The creative process behind our Narmada Collection
One of the reasons that I was initially attracted to studying architecture is because of my interest in making beautiful things and solving problems. Architecture requires a creativity that is anchored in pragmatism. For me it has the potential to bring together what some might think of as two very different worlds – Art and Design. The artistic part of the process is full of inspiration and possibility while the design part of the process gets into the detail of how things actually work. Bringing a concept to life involves a lot of failure(s), but these “failures” are a critical part of informing the process and refining the design.
Developing a new collection or product - from initial concept to finished design – is rarely a linear process. Inspiration can come from anywhere and when you least expect it; a fold in a newspaper lying in your neighbor’s lap on the bus, a seed you find in the grass on a walk in the park, even a shadow on the wall. That is sort of the beauty of it in a way – you never know from where your next idea will come. What might start off going in one direction can very quickly take a 360 degree turn and end up where you least expect. I have learned to accept the fact that it doesn’t really matter how something happens, just that it does. Therefore, much of my inspirational process is spent collecting, cataloging and then, simply waiting.
When I decided to travel to India several years ago for my diamonds dealer’s wedding in Jaipur, I took the opportunity to plan a three-week trip through Rajasthan (the north-western part of the country). The stop on my trip that would prove the most memorable was Varanasi. At once chaotic and sublime, Varanasi is considered the holiest of cities and is a major center for pilgrimage. Hindus believe that dying here and being cremated along the banks of the Ganges River allows one to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation.
Daybreak on the Ganges River
One of the best ways to experience the magic of Varanasi is to hire a boat and travel the Ganges River at dawn as funeral and cremation rites are being performed along its banks. My boat driver kept a basket of beautiful stones which he explained to me were very sacred and sometimes used for offerings.
Shiva Lingam stones are sacred for the Hindu and are said to represent the personification of Shiva, one of three revered Hindu deities. These stones occur in all sizes, from smaller than a dime to larger than a man. Unlike other forms of lingams, such as those carved from stone or cast in bronze, Shiva Lingams can only be found in one place: the Narmada River, where the currents tumble and sculpt them naturally. Once a year, after the dry season and just before the beginning of the monsoons, when the river is at its lowest, the local villagers go out into the riverbed and pull the stones from the water. The stones are then hand-polished, a large one taking several months to complete.
Large Shiva Lingam prior to being cleaned and polished
Shiva Lingams are, in fact, gemstones - composed of cryptocrystalline quartz with iron oxide deposits and a density nearly equal that of emeralds. Scholars believe that this unique composition is the result of a meteorite that crashed some fourteen million years ago into the land now occupied by the Narmada, fusing its elements with those already found in earth. The natural markings on the lingams, which are considered spiritually auspicious, are derived from these meteoric composites.
When I returned home, I filed the stones away in my memory for safe keeping. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but I knew they would find their way into my work in one form or another. From time to time something would come up to remind me of them; for example, seeing how other designers incorporated them into their work. Still, I continued to wait.
Earrings by the German jeweler, Hemmerle, incorporating Shiva Lingams
Because they are literally sculpted by natural forces, no two Shiva Lingam stones are alike; each one is unique. This made incorporating them into hardware designs that must maintain dimensional regularity somewhat problematic. It also felt like forcing my hand on something that nature had created which did not seem like the right path conceptually. I felt as though I needed to find a way to capture the essence of the Lingam stones without actually using them. I was missing the “conceptual thread” that would link the Shiva Lingam, with its compelling form and materiality, to my designs.
One day, when I was visiting a friend in his wood shop, he showed me an incredible piece of Sinker Cypress he was working with. To the uninitiated, Sinker Cypress are “old growth” (centuries old) reclaimed cypress logs that have been harvested from the bottom of rivers and swamps, are in limited supply, and are also highly desirable for their hardness as well as the beauty, color and character of their grain.
Sinker Cypress logs at the mill
Long ago, massive Cypress forests dominated low-lying areas from Louisiana to Florida. The average tree size was three to four feet in diameter, but some, as much as 700 years old, were five to six feet across. During the late 1800's and early 1900's, as the need for wood began to arise for construction, massive amounts of Cypress trees were harvested. The cut trees required a two-year drying out period so that they were light enough to haul by waterway to the mills for processing. During transport, an estimated 10–20% of logs broke loose and eventually settled at the bottom of the rivers and lakes leaving them untouched and forgotten for over 100 years. These logs became known as Sinker Deadhead Logs or “Sinkers”.
As the logs lay in the mud and silt for extended periods of time, the wood absorbed the minerals and tannins found in the water and soil which then turned the inside of the log different colors. The variety of hues of Sinker Logs reflect the area where they were recovered, from honeyed browns to olive greens to rustic reds. For example, a sinker log recovered from the swamps of Louisiana will have a rich, red color because of the nature of the alluvial soil.
Shiva Lingam detail
The distinct color and highly graphic nature of cypress wood grain reminded me of the contrasting lines of minerals in the Shiva Lingam stones. Like the Lingams, the Cypress had been transformed by nature over time. There was also the parallel of both materials having been harvested from the water albeit, from wildly different places.
I am most happy when someone tells me that a form or shape in one of my designs seems “familiar” but they can’t quite think of what or why than when they actually make the connection. Creating subtle transmutations as opposed to direct translations is where I am always trying to guide my practice as a designer, and this was what I had found when I made the conceptual connection between the Sinker Cypress and the Shiva Lingams. A door had opened and from there the designs came very naturally. I developed a series of forms that highlighted the juxtaposition of materials and that would allow for various combinations as well as customization.
Assembly detail (left) and finish options (right) for the Narmada drawer pull
The geometry that made the stones so alluring also proved challenging to capture and translate in a systematic way and at various scales, so I decided to work with two slightly different profiles, one for the smaller and one for the larger sizes. We built the profiles in CAD which enabled us to then test different methods of connecting them to the metal parts. I was able to coax my friend into selling me some of his Sinker Cypress which I then sent to a wood turner to turn the wood parts while our caster molded and cast the metal components. We named the collection Narmada, for the river that sculpts the lingams and where they are found.
Final designs from the Narmada collection Shakti pulls (left) Uma knobs (right)
We did not make it to International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) this past spring where we had planned to launch the collection. We were, however, recently named as an honoree in the hardware category of Interior Design Magazine’s Best of the Year awards for 2020; so, there is comfort in receiving this recognition for all of our hard work.
We refer to our cabinetry hardware as jewelry for furniture. And we approach each design with the intention of creating something singularly unique that celebrates the beauty of each project as well as the individuality of each client. The work we do only starts with the designs in our showrooms. These pieces are just an introduction to the custom work that we work tirelessly to produce for many of our clients. Whether we are creating a ground up bespoke design or a custom version of a piece from one of our existing collections, we are always searching for new ways to elevate the functional to the level of art by allowing the process of artistry to initiate and guide the connections between ideas, materials, and form.
Custom hand towel bar to match drawer pulls (left) and detail of custom finish (right)
We invite you to visit our retail gallery/showroom, located at 3807 Magazine Street in New Orleans, where you can see our cabinetry hardware collections along with a constantly evolving and curated selection of jewelry and home accessories. We are open by appointment, 10am - 5pm Monday - Saturday or you may also find us at www.marioncage.com anytime.