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20.06.2018

To write this story, we have to stop ourselves from a YouTube spiral of Tehelka-type videos documenting the corruption and cheating that takes place at the auctions of Balharshah teak in India. Architect Prem Balasubramanian, co-founder of brand-new furniture wizards, the Madras Makers, assures us that this kind of intrigue and investigation is totally warranted.

“Balharshah teak is grown in the mineral-rich black soils of Balharshah [now Ballarpur] in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, which gives the wood those stark grains,” Prem, based in Chennai, explains. “It definitely gives furniture that edge of character; lends it gravitas.”

All the raw material at these auctions is exported entirely to Europe. Yet, Prem and his wife Carola Winnie – also an architect and co-founder of Madras Makers – use Balharshah teak to make all their pieces. How? “I’ll need to rewind a little,” Prem says.

Over eight years ago, he and Carola started 85AD, an architecture and design firm in Chennai, then grew tired of making do with the bad furniture available in the market and decided to manufacture it themselves. For four years, they’ve had their own in-house carpentry unit where they spent long hours learning about design and manufacturing processes. “A couple of months ago, we decided to take on orders from interested individuals, not just our clients,” he says. Thus were the Makers made.

Beam Me Up

An old gentleman at one of Chennai’s wood markets once told Prem, “that the market is flooded with Colombian and Ghanaian teak: not the best kind, but the easily available type.” This gent suggested that Prem and Carola check in with demolition contractors who sell old wood, because that teak is guaranteed to be either Burmese or Balharshah. And so, “The reclaimed wood from rafters, roofing supports and pillars from the old houses of the city form the foundation of our furniture,” he tells us.

“Our air-conditioned houses means that wood is contracting and expanding on the daily,” he says, explaining why this antique wood isn’t just a concession to nostalgia. The reclaimed wood hasn’t suffered any chemical aging process; back then, it went through the trench method – where timber was soaked in trenches for a year and slowly dried out over the course of months – and has no shortcomings.

The Rafter Club

While there’s enough furniture inspiration in and around the former Madras Presidency and its many antique auction houses, Prem and Carola “stick to the proportions of mid-century modern furniture,” made with their own signature twists. “Colonial-style furniture is bulkier and over-designed with a lot more flourishes and heavy detailing,” Prem says of their taste. “It always seems like the piece of furniture owns you.” They prefer “crisp, clean and close to human scale.”

They promise they’ve paid loving attention not only to the wood, the joinery and design, but also the hardware they use in furniture: all the material comes from Turkey, because “we found that it has been finished in such a way that it doesn’t rust even in sea air.” We thank the Marmara.

The other thing that goes into the furniture? Memory. Prem’s grandfather had great furniture, he remembers, but his dad never kept any of it. “We’re making robust furniture that will last through the generations, and it will be something that you’ll want to pass on to the next,” he promises. That’s what good bones are made of.

Getting there: See the Madras Makers Instagram here. This twin-seater costs Rs 86,000 & this Wai chair costs Rs 42,000. Call Prem Balasubramanian on 9786967031 to place orders. Furniture can be made to order and shipped anywhere in India.

This story was contributed by Joshua Muyiwa, a Bangalore-based poet and writer.

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