He is the epitome of laid-back cool—until I ask him about a table saw in his studio-cum-showroom. Furniture designer Jay Gorsia, Kolkata’s answer to Britain’s Timothy Oulton, suddenly goes engineer on me when he discusses that saw. Most electric table saws are made to cut anything efficiently—wood, the table, your hand... But not this one, says Gorsia, with all the passion of the newly converted. This saw stops in less than five milliseconds if it comes in contact with human skin. (One millisecond is one-thousandth of a second.)
It’s all very fancy, but the reason Gorsia is so delighted with it is that it allows him and other craftspeople to focus on the intricacies of design, without having to constantly worry about sacrificing a finger to their craft. But this is not about how Gorsia is adopting technology to produce furniture that’s easily on a par with the finest European design houses. I’m meeting Gorsia after more than five years (I last met him in 2011, to write about Kolkata’s Chippendale; Fortune India, October 2011), and I find that little has changed in his 25,000 sq. ft. studio other than the addition of new tools. It’s still eerie that a furniture workshop does not have sawdust underfoot and wood-shavings sticking to your shoes.
This time around, I’m here to figure out if Gorsia is going to be the big “Indian” designer label in furniture. He has been around long enough, his client list is enviably snooty, and he’s able to sell at high prices to customers who don’t mind waiting for a Gorsia piece. But no. “That I could have done any time,” Gorsia says scornfully when I ask about the designer label.
So what’s the plan, I ask. Essentially, he wants to curate furniture; to select designers from across Europe and partner with them to develop collections. In the 1950s, Roche Bobois in Paris began doing exactly this; the boutique started by bringing Scandinavian furniture to France. Over time, it roped in designers and architects to build collections to sell across the world.
Gorsia’s collaboration with Spanish designer Alex Caparros is a step in that direction. Caparros and Gorsia discussed and chalked out designs for a new line, and a team of eight craftspeople took almost a year to create the Madrid Collection. (Gorsia says this team was put in place exclusively for this line; his existing 75-member team could have produced the same work, but other work couldn’t stop.) Pieces in the Madrid Collection sell for anything from Rs 1.3 lakh for a chair to Rs 7 lakh for a dining table.
Significantly, the Madrid Collection will be cheaper than the rest of Gorsia’s portfolio. The idea is that manufacturing can be scaled up and go mass; his other pieces are custom made and 20% to 30% pricier.
Gorsia has mostly been making large furniture: beds with 10-foot-tall headboards; 7-foot cupboards; and armchairs that stretch three and a half feet. But with the young and upwardly mobile living in smaller apartments and condos, he wants to develop contemporary, minimal designs. So, unlike his earlier work, very little exotic materials, such as seashell, are used. Instead, it’s all about clean, machine-finished design. “With these designs, I appeal to a broader range of clients in markets in the West as well as younger homeowners who look for more practical but high-quality furniture,” says Gorsia.
The core of Gorsia’s client list is, in some senses, familial. The children of clients come to him when they want to furnish their homes and offices. His younger clients include Ajit Jhunjhunwala of crockery maker La Opala, Sanaya Mehta Vyas of outdoor media company Selvel Next, and Manish Kumar, managing director of Ritspin Synthetics. While much of his sales rely on word of mouth, Gorsia plans to display and sell his new lines at trade shows, such as Maison Asia coming up in Singapore, and is looking to open a showroom in Mumbai soon.
Michael Fiebrich, CEO of Michael Fiebrich Design, a Singapore-based interior architecture firm, is a client of Gorsia. Although a regular at prominent industry shows in Las Vegas, Paris, and Milan, Fiebrich says he can’t trace any influences of other designers in Gorsia’s work. “His furniture can’t be categorised under a single label and is unique.”
Fiebrich is also a big fan of the finish and quality of a Gorsia piece. For example, in one of his couches, leather and fabric merge at the seams, a combination that could easily result in wrinkles and puffs. Yet, the two materials blend so smoothly that it is indiscernible. Gorsia says achieving this takes time—twice the man-hours, or almost a week.
One of the reasons that Gorsia is able to bring out such fine pieces is that India has been able to retain its pool of painters, carvers, and mould makers, who have been plying their craft for centuries. Munir Turunc, president of U.S.-based tiles and stone company Country Floors, who has worked with Gorsia on designing furniture to complement his tiles, says India is “a secret gem in furniture because of its artisanship, which is a must for a high-end finish”. Gorsia’s work, with its superfine finish and marquetry, is testimony to this. Marquetry is the fine craft of creating patterns and images using veneers, which can’t be done by machine.
What’s Gorsia’s edge? He smiles and replies, “Price.” His competition so far is not Indian; it’s mainly high-end European brands such as Roche Bobois and Cantoni, which cost anything from 30% to 100% more than a Gorsia-made piece. But then, he adds swiftly: “Cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean lower in quality.”