Exclusive Conversation with Pine Cone Founder Nitika Gupta

Pine Cone India Founder Nitika Gupta
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I was lucky enough to catch up with the founder of Pine Cone, Nitika Gupta. Pine Cone is a leading craft-based home decor initiative. that celebrates the lesser-known crafts of India, handmade with love by artisans in remote parts of India. I asked Nitika to give us a little background on this amazing and unique company and here is what she told me.

Pine Cone started almost 3 years ago from my home! We started with Assam and Bamboo as our first state and craft. With more and more artisans joining us today we have 6 crafts with us from rural parts of Assam, Himachal Pradesh, J&K, and Manipur. These are traditional artisans of their respective crafts have inherited the art from their forefathers, and are experts in their material and art. Most of these artisans are women.

Pine Cone India Baskets handmade
Photo Credit  Pine Cone

Challenges– As our raw material is all natural fibers, we are highly dependent on the quality and quantity of raw material. Due to this, the raw material costs keep fluctuating, but we must keep our prices the same.

All the products are made in rural areas, hence the facilities there are very, very basic. Infrastructure and timelines are the significant challenges we face.

In terms of customer-facing challenges, there is still a big chunk of Indian consumers who don’t truly understand the value of handicrafts and handmade as they are spoiled for choice with inexpensive plastic products for all their needs.

Most of our communication is via storytelling and showing how these products are painstakingly handcrafted to ensure transparency and visibility of how much effort has gone into a small handwoven natural fiber product. We are constantly putting in efforts to keep building our tribe on social media- these are evolved people who have a thorough understanding and appreciation for handmade and are inclined towards sustainable and slow lifestyles.

Born and raised in Jammu (J&K), I was exposed to many handicrafts. Since Jammu is the gateway to J&K and attracts many tourists, I grew up watching the regional crafts flourishing, fading, and reviving (in some cases) at their own pace. After school, I moved out for further studies and lived in different cities, which acquainted me with an array of regional traditional crafts in every part of India – some were celebrated nationally and globally, and some were forgotten.

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Pine Cone handmade bags
Photo Credit Pine Cone

A product design graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar (NIFT) with a PG from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIMC), I worked in corporate for 13 years in various roles and industries, which gave me exposure to International markets and an opportunity to learn multiple functions of product-based business.

Design school also gave us much insight into the current scenario of Indian handicrafts in theory and person.

But finally, in 2019 I was doing the interiors of my new home, and I realized the dearth of Indian craft-based home decor products in fine quality. There was a massive gap in this unorganized rural industry, and as I struggled to find customized home products, it led me to Pine Cone.

It was also a childhood dream to bring my state’s crafts to a more significant and global level, so my personal experience led me to work on a business model where one could get high-quality custom-made crafts-based handcrafted home decor products.

The critical goals at Pine Cone are

● Nurturing our artisans with design, business, and market-related knowledge- my foremost goal for Pine Cone is to keep offering a fee of cost training sessions and workshops to artisans of various crafts across the nation, as most of them do not have access to the global market scenario or even the scope of handicrafts (I have conducted 2 such workshops in last year in my home state J&K and aim to do many more this year).

● Build Pine Cone to cater to domestic and International market requirements.

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● To build a community, an ecosystem of artisans, like-minded people, and brands where we all work collectively in sync to offer multiple solutions.

● To bring more lesser-known crafts and their respective practicing artisans under our umbrella.

● Continuous research and development in terms of form, design, and utility to bring the age-old crafts in line with modern lifestyle.

We engage with artisans of age-old crafts (90% of them are women) and help them develop their skills to revive these lesser-known/ dying crafts that they have inherited from their forefathers. These artisans are experts in the material as well as the art, which is a great advantage during the design stage and henceforth.

My learning and experience as a design graduate, and 12 years in various roles in corporate enables me to focus on design and explore the material to an extent.

The material and the craft drive the form, and design drives functionality and commercial aspects. These products are given a contemporary take and Scandinavian-Bohemian aesthetic flavor to appeal to minimalists and maximalists alike.

There is a lot of back and forth that goes on while designing a particular product.

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At the conceptualization level, once the design is outlined with basic details, dimensions, form, etc., I discuss the idea with the artisans to get his/ her opinion on the same, as the material is the key element here and the properties of the material drive the design process. From design to prototype to actual product and finally, to production, it’s an ongoing process of research and sampling and sometimes may take months.

But the joy of seeing a paper drawing take shape into an actual product that somebody would happily pay to take home for personal use or for gifting is unmatched!

