Name: Suki Cheema
Months per year on the road: 8
Countries visited in the last 12 months: France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Spain
Suki Cheema finished his studies in 1999 at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, England’s preeminent art school, and promptly did what many recent graduates do: He took off with a backpack. For Cheema, who grew up outside London and spent a great deal of time in India, that trip to Southeast Asia and Australia reinforced his addiction to travel and helped direct his career. Afterward, he moved to New York, where he designed prints for such fashion brands as Diane von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren. Today, Cheema designs an eponymous collection of products for the home—pillows, throws, rugs, table runners, and quilts—inspired by his travels. Each collection is themed around a destination.
So far, Cheema has focused on India, Peru, London, and Indonesia. AFAR’s editor in chief, Julia Cosgrove, talked to him in New York about his favorite markets in India and why getting lost leads to the best travel experiences.
Why design prints?
I grew up playing with fabrics in my parents’ clothing factory. I had an artistic streak as a child, and later on I studied fine arts. Instead of using canvases, I painted on fabrics.
What was the impetus to launch your own line?
Two years ago, I took a three-month sabbatical and went to India. I thought, Let’s see what happens. I traveled all over India—from villages in the Himalayas to Rajasthan. I took loads of photos and started sketching. When I got home, I started creating prints based on images from my trip.
And those prints formed your first line for Suki Cheema, the Rajasthan collection?
Yes, colors and texture were really important. There’s one print called Jaipur (above), which is inspired by an old palace in that city. I translated the color and pattern of the ceiling there—which dates from the 1400s—into a print. Even the marbled windows at the Taj Mahal are so beautifully carved that they translate into textiles. I love taking examples of old architecture and art and turning them into prints. So when you’re buying a pillow, it already has a lot of history.
You work with artisans in the regions that inspire each line. How do you forge relationships with craftspeople?
Way up north in the Himalayas, I watched a weaver at work in his shop. I took photos of him weaving natural fibers on a hand loom. I went back to him later because I wanted to do a little line of scarves, and I wanted him to weave them. He creates the most beautiful pieces. They also do chain-stitch rugs in the Himalayas, and it was just eye-opening to find all these century-old techniques. In the middle of India, a group of widows do the most beautiful beading work, so instead of going to a factory, I go to them and have them do [my rugs]. They can hire people in the village, which creates a bit of an industry and generates income. It’s a long-term goal for me to travel to the villages and to work with the people there to make sure the work is done properly.
What inspired the London collection?
Originally it was going to be 18th-century London. But then I started going more toward modern architectural themes of London. So I looked at the buildings around me and the structure of the windows, and translated that into design. One print looks like little blocks of color, but once I tied it together, it was reminiscent of London Council flats [public housing]. To me, it represents the people who live in those buildings. Behind the walls and windows exists all these colors and lives.
How do you like to travel?
I like to walk around and get lost. I love really old parts of cities, and going to flea markets and fabric shops and photographing everything. I’ll spend the whole day in bazaars looking for fabrics. I’ll go to traditional shops where tourists go and to places where locals go. I always buy so many throws and saris that I end up with an extra suitcase. I have piles and piles of boxes at home that contain textiles. I’m not a hoarder, but I love collecting. For me it’s about stumbling across stuff.
SUKI CHEEMA’S FAVORITE MARKETS IN INDIA
Chor Bazaar Mutton Street, Mumbai
“Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar, which literally means thieves’ market, is more than 150 years old. It was originally called Shor Bazaar, meaning noisy market, but shor became chor because the British mispronounced the word. Eventually stolen goods started finding their way into the stalls, so it lived up to its new name! These days it’s famous for antiques. The vintage jewelry is amazing. There are shops with gold jewelry carved in the most intricate designs; it’s just so inspiring.” Mutton Street between S V Patel and Moulana Shaukat Ali Roads; Grant Road local railway stop
Dilli Haat, New Delhi
“The huge Delhi market feels like a traditional weekly village market, called a haat. Small thatched-roof cottages and a village atmosphere give it great ambience. The market offers a mix of handicrafts from all over India, as well as music performances. You can find amazing antiques and fabrics here. The average tourist would probably not venture to Dilli Haat. This is where locals go.” Sri Aurobino Marg, opposite Indian National Army Market; INA metro stop
Khan Market, New Delhi
“This market is full of interesting bookshops. There are also some excellent tailors here who can make you a suit in less than a week.” South New Delhi, near the India Gate; Khan Market metro stop
Photo of Cheema by Brad Paris. This story appeared in November/December 2011 issue. Find where to buy Suki Cheema products at Sukicheema.com.