Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The Taxi Fabric project gives local designers a new vehicle to show off their work.
When you hop into a taxi, there isn’t usually much to look at except out the window. But one graphic designer wants to change that by turning cabs in Mumbai into canvasses for emerging artists.
Sanket Avlani is the founder of Taxi Fabric, a project that has already turned seven of the city’s 50,000-plus taxicabs into works of arts. The interior of each taxi, from the ceiling and doors to the seats, has been specially designed by local Mumbai designers, and the designs themselves are inspired by India’s most populous city.
Take the latest taxi to get Taxi Fabric’s special treatment—the design, by 25-year-old typographer and designer Pavithra Dikshit, features jasmine flowers, peppers, and lemons against an eye-popping green background. Called “Urban Garden,” it’s Dikshit’s way of paying homage to Mumbai’s disappearing green space.
“As a fast-growing metropolis, it has building and buildings coming up in every space,” says Dikshit. “The green color is shrinking, so I wanted my taxi to show to all the green things around you.”
"The passenger facing cover celebrates my childhood of always having Jasmine(mogra) growing at home. Jasmine garlands are sold at signals and on the roadside everywhere. The smell is good reason enough as to why woman adorn it in their hair." @pavithradikshit for #taxifabric #taxi #Mumbai #India #jasmin #mogra #garden #flowers #greenery #plants #chilly #lemon #illustration #fabric #designer #interiors #seatcovers Photograph by @aashim
Other designs were inspired the daily life of a Mumbaikar—the different people you meet on the streets, from businessmen to children to vegetable vendors; and the personal stories of the cab drivers themselves.
Mumbai has a relatively small design community and an even smaller appreciation for the profession, says Avlani, who grew up in Mumbai and now works in London. “The design world is very small there, and most of the designers know each other,” he says. “If you wish to study design in India, not many people would understand or encourage it as much as they would in Europe or the United States.”
His hope is that the project will help spark conversation about the designs between taxi drivers and passengers. For Avlani, the iconic black-and-yellow taxis are the perfect medium because they’re everywhere.
”It’s so easy for people taking those taxis to react to those designs if the stories they tell are those that they recognize,” Avlani says. “If even the driver gets excited about it, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
As funding continues to trickle in from Taxi Fabric’s Kickstarter campaign, which runs until August 10, Avlani and his team hope to give at least 20 more cabs a special makeover by the end of the year.
Young designers and students who want to participate can submit a portfolio to the Taxi Fabric team, who will then select artists to work with. “We gauge if the designer can handle a project like this and if they can bring something new, and if the have their own style,” he says. Once accepted, artists will work with the team and, in some cases, cab drivers who want to be part of the program, to come up with a unique design.
The concept itself isn’t entirely new. It’s common for taxi drivers in Mumbai to customized their cars with colorful seat covers, eye-popping window decorations, lights, and little trinkets on the dashboard. “The taxi is like a desk at work. They spend their whole day in it so for them, it has to look interesting,” says Dikshit. “They don’t think that it attracts extra customers or anything, but it makes themselves feel good about spending [time] in it daily.”
But the bright pink, vibrant blue, and lively green colors that Taxi Fabric designers bring to cabs are a big step up from what drivers typically choose for their interior. Many drivers, Dikshit says, just go with fabric that’s already available at textile markets. “They’re very dull in color, like brown and maroon,” she says. “That’s how it’s always been, and nobody has the time to think about, ‘What if [the seat] is yellow?’”
Boring fabric doesn’t generate conversation, which Dikshit sees as a missed opportunity. “The drivers have their own stories, and they’re happy to discuss everything from politics to religion to traffic, to who they are as people,” she says. “You can almost consider them an extended part of the city landscape.”