Imagine living in a 120 square foot building. Now imagine that there are four of you in this space, and it must serve as living room, dining room, kitchen, study space, and bedroom for all of you, and a welcoming environment for visitors. Let’s add a few more difficulty factors: you live in a crowded, underserved community marked by poverty in India, which people refer to as a slum. You work for a living, but your wages do not provide enough money to upgrade your home or move. You worry constantly about eviction, on top of all else.

Diksha Pilania, who recently earned her master’s degree in Architecture from the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, with an emphasis in interior design, said she came across several such communities while living in Delhi to pursue her bachelor’s degree. When she taught mathematics to underserved children in a slum neighborhood in Anna Nagar, she noted a poor “slum” community in the shadow of the World Health Organization’s towering headquarters. The contrast between privilege and its lack haunted her and helped shape her master’s degree final project: “Upaya: Transforming spaces, uplifting lives.”

“Witnessing six or seven people crammed into a space barely larger than a closet, with no privacy, was a devastating sight,” she recalled.

Pilania also earned a master of fine arts degree in theater, with an emphasis on set design, from Virginia Tech. She and her brother Harshal recently launched Van Vaasi, an award-winning social enterprise with a mission to ensure that “the power of design reaches underserved communities,” as the website notes.

“We’re trying to market ourselves as designers for all, not just the privileged,” she said. “I’ve always been a person who wanted to contribute to the community around me.”

Transforming a space for living

Pilania’s project took her back to India, where she interviewed more than 17 families living in the Hazari Pahad slum in Nagpur, hoping to understand the psychological impact of interiors in these communities and to use design as a tool to enhance the wellbeing of residents. The community comprises 50 homes near an air force base camp and more than half the tiny buildings house at least four people. The major fields of employment for residents were construction and carpentry.

Many of those interviewed initially distrusted the social entrepreneur, based on past experiences with nonprofit organizations, she said, but a family of four who lived in a building about 12 x 10 feet in size welcomed her: Rajesh and Pooja Madame and their two children. “This family was with us every step,” said Pilania.

“My project is not about eradicating poverty or displacing slum residents from their homes,” she said. “It’s about embracing their reality and collaborating with them to create spaces that offer dignity, comfort, respect, and ownership.”

Pilania’s committee chair, Associate Professor Brad Whitney, in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, said her project used design as a vehicle to improve the lives of others.

“Interior design is so much greater than what most people understand it to be and most forms of media, influencers, and personalities presenting their work as 'interior design' are actually not interior design at all,” Whitney said. “Diksha's work for her project and report is a perfect example of how profound an impact interior design can have on the lives of others.”

Watching them move

Pilania said her work as a set designer in theater shaped her plan of action during this project. Set designers must collaborate with directors, casts, and crews to create stage settings for productions. This includes not only interviews, but also time spent observing how actors move on stage in the space that will hold the show. “You track an actor’s moves,” she said.

She spent time observing how the family moved in their house: how they used the space and how they worked and lived around each other. She also noted the challenges: no space for storage, clutter that impeded movement, and few places to sit. The children also had no place to study and do homework. That information informed her designs, which she adjusted over time. “They should not have to adjust to the design,” she said. “The design should adjust to them.”

A collaborative process

In addition to working closely with the family, she had local partners: Saw and Beans, a design studio; its co-founder, Sushant Chandekar; and Parvidnar Singh, who founded a company that makes musical instruments and focuses on community collaboration and involvement. She adapted their thoughts and suggestions into the final floorplan and ideas for creating flexible furniture. The team solicited feedback from the family throughout the design process, and included them in all decisions. That participatory design process was the key to the success of the project, she said. The team tackled the job piece by piece, and they made sure the family knew what to expect. Everyone agreed that they needed to make sure the house felt like a home, not a showplace, and all elements had to be easy to make with common tools and materials, and easy to assemble and disassemble.

Taking cues from motor homes

The end result transformed the house. Pilania and her team took inspiration from the way motorhomes and railways can convert seating spaces that serve for dining, study, or conversation into beds, and created a built-in sleeping and dining area at the narrower end of the space. The family was thrilled with the result, Pilania said, as the new bed comfortably sleeps all of them. Previously, someone was always sleeping on the floor. Pooja Madame told Pilania she loved the new dining area, which can easily seat eight people, as the bed converts into two upholstered booth-style benches with a table between them.

The design team added shelf units to the walls, and created desk-and-shelf spaces for the children so they could study and store their books. At one point, the family was storing school books in the refrigerator as it was the only place in the home with shelves.

The group also built a kitchen space into a corner of the house, with shelves to hold utensils, pots and pans, storage containers and cutlery and plates, as well as the small stove. Pilania said Pooja Madame was happy to have designated places for objects, eliminating clutter on the floor. The redesign also addressed fire and ventilation problems.

What interior design is about

Pooja Madame was delighted with the changes and told Pilania one of the things she most loved was that her children were far more interested in studying as they had dedicated spaces for that activity. And the house now has room to accommodate visitors comfortably. Rajesh Madame was so impressed with the proposed designs for the house, he and a team of friends replaced the building’s old tin walls with brick and mortar and added windows. In an interview, he said he was a construction worker by trade, and he wanted to ply those skills on his home now, and provide an example to neighbors.

Pilania shared the progression of the project, from conception to completion, for an audience as the culmination of her master’s degree studies.

“Her project taught me a lot about the slums in India and the social and economic structures that allow for slums to exist in the first place,” said Whitney. "But, when Diksha showed me the video of a very emotionally appreciative family she worked with to solve a complex living problem in a very small space, I actually teared up understanding that Diksha's interior design efforts really did improve their quality of living, health, and ability to be happy. That's what interior design is about.”

What comes next

Pilania said the UPAYA project she shared was just the beginning of the work she plans to do. It has instilled hope in the Hazard Pahad community and other families have shown interest, she said, and she is still reflecting on what she wants to do next. She knows she wants to continue using design principles to improve the lives of those who are underserved and hopes to work with more organizations that share her view. She said the immediate goal of her social enterprise is to help the other 50 houses in Hazari Pahad. Eventually, she wants to set up a sector of the organization in the United States.

 “I can’t believe what I have done or what can be done,” she said. “I don’t know where this project will go, but right now, this is a big achievement for me.”

Living in a drawing

Pilania uses a line, “there is no better feeling than living in your own drawing,” on her webpages, resume, and email signature. She vividly remembers her first set design for the play “Foreigner.” Standing on the stage with her completed sense around her, she felt she was “standing in my own drawing, something I literally created and painted.” That feeling has stayed with her.

Now a family in India lives in one of her design interventions. Pilania hopes there will be many more as she and her brother grow their organization.

Share this story