With his new initiative, designer Sanket Avlani is giving cabs a makeover while offering artists a great new way to display their work.
Mumbai cabs are getting free makeovers thanks to the Taxi Fabric project
The towering arch of the Gateway of India. Dabbawallahs ferrying crates of lunch boxes. Tiny glass tumblers of chai. Kitschy and bright, these and other ubiquitous images of Mumbai pop culture – all created by up-and-coming local designers – are being splashed across the seats and interiors of some of the city’s once-threadbare taxis.
The brainchild of 28-year-old designer and art director Sanket Avlani, Taxi Fabric is a newly launched campaign offering free upholstery makeovers to cabs, inspired by his dependence on the iconic yellow-and-black cabs for his daily commute.
It was the ripped, dowdy seat covers that Avlani couldn’t stop thinking about and after blogging about the issue for a while, he realised that the logical step was “to design new ones”.
Avlani subsequently set up a team of like-minded people – creative producer Mahak Malik, and writers Girish Narayandass and Nathalie Gordon – and began to produce funky, durable seat covers, the first of which was crafted in April. The designs extend to the interior roof and door panels. It’s a win-win for everyone: the cab gets a free makeover and attracts more customers, while the designers get an opportunity to showcase their work to a huge audience.
Producing the t covers, which are made of polyester, costs about 15,000 rupees (Dh864) each. Avlani funded the first five makeovers, before starting a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. With two days left to go, the campaign has already surpassed its original target of 790,000 rupees and is well on its way to its stretch goal of 990,000, with 962,000 pledged. This will fund work with designers to decorate 30 cabs.
Because Taxi Fabric is not a cookie-cutter venture, only eight cabs have had a makeover so far – and with more than 50,000 taxis on the streets of Mumbai, it might be a little difficult to reach them all. But the list of interested cabbies and designers who want to take part is growing longer by the day.
“Honestly, I don’t think we can give every cab a makeover, but I do hope we can back every designer who has written in,” says Avlani. “Each curated design project is sensitively done and requires a lot of effort on the designer’s part before it gets finalised.” If the team can keep their promise to redo one vehicle every week, 15 will be added to the fleet by the end of the year.
How it works
The Taxi Fabric team contacts designers with a proposal. Taxi organisations are also informed, and the names of interested cabbies go on a list.
After meeting with the cabbie to take account of his preferences, the designer takes about two weeks to come up with a design. Then comes the printing and fitting, which takes between two and four days.
A label attached to the back of the driver’s seat credits the artist and explains the story behind the design.
“Each designer’s work has the potential to be exposed to at least 5,000 to 6,000 people in, say, six months,” says Avlani. “How many art exhibitions could offer that kind of opportunity?”
“The best part is, people are clicking photos of the cab they are in and posting them on social media, giving me immense exposure,” says designer Pranita Kocharekar.
“I’ve also been contacted for other projects based on this work.”
Take a seat
Customers hailing the decorated cabs get to enjoy a dose of good design and nostalgia: the striking patterns and motifs are a fitting tribute to their city.
And because each designer works on only one taxi, each one is unique.
For example, freelance designer and illustrator Tasneem Amiruddin’s The Jungle Book showcases her love of the sea – the upholstery is a radiant blue, depicting the Arabian Sea, and features drawings of iconic Mumbai buildings and landmarks, including the Gateway of India.
Graphic designer Pavithra Dikshit celebrates the city’s flora with Urban Garden, a bold pattern of jasmine, lotus, bamboo and nimbu-mirchi – lemon and green chillies threaded on a cotton string – an evil-eye talisman nearly every driver hangs on his rear-view mirror or ties to the back of his vehicle.
What the cabbies say
“My taxi looks really cheerful now and people are enjoying the experience,” says Pritam Singh, whose cab features Dikshit’s design.
Amiruddin, who worked on cabbie Jayantbhai’s taxi, agrees.
“Jayantbhai told me that every single person who sits in his cab has commented on my design,” she says.
“One of my customers was so taken by the artwork that he insisted on speaking to the designer behind it,” says Mohammed Irfan, who has been a cabbie in Mumbai for eight years. Kocharekar decorated Irfan’s seat covers with her design, You and I, a series of stylistic figures, including traders and businessmen, going about the “business of living”.
“Yes, that customer called to tell me that the experience of sitting in such a taxi had made his day,” says Kocharekar with a smile.
Avlani is pleased. “It makes me really happy,” he says. “Designers can often be taken for granted in India. If people are noticing that there are designers to do such work, it is an education in itself.
“As for the cabbies, they are enjoying the attention their vehicles get, especially since it affects their income positively.”