Interview : Designer Maker Nihal Shah

Nihal Shah Rustic Wooden Bohemian serving tray

I’ve started using LinkedIn again recently. I haven’t really used it properly since I graduated from university and finding that graduate job was my main priority. It’s a completely different platform these days, much more social and user-friendly. It was on LinkedIn that I discovered the wonderfully talented Nihal Shah.

Designer Maker Nihal Shah

Nihal Shah is a designer-maker who took part in Ravensbourne University London’s Self Employment Entrepreneurship Diversity Scheme (SEEDS). One of his mentors was Simon Terry who is the owner and MD at Anglepoise. I interviewed Simon many years ago and we’re connected on LinkedIn. He shared Nihal’s work which is how I learnt about him. I knew I needed to share it further with you guys so I approached Nihal for an interview.


Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I am a graphic designer who didn’t want to work in the design industry after university. Instead, I opened up my own studio, here, in East London, where I design hand-made, bespoke, solid wood furniture and homeware that is inspired by ethnic culture.

In terms of background, I was born and raised here in East London in the neighbouring areas of Leyton and Leytonstone, and I grew up in the tower blocks known as Wanstead flats. Ethnicity wise, my family and I are Bengali, and my family migrated here from Bangladesh in the 1980s.

When did you first discover your love of design and when did you realise that you wanted to make a career of it?

To be honest, I never really wanted to pursue a career in design, let alone the creative industry. For me, my initial exposure to art and design was seeing my aunt Nowrujee constantly drawing in her sketchbook. She was the first in my family (that I know off) to have studied fine art in school, and I remember being constantly in awe of her talent and how patient she was when it came to her work. She was definitely my muse.

With regards to design specifically, I was exposed to it in college when I had to pick my A-levels. I remember being stuck thinking what the hell do I choose for my fourth option of study, and flicked through the college prospectus of courses and found graphic design. I read what it was about and thought, yeah…that would do, and here I am now.

Nihal shah tribal wooden serving tray cheeseboard

How did you go from studying graphic design to opening your own furniture and homeware company?

Well I kind of stumbled onto the idea of wanting to make furniture during my first year of university, after discovering the work of furniture designer Katy Sketon. I fell in love with her simple, elegant designs and it changed my perspective on the way I saw furniture. That’s when I knew I wanted to make furniture.

For me, the transition was quite easy design-wise, as my course was very good at teaching conceptual thinking and the purpose of design. However, what I found most difficult was learning all the new skills of woodworking and the logistics side of running a business. This is something I’m still learning to get to grips with, and my mentor can definitely vouch for that.

Nihal Shah tribal wooden serving tray

You are a self-taught furniture designer and maker. How did you learn?

YOUTUBE! I am the generation of the internet and many of us have design degrees from YouTube university. No but in all seriousness, YouTube is an incredible platform to learn new skills. I would not be here without it.

As a way to get into the mindset of furniture design, I spent the summer of 2016 up-cycling old furniture I found in charity shops. I did this for one year, and I successfully upcycled 12 pieces of furniture, some of which I sold, some of which I kept, and some of them I did for family.

Whilst I was doing that, on the side, I was learning how to make furniture from scratch. I learnt how to make wooden furniture by watching woodworking tutorials on YouTube and then putting that into practice in my own designs.

You describe your work as “A Celebration of ethnic culture through handmade furniture and homeware”. Can you tell us more about the way in which culture influences your work?

As you can tell from my work I am very inspired by pattern, more specifically patterns from ethnic cultures. I love how intricate they are and how they tell a story. Each pattern is very unique and holds nostalgic value for people. I know for me when I see certain patterns, it feels very warm and familiar and I am transported back to a certain point in time. These patterns aren’t just symbols for us, but rather tokens that remind us of our cultural identities and our heritage.

Who or what have been your main design influences?

When it comes to cultures, at this current moment in time I am very inspired by south American design, more specifically Guatemalan design. However, I am influenced by a number of other cultures including south Asian design, which is my heritage and also a lot of Turkish and oriental geometry and ornaments.

When it comes to designers, I am very inspired by the works of Bethan Gray, I just love how her furniture tells a story. In terms of studios, I love what the guys over at KONK! FURNITURE and Mo Woodwork are doing.

When it comes to individual businesses, I love what Parul Patel is doing over at Beti + Beno with her handmade textiles made in India that empowers marginalised communities. Her work speaks volume and inspires me to continue to remain ethical in my practice.

Nihal shah bohemian wooden coasters

What is your favourite part of the design and making process?

I would say definitely the research process, although I haven’t been able to do that a lot recently. I just love learning about new patterns and rediscovering different designs and their influences. It’s so educating and I appreciate learning more about different ethnic cultures.

My least favourite part though, which I have to admit is the sanding process. After the pattern comes out of the laser cutter they are burnt and sticky, that part of the making process isn’t the most fun and is the most labour intensive.

You’ve recently launched a Kickstarter campaign. Can you tell us about this? What will the funding go towards?

Yes! This has been the most fun and most stressful thing I have done at the same time. The Kickstarter campaign is to help raise the funds for product development, where I can test and improve my designs on different natural hardwoods including oak and walnut, as well as testing out new product designs that I have been drafting.

The additional funding will also allow me to turn my small start-up into a sustainable business where I can increase production, and build a creative team to help with product manufacturing and the everyday running of the studio, offering them a fair salary and paying them the London living wage; whilst still keeping it all in house and made in the UK.

Nihal Shah tribal wooden stool

What is next on the agenda for Nihal Shah? Any exciting projects we should know about?

My biggest priory at the moment is to be as respectful as possible with my designs. Seeing that I am taking inspiration from other cultures I am very mindful of this and I am very conscious in trying not to offend anyone. My goal is to create a database of all the cultural patterns I use and credit them whenever possible to educate people, and myself, in where they originate from and what the patterns represent.

In terms of projects, there are exciting ones in the works right now, and a few potential collaborations, but I don’t want to reveal anything just yet, as I like to keep things private and release it when it feels right.

What are your long-term goals for your business?

My long term goal for my business is to be able to eventually see the countries I take inspiration from in person. I want to be in the field, and immerse myself in their different cultures. I want to be able to visit as many local artisans as possible in these countries and learn from them and eventually work with them. Just thinking about it all gets me excited, and keeps me motivated! 

Nihal Shah bohemian wooden stool

Nihal Shah is actually running a Kickstarter campaign right now which ends on 8th December 2019. He has made a video to support his campaign which you can watch below. Please support him if you can.