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With Charu Gandhi

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Charu Gandhi


Charu Gandhi had an upbringing many would dream of, travelling to all corners of the world with her family whilst being exposed to art, culture and talented artisans on the way. It’s no surprise then that she has surrounded herself with a multicultural team at her award-winning design studio Elicyon, made up of people from East Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, Africa and America. Talking to Charu, it’s clear she’s got her head screwed on – the office and family life run like well-oiled machines - but it’s comforting to hear she also has frantic-duck-feet moments too!  

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Where did it all start?

I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was 11, or 12 years old. My parents were building a house in India and they had this really cool young female architect. I always say, often you cannot be what you cannot see. I think I knew I wanted to do something in that world, but it was crystallised by having a person who actually embodied the role. From then on my drive to become an Architect never really wavered. I came to London to study at a school called the Architectural Association, which, in fact, she recommended. I went on to qualify and worked in Architecture for a few years.

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So how did it evolve into Interior Design?

 

In 2010 I decided to explore more of a hybrid approach between Architecture and Interior Design. I went to Candy & Candy, was there for three years, then became Head of Design at Morpheus for a year. I found a balance of Architecture and Interior Design more creative, and it actually fed my creative juices more than the large scale Architecture.

What made you take the plunge and set up by yourself?

The truth is, when I left Morpheus I had several clients say, “Look, why don’t you do something? We will back you, we will give you projects” So almost organically, I ended up setting up Elicyon without really planning to start my own studio. It just sort of happened. I did feel ready though, as my career progressed, and my role got more senior. It’s such a cliché, but I felt I had a lot of responsibility without necessarily the ability to make some of the key decisions. I felt stuck in the middle. I remember that acutely, and I try my very best at Elicyon to not have senior members of my team feel like that. For me it was the main trigger for moving on.

I felt I had a lot of responsibility without the ability to make some of the key decisions. I felt stuck in the middle.

Did you have a backup plan?

I guess in the early days, it was that I would go back to having a job. And I’ve been quite blessed that, in terms of my family background, and my partner, I’ve never felt an extreme sense of financial vulnerability. That doesn’t mean I haven’t felt pressure on myself to achieve something though. And certainly, the minute you have employees, you have people who are counting on you to pay salaries. I’ve almost always had salaried employees rather than freelance or flex support.

How did you create the Elicyon brand?

When you’re setting up, it’s a balancing act of not knowing how long it will last but also trying to create something that has longevity – it’s actually a real challenge because you genuinely don’t know if it has legs, yet you sort of have to believe it has legs.

 

In general, you know, the Elicyon ethos on design has always been very client-led. It’s my passion, I’ve always enjoyed going on a journey with clients. So, I never felt a pressure to know what the Elicyon style was from day one - it has always been an amalgamation. But in terms of the brand, at the time, it was all about creating a sort of seriousness. We were in our mid-thirties or younger, and I was looking to create a feeling of the business having a weightiness to it. And it’s so funny because we’ve rebranded recently and that was all about making it much more playful, much more relaxed.

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Do you ever miss pure Architecture?

No, because at Elicyon we still dip our toe into Architecture. We have a very strong architectural team, led by an architectural associate who Plug. recruited for us. It’s not the type of architecture I used to work on, which was very large scale projects. But funnily enough, I find what we do at Elicyon, this hybrid across architecture and interior design keeps me absolutely satisfied.

How would you describe your dream client?

We’ve actually done work on this over the years to visualise the perfect client. I’m a big fan of visualising stuff and knowing what good looks like. Because unless you know what it looks like, how can you seek it? So, we often brainstorm ‘what is the perfect project?’ ’What’s the perfect client?’ 

I think, for us, a perfect client is someone who’s really excited to go on a creative journey with us, who is ready to engage with craft and design and give it its due value. That’s when we get excited. And of course, a client who sees us for being the experts that we are.

“For us, a perfect client is someone who’s really excited to go on a creative journey with us, who is ready to engage with craft and design and give it its
due value.

Do you think overall it’s a supportive industry?

 

I think it’s potentially less difficult to break into than others, which is a good thing. I think we could still do more on diversity, there’s always more to be done. But broadly, I’d say, certainly towards me, it was very supportive.

What client challenges do you come up against?

For us as a team, the day-to-day aspects of running a job – our bread and butter – we know what to do. It’s the human side of it that can pose the challenges, where clients can get anxious. This is where we bring our true skills and experience in helping to reassure clients; reminding them of the processes, reminding them that we’ve done this hundreds of times and that it’s always worked out, but also acknowledging how they’re feeling at the same time. For clients, it can be frustrating if they don’t get the acknowledgement that it is a scary process.

 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The thing with advice is it depends on the time. Very recently I’ve increasingly become a worrier. I went out with a client recently and was explaining I’m often up at night worrying. This is an incredibly successful, self-made entrepreneur, who we’ve been working with since 2016. He looked at me and said, “Stop worrying about worrying.” It’s such a simple piece of advice but it’s really worked.

I’ve had people talk to me about resilience in the past, that’s been really helpful. I’ve had people talk to me about being elastic, learning to not be rigid as a business owner. Also, someone once told me how important it is to keep your word, both externally and internally. And if you don’t keep your word, reach out to the person and explain why you didn’t. So, I’ve had lots of advice over the years and I actually tend to write them all down – they’re so valuable.

 

A piece of advice you would give?

Running a business or life is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. There are decisions I’ve rushed in the past that I should have really slowed down. Or conversely when I’ve deliberated too much, we’ve missed an opportunity because I’ve left it too late.

