Provocative Objects / Spaces

11 April 2024 -

Provocative Objects: The Dabbawala Coffee Table

The Dabbawala Coffee Table was designed by Parth Parikh in 2016. It pays homage to the dabbawalas of Mumbai who are iconic in Mumbai and recognisable across India. Dabbawala in Hindi means a person who carries boxes. These men carry hundreds of lunch boxes stacked one on top of the other from homes or central kitchens to people working in offices across Mumbai. Every day, five thousand dabbawalas deliver a hundred and thirty thousand lunches.

The Dabbawala Coffee Table, image provided by Parth Parikh

Parikh’s strength is in designing by drawing inspiration from India. This table follows his ideology. He uses the dynamics between people and objects as the central narrative in his designs. It is an astute idea in the Indian context to use an everyday object or scenario that people identify with and contemporise it to demand a price that is far greater than the original object. It also remoulds the humble dabba or tiffin carrier into a design object by changing the function too. From being a storage box for food, it has been transformed into the legs of a table.

The success of the dabbawala service as a business model has been reported widely in India and abroad and was also the subject of an Indian academic inquiry when a doctorate was done on the topic in 2010. Parikh has in this case taken a well-known cultural success story to translate into his own designs. It is a clever strategy as this profession has been widely acclaimed. The Financial Times wrote that it is studied by consultants and business schools for the secrets of their proclaimed near-flawless efficiency, and the dabbawalas have been fêted by British royals (Prince Charles) and titans of industry (Richard Branson) alike. Even FedEx, which supposedly knows something about logistics, paid them a visit. In 2010, the Harvard Business Review published a study of the dabbawala system entitled ‘On-Time Delivery, Every Time’. Using such a highly credible and deeply culturally embedded background story as the starting point, it would have been a formidable task for the designer to design an object giving due credit to this original theme.

Dabbas strapped to a cart to be delivered by the dabbawalas in Mumbai

Parikh was working on a furniture project for a designer in Mumbai at the time. His daily commute was on the local train, which is the most common form of transport for people there. He used to encounter these dabbawalas everyday during his travel and was fascinated with them and their services. Hence, the inspiration to design something around the dabbawala iconography. There are a multitude of things in the image of a dabbawala carrying lunch boxes that have been used to derive influence from. The word dabba means box and it is used in several ways by Indians. With a tiffin carrier, which almost every Indian household possesses, one can stack these boxes on top of one another. These stacked boxes as a visual are ingrained within Indian society, especially in the lower and the middle classes. The white Nehru caps that the dabbawalas wear and the long trestle-like racks on which the boxes are strapped (before being loaded onto the push carts) are easily identifiable visuals.

Design installation of tiffin carriers that also served as an influence for Parth Parikh, image provided by Parth Parikh

The drawings show the designer’s concepts when he visualised the table. They show how he contextually places the envisaged table through the various elements of the dabbawala system. The detailed accuracy in Parikh’s ideation is seen in the drawings. These images are a reflection of the attention to detail during the conceptualisation and before the final production.

This table is made of teak wood, plywood, and galvanised steel, which are polished to perfection. The teak in the table top has been polished to highlight the richness of colour and the natural grain of the wood. All the legs have been designed to reflect the stacked boxes that the dabbawalas carry. Two legs are made of crafted of wooden logs and two of steel. From the top of the metal legs he has cleverly incorporated the handles of the tiffin carrier to be used as tissue holders. The top of the wooden legs form coasters on the surface of the table. These details are visible in the images.

Drawings by Parth Parikh highlighting the influences and detailing each aspect for conceptualising, image provided by Parth Parikh

Parikh’s table is crafted entirely by hand by artisans who have mastered the art of working with wood. The technique that is crucial to this object is woodturning. Woodturning is the craft of using a lathe with hand-held tools to cut a shape in the wood that is symmetrical around the axis of rotation. Parikh says that ‘Like the potter’s wheel, the wood lathe is a simple mechanism which can generate a variety of forms’. It is clear that the Dabbawala Coffee Table exemplifies Parth Parikh’s objective to make ubiquitous objects, more personal and meaningful.

Design details, image provided by Parth Parikh

Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.

Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.

We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Posts can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.

Posts should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio. Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp


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