Since founding her studio Elicyon in 2014, she has built a diverse and multi-cultural team of 25 staff to offer a cross-pollination of knowledge and skills and an ability to create aspirational homes from Dubai to New York to Shanghai. Each project showcases a crisp, elegant aesthetic with great attention to interplay of materials as well as the drama of light and shade considered from every elevation. Her team completed an impressive 11 projects around the world during the challenges of 2020. Here, she shares her history, inspirations – and invaluable interior design tips with H&G.

Design aesthetic

Charu describes the Elicyon (opens in new tab) studio aesthetic as ‘considered, pulled-together, not casual’ as well as ‘quite tight and sharp and stylised’.  She notes the importance of including touches of drama, a veer towards slightly warmer colors and a thoughtful use of beautiful, bespoke, handmade pieces to add textural interest. All this is always underscored by attentiveness to capturing the hopes and character of the client.  ‘I find the process of working with individuals and characters to bring out their individual expression – be it through private collections, hobbies, ways of living – one of the most delightful aspects of my work and a cornerstone of my design philosophy,’ says Charu.

Woman of the world

Meeting Charu Gandhi, one is immediately struck by her warmth, her breadth of design interests and knowledge, and her measured and thoughtful conversation, all informed by her fascinating international background. Born in Delhi to a father who headed  the computer division for Apple in South East Asia and a mother who was a silversmith with a passion for craftsmanship, Charu’s childhood afforded a wealth of travel opportunities and exposure to many different lifestyles.  She travelled from California to the Far East with her father’s work and was introduced to art, classical performances and Indian artisans through her mother. She boarded at the United World College (opens in new tab) in Singapore amongst students from a blend of 57 nationalities who were ‘intentionally mixed’ by the school throughout their academic ventures and within their accommodation. 

A design mentor

Charu says that her multicultural upbringing ‘instilled an inherent interest in people and how they live’. But she pinpoints a meeting in childhood with a female architect as a pivotal factor in her design journey. She reveals: ‘It all started with a childhood mentor – when I was around 10 – when my parents decided to build our home, from scratch, in India. They commissioned architect Sujata Kohli to design the house. She would walk around on site and I would watch her instructing all of the construction and design teams; I sensed that she combined a scientific, analytical mind with creativity; something that I saw in myself.’ Sujata was only around 30 at the time, and had trained in Florence. Watching her inspired the young Charu who was interested in physics and science as well as the arts.  ‘She embodied the spirit of what I wanted,’ says Charu. ‘I was very enamored by her – she’s still a mentor of mine – and she inspired me to pursue a career in architecture.’

Architectural education

Sujata Kohli  (who is currently President of Indian Society of Landscape Architects (opens in new tab) (ISOLA)) strongly encouraged Charu to apply to the Architectural Association School of Architecture (opens in new tab) in London.  Charu looked at educational establishments around the world but realised it was the perfect choice. Its independent curriculum and global outlook appealed, as did the influence of progressive architectural figures who taught at the establishment including a former student, the British Iraqi architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950-2016).   It was an inspirational and life-changing place to learn and Charu particularly notes that ‘every tutor had a strong intellectual and theoretical purpose.’

Detail from every perspective

On graduating, Charu worked for architectural practices, both large and small, as well as design studio Candy & Candy (opens in new tab). Launching Elicyon in 2014 was a logical step, driven by her passion to explore and expand the overlap between architectural and decorative design and as she says ‘seeing interior design as a spatial endeavor’. She goes on to reveal: ‘Although I am a formally trained architect, I was always very interested in the “decorative”. It used to be considered “not intellectual enough”, but there is much to think about: the play of texture, the sequencing of materials and how they appear from different elevations, the use of shadow gaps and layers of interest, and so on.’

Studio specialism

The team of 25 includes an in-house librarian, and staff are actively encouraged in CPD (continual professional development), be that visiting makers and factories or attending upholstery or marbling workshops, for example.  Charu continues to be a passionate supporter of craftsmanship and says, ‘I champion the line between artisan and builder and electrician on site. They are all part of the same group of people who bring a handmade element to a home.’ A key strength of Elicyon is its deliberate focus on fostering an incredible international skill set. As Charu says it is ‘a very diverse studio with creative people from East Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, Africa, America: a real melting pot of ideas and collaboration.  ‘This gives us an ethos of global outlook while always weaving in a client’s very personal and cultural references.’ She goes on to say, ‘The team includes architects, interior designers, product designers, as well as people who studied art history. Many have come to us as a second career, bringing their earlier career as part of their history and knowledge. This all speaks to the diversity of the studio and the diversity of the clients.’

Sources of inspiration

‘I’m generally inspired by historical references and cultural details via travels and people, architecture, sculpture and theater.  ‘In architecture, I am mainly inspired by 20th century architects onwards ranging from Carlos Scarpa, to Tadao Ando (opens in new tab) and Oscar Niemeyer. I find myself returning to mid-century, art deco and Biedermeier periods very often for furniture inspiration. But I then will often dip into other eras and stylistic influences from around the world.’

Creatives Charu Gandhi admires

‘There are many artists, makers and designers who inspire my work – from the visual designer Tim Yip (opens in new tab), particularly his collaboration with the choreographer Akram Khan (opens in new tab), as I am often inspired by theater and set design – to floral designer Jeff Leatham (opens in new tab) and his work that I saw at the Hotel de Crillon (opens in new tab) the last time I was in Paris.  I also love the work of artist Dame Rachel Whitread (opens in new tab) and how she treats void spaces.  Fashion, textiles and jewellery are also an integral part of my work; right now I am really into the pieces featured within Valery Demure’s Objet d’Emotion (opens in new tab) curation of jewellery and the beautifully hand crafted, vibrant garments by Rianna + Nina (opens in new tab).

Charu Gandhi’s design superpower

‘I think it’s is a tripartite of skills: my multi-cultural upbringing, the fact that I can bring together architecture and interior design, then business acumen and my ability to lead a team.  ‘But also knowing my limitations: what I can’t do by myself or I’m not so good at. You are only as good as the team you can nurture and mentor if you are doing so many projects. There are so many incredible creatives out there who don’t necessarily enjoy that part of it but I do.’

What should never be compromised in the design process?

‘The client. Clients are always the ultimate framework for every project. They are who you are working for… They are investing in you with their hopes of home.’

Current and future projects

‘We have just handed over a large 20,000 square foot private family home in Dubai. We’ve also recently completed an expansive five-bedroom lateral apartment in Knightsbridge, for which the design was inspired by the bleached and whitewashed tones and materials of Ibiza and Mykonos. The client is an avid art collector so wanted lots of gallery space for pop art and sculptures. ‘Looking ahead alongside some beautiful houses in London, we are looking at projects in the South of France and continuing our foray into yacht design. We are also currently working on two private projects in Dubai.’

Extra insights

The studio prides itself on the fact that 70% of its projects are repeat business from long-standing clients and that it has grown by 24% in the last two years. The studio name Elicyon is a deliberate blend of the words Halcyon and Elysium. Halcyon is taken to refer to a calm, peaceful, tranquil space and Elysium, with its reference to a state of paradise or great happiness.