Varadarajan is the new program director of Industrial Design at RMIT, a position he believes will provide opportunities to expand the relevance of design in contemporary Australia as well as recognise the contribution of Australian culture to design worldwide.
With a first degree in mechanical engineering and a second degree in industrial design at the National Institute of Design in India. Varadarajan began teaching in Delhi in 1986.
At the same time he and a partner ran a consultancy designing mass produced products for the local market.
His most recent job was as an Associate Professor of Industrial Design at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi.
Varadarajan explains his first project was to design a telephone for a telecommunications manufacturer called Eastern Telecom in Delhi.
“It was a new firm. Two partners had just come back from the US. They had been working at Bell Laboratories and had come back to set up their own telecommunications company.
"I became the third member in this team and a lot of the design work was visualised and executed by me.
“After about two years I teamed up with two friends and we set up a factory to make models and prototypes and to utilise the spare capacity to manufacture metal furniture.
"All of this happened by chance... I needed somewhere to get a model made for the telephone project and it was proving too difficult to sit at a model maker’s and get work done; it seemed a lot easier to do it all ourselves.
“At the end of the year there were about sixteen workers in this big industrial shed, manufacturing products we had designed – inexpensive stackable furniture, that sort of thing. At its peak we used to produce about 100 chairs a day.”
For Varadarajan the challenges of teaching, running his own business, working from two locations and balancing the needs of the partners was rewarding but exhausting.
“It wasn’t a simple life. In six months the partnership came down to two. The third one left... she left with our telephone, the one telephone connection we had at the time!
“It was very hard financially and it was all ‘on the roll’ and you had to keep working to keep the money coming in. You couldn’t stop and take stock. It was quite frenetic.
“At this time I was also teaching in an architecture school. My teaching role led to my drafting a new university program in 1993, a Masters program for industrial design at the architecture school.
“So it was 1986 and I was twenty-five years old, writing a proposal for a design course... I’m wearing jeans with holes in the knees, riding a motorcycle. It was a nomadic existence. I didn’t have family, they were down south so I was starting up life. It was very intense.
“It was like I’d been caught in a storm.”
According to Varadarajan, he was lucky to be involved in an exciting time during India’s changing economy.
“I saw the last of India’s closed economy, the end of the socialist economy. Today all hell has broken loose and India has a retail sector with a growth profile of 400 per cent. It’s gargantuan.”
In 1991 Varadarajan took up a scholarship to work at Hitachi in Japan. The scholarship, established in Tokyo by two friends, after World War II , provided training at the Hitachi and Denon design studios.
After completing the scholarship, he returned to India. In 1994 he joined the Indian Institute of Technology.
While Varadarajan suggests there are similarities with RMIT, he sees the Indian institute as more isolated and exclusive.
“It’s a bit more isolated because it’s not in the city, and not so open.
“It’s got a huge chip on its shoulder, for ten years it was the sister institute to the Imperial College in London.
“Most of the graduates get scholarships and go off to the US. The man who set up hotmail is an IIT graduate; if you look at McDonnell Douglas, Bell Laboratories, Microsoft, they all have graduates from IIT and they often go on to Stanford and Harvard contributing to research in America.
“At IIT, industrial design is not part of the technical spectrum. The encouragement for me was that when I joined the director, at the age of thirty-three.
"He said to me: ‘You may be thirty-three, but everyone who comes into this university is a don. You have to be the wise man, you are going to have students and you are going to contribute to the profession.
"So it’s more than a job... it’s a culture you have to create’.
“It took me many years to work out what this actually meant. You had a space and you were left to set up your own activity and projects like a consultancy. You had to go out and get your own research grants, you had to look after students, and recruit your own staff.
“I left last year with three major projects running. I left a team of twenty-four people. One group had formed a commercially viable company, Nava Savera to recycle waste.”
Varadarajan has concentrated much of his work on sustainability and environmental issues and his first project was creating a campus recycling program.
“It started out as an academic exercise... to recycle everything that was consumed by a household, rather than treating it as waste we were closing the loop. The research turned up a few things... like Delhi is a net importer of waste from all over the world.
“In Australia when I say this people always say: ‘that’s curious because we have always wondered where our aluminium cans end up because we don’t recycle them here’. But you do see a lot of stuff with Australia marked on it in India.
"So a lot of the production machinery in the city of Delhi uses a lot of imported waste because it is very cheap and they use it as raw material to manufacture goods.
“So the recycling program is like a conduit to the manufacturing industry. Eventually we only found one material – expanded polystyrene foam – which was difficult to recycle, but virtually all other materials could be recycled.”
According to Varadarajan the project grew to a scale where over a period of time they were recycling about two tonnes of waste a day.
“We had a team of people who would pick up the waste and sort it and warehouse it and then every two months we’d have an auction and someone would come and buy it. In a year’s time we subcontracted the pick-up every month and they paid us for the material.”
One of the most significant projects for India and many Asian countries involved human power via the redesign of the rickshaw.
“Cities in most of Asia and South East Asia have rickshaws. They haven’t changed very much over the years and are very heavy. This was a project to revisit the rickshaw and to make it much lighter.
“Clever technical design resulted in reducing weight by a third. Delhi has about 200,000 for a population of fourteen million. Slowly the new rickshaw is moving in to compete.
“The project was funded by US AID. We set up workshops and got locals interested. Naturally, traditional rickshaw manufacturers weren’t interested in making the new models. So we went to other manufacturers.
"The government gave orders for 200 rickshaws at a time to these manufacturers and they delivered to the retail outlets.
“The system was set up first in Agra. Designers worked with local manufacturers on developing a fleet and then moving on to another city and doing the same thing. This is a slow process, but a sustainable process where the designer is totally involved in the implementation.
“One of the students, who worked on the project, went to Jakarta and did a similar thing, very successfully, working from a university over there.
“International visitors, including representatives from the United Nations, have seen the work at the campus and are keen to promote the ideas and projects to people in Africa, China and Thailand to show that it is a viable proposition.”
Varadarajan, who finished his doctorate in March 2003 in India, is excited about his RMIT appointment and the challenges and opportunities it brings.
“I am interested in what I see as the fundamental problem with industrial design, which is that you have this profession that was created in the last century but we seem to hang on to a belief that before then objects were not made.
“So there is recognition that says industrial design starts in 1834 with the South Kensington Report in London. This suggested a need to bring art and industry together so they set up the Glasgow School of Art and so on. But objects were being made long before that!
“Today we have a sort of method where we have this certain group of objects which are created by a designer and that is design. There are lots of other objects that are not created by designers, so – a) they are not good and – b) they have no design in them... I needed a bigger theory...
“So I started from first principles. Design is something that can explain why an object is put together in a certain way or it can tell a story about an object. That is essentially what a design is...
“If you know how to have a discourse about an object then you can design an object. As designers you have to be able to visualise an object but you have to be able to have discourse about an object also.
"So the discourse on the object is design and the person who visualises the object is the designer.
“I want students to take up all objects and without being narrow and puritanical... try to be more open ended. We need to be able to take, for example, Chinese, Japanese, traditional and contemporary objects, all manner of objects and give an account of the object like an archaeologist would do. He can find a piece of pottery and he can tell you about society.”
Varadarajan sees himself as a tourist academic and is looking forward to exploring more about Australian society.
“I can see a marginalisation of things like the ute, surf culture, the outdoors and outback. These are the characteristics of Australian society, and it should be something that industrial designers can engage in... which they have to be open to.”