Leather furniture India-Portside Cafe

PORTSIDE Easy Chair 1If one’s experiences in childhood and the influences in later years can have a cumulative and regenerative effect on design style, then Bobby Aggarwal is a perfect example of this. Having spent his childhood in Bhopal, living next to a lake and sprawling woods, the environment cultivated a desire for simplicity of form and a need to express what came naturally to him. Leather furniture Indiaportside48This led to an organic process of creativity that was not encumbered by linear thought and became a distinct feature of his work in later years. Bhopal also exposed him to Islamic cultural elements in design that influenced a lot of his work. Later on , his close interaction with the Parsi community would give him an in-depth understanding of their culture and heritage. All these various influences were to inspire Bobby’s work and creativity.


But he didn’t know that at the time. For many years, Bobby worked in different fields – from advertising to textile mills – until one day, his fascination with Dharavi in Mumbai led him to explore the thriving community and industry in the area. This was where he experienced leather in its raw form for the first time. It was the vintage appeal of the material that appealed to him. The natural ruggedness of the material evoked memories of cowboy western movies, which he loved. He decided to spend time working with local craftsmen understanding their techniques. This was to become a trademark, almost, of his working style.


Every learning was hands-on and the only mission was to explore. There was never a specific agenda.

While trying to find his true calling, he developed a deep understanding of leather and started exploring the various dimensions of its expression as a product by visiting every store in Mumbai. He decided to indulge his passion by experimenting with corporate gifting. One particular project was making a boot-shaped pen stand for the owner of Garden Vareli, Mrs. Shah. This turned out to be a huge hit with the client. His focus was on preserving the natural look of leather and steering away from the finishes that were popular in the local market.

portside71Every learning was hands-on and the only mission was to explore.

Soon, he received an offer from a company in Delhi to join hands with them and develop the export market for shoes. Again, his serendipitous journey took a turn that was to change his life. He set up a fabrication unit for shoe uppers in Noida (Uttar Pradesh) and worked intensively with the craftsmen. It taught him more facets of this material, and most importantly, the discipline required to run an efficient production facility with all its attended issues of purchase,finance,labour management,productivity,quality control and adherence to delivery timelines.


Later, while attending international fairs in Europe, his horizons broadened further. There was much more to see and learn and Bobby’s keen eye enabled him to hone his expertise. He designed a range called Rugsac, which was a big success.


Quite unexpectedly, a friend in Dubai asked him to design menu cards for a restaurant. Given the creative freedom, Bobby decided to experiment with relief work -playing with pattern and texture using staining techniques. It was not part of the client brief as they had asked for a print, but the end product was much appreciated.


Friends and clients started labelling him a designer, which is something that still amuses him, as he doesn’t really understand what that means. His modus operandi was to submit to an inherent need to seek new definitions.


Everything happened quite serendipitously.I just opened my mind to every possibility

portside53I have been blessed to have a wonderful team that believed in my vision.

portside42Intermittently, friends would turn to him for advice on designing their offices and he would be surprised as to why they felt he was competent to do so. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he helped them in their projects and in the process worked with carpenters to design furniture in wood, as per specifications. Again, it was a new material, but his keenness to learn was the driving force towards achieving an in-depth understanding.


Somewhere along the line, this led to a desire to work on case goods using the material he loved best—leather. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to take the plunge but that didn’t stop him from diving right in. He started working on leather furniture on a small scale and his first show was at his sister’s car park where friends were invited. An encouraging response spurred him on to further develop his manufacturing stronghold and accommodate this new passion.

portside51Soon, he found that he was working with some of the leading brands in the world from Anthropologie to Crate and Barrel, and more recently- Restoration Hardware, just to name a few. A boutique brand in the UK- Mufti and Armani Casa in Europe became major clients and work went into fifth gear.

Bobby attributes his success to his team. “You are only as good as the people around you—teamwork is the most important factor for success”, he says. He had built a core team and a base in manufacturing that would be the foundation for future growth. He was also sure that he wanted to not just ‘create’ but also ‘make’.


