of the company, it’s also launching a fabric range for home décor and clothing. Avlani and the team are working on making the material available for private cars, too.

You can see each designer and their taxi on taxifabric.org

Halima Ali is a London-based freelance journalist and editor. She tweets @Halima_Ali and her work can be found on her website.


All images courtesy of Taxi Fabric.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.