Knowing the right speed to respond to things, depending on the situation, is something I’m still learning. I often say to the team that sometimes leaving something, so you have time to think it over and the other party has time to consider it, is the best thing to do. There are so many situations where leaving it is the right thing. And then there’s so many situations where actually what you should really be doing is accelerating, making the decision, taking the action and making the change.

Running a business or life is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. Knowing the right speed to respond to things … is something I’m still learning.
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So, what are you doing at the moment - slowing down or speeding up?

I often describe myself as a duck, because on the surface you’d meet me and think I’m happily chugging along, but internally, beneath the water, I‘m frantically paddling! And this happens so much that my husband a few months ago bought me a ceramic duck! I’ve placed it on my desk to remind me. I come home sometimes and he’s like, “how’s the ducking doing?”

If you could go back and do anything differently, what would that be?

Looking back, I can see that the bad times were mostly when I ignored my gut, when I needed to act on something and needed to get it done. I’ve learned to listen to my gut more. Because most of the time, more often than not, it’s right. So, I would have listened to my gut more. Also, I questioned myself more than I should have. At the time it had its pros – questioning yourself makes you more open to feedback. But ignoring my gut has got me into hot water a few times.

“Ignoring my gut has got me into hot water a few times.

How would you describe your typical Monday?

My week has a real rhythm to it. Mondays are very inward focused. I almost always go into the studio for back-to-back meetings with the different departments across the studio - we have various check-in meetings to get set up for the week. So, a whole day of internal catch ups with everybody from our studio manager to all the directors, the project management team and architectural team.

And in the evenings?

I’m often out in the evenings for various industry events, art openings, catching up with someone. But I try not to do more than three work events because I think that’s already a lot. Even when I do work stuff, I really try to be home at 9:30pm to get an early night. I just increasingly can’t handle late nights! But we have a very quiet life really, even though we live in the heart of Chelsea. On a non-social evening, we put our son to bed usually before eight and then we’re in bed by half nine, ten. We have a rule to only watch one hour of TV, I’m kind of strict about it, we even set an alarm! It’s too easy to get carried away and before you know it 2,3 hours are lost on a Netflix series.

How about on the weekends, do you hang out in Chelsea?

Yeah it’s such a nice part of the world. Weekends for us again have quite a strong rhythm. So, I get to sleep in on Saturday morning. My husband gets to sleep in on Sunday. And our weekends tend to oscillate. We see family quite a lot. My family all live in Chelsea so most weekends we’ll probably do lunch with them. We tend to have a pretty child centric weekend, oftentimes seeing other friends with kids that our son gets along with. And then my husband and I actually make quite an effort to do stuff together in the evenings. So, we are very pro getting a babysitter or having the grandparents to look after our son and like to spend time together without family and kids. We find our weeks are so busy, we’re ships passing in the night. So having a date night, every few weeks, is a chance to kind of catch up, chat, hang out. It makes a real difference for us.

So where would you suggest a date night in London?

Ah, date night in London. We had a memorable date night at an amazing restaurant called Mãos, opposite Shoreditch House (sadly it’s closed now). You entered through a tiny, discreet door and then upstairs the restaurant is quite austere, perhaps only 20 seats. But it was a gastronomic experience - very inventive, not fussy, but interesting food and just beautifully done.

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And how do you get home - black cab or uber?

Black cab. I love them, especially the new electric ones. I become very excited. The drivers must be thinking I’m crazy, But I think it’s really fun.

 

 

What is the last film that you watched?

The last film that I watched was an Indian movie called Jogi, online, at home. And it was about the communal riots in India, it was quite unusual – evocative luxury.

With a takeaway?

We really avoid take away because we’ve learned they stay around the hips, it’s a lasting legacy. During COVID when it was hard to get hold of groceries, I started planning what we were going to eat so that I could source the food. And that turned into a thing – in the week, we tried to eat two vegetarian meals, one meal that’s fish, one that’s white meat, and only one that’s red meat. We would avoid beef because of the environmental impact. So I’ve now got about 30 weeks’ worth of weekly menus that I’ve created on Excel! We just work through them sequentially, and then back again. So, no takeaways!

How do you keep on top of a busy life?

I’ve learned the more I organise the better life flows. Although I think there is a negative side to organising so much - it can give you a false sense of being in control. You can then get quite stressed when it doesn’t go as planned. So, I think as long as you’re happy to do all the planning, whilst knowing that there’s a human side. That’s the balance.

If you wanted to have fun, who would you call?

Probably my friend Tahir who lives in India, now. He’s a fashion designer turned self-taught culinary master. And he’s probably the one person who is guaranteed to make me laugh. I also have amazing, maybe two or three different groups of girlfriends in London. And with either of those groups I know after an evening out, there’s going to be a wonderful feeling. Most of the time I come home feeling quite pumped up, they’re people who lift you. I’m really lucky to have them.

If you were Mayor for the day, what would you do?

 

I’d try to sort out the traffic. Over the last few years, I’ve complained about it a lot! I’m not a big fan of the 20 mile per hour zones all over London. Not sure how much benefit they bring, so, I’d probably be a bit disruptive in terms of the speed limits and the general restrictions on traffic.

What shops could you not live without?

I am so boring. I mean, on the work side there are some amazing companies we buy from. But outside of work even my six-year-old knows that basically if you can’t get it from Ocado or Amazon it doesn’t exist in our house.

Is there something that not many people know about you?

Oh, I mean there’s not much people wouldn’t know – I’m such an open book and I’ve spoken so much about myself over the years. However, one of the things maybe a lot of people don’t know is that I have a really serious phobia of birds.

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