The design and manufacturing process were not separate entities for him, but represented the yin and yang needed to complete the circle of design. His method was quite different from the norm, and his personality deeply etched in all his work. Nothing was ever ‘outsourced’, and even the choice of materials and the selection of finishes was something that he inspected in detail.

portside.13The margin for error was minute, and there was no allowance for slackness. Known to be a tough taskmaster, Bobby also inspired a team of skilled craftsmen and designers to push the envelope while creating furniture and consider each one a masterpiece. The perseverance paid off.

Things were looking good and Bobby was well entrenched in the world of leather exports.

Everywhere he would find that there was an implicit trust on the part of the client that gave him the added motivation to outperform even by his own parameters. A dedication towards maintaining high quality standards enabled him to turn an unplanned adventure into a successful enterprise.

portside72Ever restless, cruising in fifth gear cramped his style soon enough. As a man who seldom walked the highway and frequently meandered into every jungle trail to find new horizons, his thought process has always been more intuitive and design inherently emotional. He wanted to do something different. All through this journey, he had not considered retail in India. He wasn’t sure if that was a route he wanted to take, but the possibility of doing something entirely different excited him.


Five years ago, he decided he wanted to take his design experience a little further, and bring in all the cultural and personal influences that enriched his life. He also realized that to use colour and pattern effectively one needs confidence. He finds that most people are intimidated by the possibilities.


“I want my clients to have as much fun with the pieces I create, as I do. Furniture should not be taken too seriously. It should make you happy. That’s when it becomes a part of your life and is no longer just an inanimate object.”


Keen to showcase his work in a retail environment,he discussed the idea with a friend in Pune(who was only too eager to support him).That was the beginning of Portside Café furniture studio as a brand. For inspiration, he delved into his own experiences and drew from Islamic architecture he saw in Bhopal, the Havelis of Old Delhi and the vibrancy and colour of Bollywood culture.

portside.9Mixed Metaphor was conceptualised. It was about India and its heritage in a modern avatar-brimming with activity and vibrantly expressive. The collection also reflects Bobby’s personality—fun- loving and explorative. “I don’t think furniture should be taken too seriously”, he says. “It should inspire you and make you happy”.


The retail success at the Pune store, led to a store in the by-lanes of Lado Sarai in South Delhi. To decorate the store, Bobby created his own rules—much like his own life.


Leather and colour were used in an unconventional manner from coloured tiles on the floor in random patterns,to varied textures on the walls. A total contrast to the ivory canvas that most designers use to showcase their products. But then Bobby wasn’t interested in selling a product. He was setting the stage for a concept.


He set about it as one would a Broadway theatrical production and unlike any retailer thought process. It paid off, as people who had only seen leather in traditional forms in furniture, appreciated the novelty that Portside Café brought on the scene.

This inspired him to go back to the drawing board. A new collection was needed to keep his batteries charged. He went back to the streets and the sounds he loved. This time he would choose three major influences to shape collections for the year. The first stop was to be a street in Old Delhi,home to one of India’s most well known Urdu poets—Mirza Ghalib. Bobby’s love for the culture and the era in which Ghalib lived, inspired the romanticism of the Balli Maran collection where gold leaf was used as a defining element.


From there, he transported himself to the bustling streets of Mumbai and focused on a place famous for its pedestrian crossings—Hughes Road.This was to inspire a collection made with strips in black and white.

The Dak Bangla range was next- reminiscent of colonial times using hand staining and antique tanning. It played on the elements of vintage décor in pre-independence India. The transforming silhouettes of the political landscape found its way into the furniture range.


Bobby now has a franchise store in Mumbai, where his conversation with leather started so many years ago, coming full circle. When asked what his future goals are, Bobby says,” I have never planned the future, but believe that the promise it holds is just waiting for me to lend a new definition.” There will soon come a day when the allure of Portside Café will find its way into Europe or other parts of the world.


“ An opportunity always presents itself right at the moment that I was meant to experience it. I just allow for it to flow freely and let me discover—myself and Portside Café”.

He knew that it would take a while for the essence of Portside Café to sink in once the novelty wore off, so he bided his time and went on with his mainstay: exports. Slowly, his clientele grew to include some of the best-known names in the country and the Portside Café acquired a standing using the only credible medium of publicity Bobby believed in: word of mouth.

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