Pine Cone Home decor
Photo Credit Pine Cone

The material and the craft are always the hero of our products. All the factors revolve around these two elements. Modern design and functionality are the key deliverables of the final product. Between these two parameters, all the work happens, which involves the sampling of the initial idea, tweaking it as/ if required, and working on detailing. We also test the prototypes for some time to understand the user experience of the product and if it’s a right fit ergonomically, too.

This helps to ensure the final product is aesthetically functional and solves a purpose and the product experience is pleasant, convenient, and desirable.

Revising handicrafts is a challenging project that needs thorough research and development. We constantly educate people on the crafts and the process of handmade through interactive content. The mind shift takes place eventually but gradually.

We tell stories- stories—about the artisans, the history, the significance of the said crafts, and how we transform these into contemporary functional pieces.

Value engineering and value addition are also key aspects of the process. Once the final sample is ready, we try to optimize the use of material and the functionality of the product in terms of multi-utility; this helps in keeping the material cost minimum and also helps in justifying the perceived value of the product.

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Today’s evolved customer wants to buy less frequently, but when they do, they want to invest in quality product that will last them years and can be used in multiple ways.

Kashmir is a heaven in the most accurate form. Not only has Mother Nature blessed it with immense beauty, the people there are also blessed with an evolved sense of aesthetics, design, and craftsmanship. There are numerous crafts that were birth here centuries ago, but unfortunately, not every art evolved with time and got wide recognition and perceived value as that of Pashmina, the rich embroideries of Aari and tilla work, Papier-mâché and the carpets.

In our context, English willow wicker craft, locally referred to as Keani Keam, is a hand-skilled craft from Kashmir involving hand weaving using willow reeds. Basket-weaving is one of the world’s oldest crafts, and one of the most distinctive products of this craft is Kangri, a wicker basket used to carry clay pots filled with smoldering coal that local people hold under their flowing pherans to keep warm during the freezing winter. It is not commonly used anymore since the household has electricity now, so heaters have replaced kangris.

Hence comes the revival bit, Homeland Collection is a contemporary and minimalistic product offering Scandi boho flavor made with the same craft and technique by traditional and skilled artisans but at the same time, it will appeal to Gen Z and the contemporary city person.

The backpack, the simple round sling bag, or the vintage trunks are all reminiscent of the era gone by but carry the flavor of today’s lifestyle. These handcrafted pieces are not just a bag or a tray or a lamp but these also carry with them the legacy of the craft used to make them and the emotions of the craftsperson who has meticulously handcrafted it.

their rich sense of aesthetics is my favorite question from the list. 

Basketry is one of the ancient forms of crafts in the world. Be it Asia, Africa, Europe, or The Americas, each civilization has had basketry in one form or the other, which has carried forward and evolved to its current form.

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The baskets of the world, not only tell about the kind of rich flora these places had but also about their cultures. The technique of basketry, the skill in the craftsmanship, the surface ornamentation, use of shells, threads, real gold, and metals show the rich sense of aesthetics they had.

India alone has hundreds of natural fibers and every few 100 km, the natural fiber used in basketry changes be it English willow of Kashmir, Salt reed or pine grass of Himachal or bamboo, water reed, hyacinth, sitalpatti in the Northeast, Sikri or moon in UP and further down banana fiber etc.

At Pine Cone, we are using this ancient art of basketry to create a diverse range of products that can be used in more ways than just one. From table décor to home décor, to bags, most of these products are multi- utility which promotes our philosophy of conscious buying and using the same product for multiple purposes.

We are essentially a made-to-order brand where we discourage producing big stocks and make on-order as per consumer’s custom requirement. This also helps us in ensuring the customer that their product is made exclusively for them which evokes a sense of pride and responsibility in the consumer too to use it optimally.

Our multi-utility baskets work as towel baskets, trinket trays, toiletries/ makeup baskets, and organizers and can be used in the kitchen, washroom, powder room, and living room. This way not only one use the product more often, but also helps one maintain a conscious, sustainable lifestyle.

Similarly, our bags work both as handbags, shopping bags, tiffin bags as well and beach bags, and when not used as an accessory, these can be used at home as magazine holders, throw baskets, cushion baskets, and so on.

We also provide made-to-order custom storage solutions, e.g. we have done so many storage pull-out baskets for baby rooms. New-age mothers want their kids to grow self-dependent, to be able to keep and take out their own toys and belongings, organize the space better, and at the same time be in touch with handcrafted products made of natural materials. This helps in subconsciously evoking an emotional connection with mother nature in the child.

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Sustainability and Indian Handicrafts go hand in hand, as these are all natural materials, handcrafted at a slow pace without disturbing nature or leaving a carbon footprint in the process, hence we are always talking about sustainable and slow lifestyle in all our communications. It further helps bring credibility to our brand as we are a made-to-order brand, so we either create and manufacture on order or keep very few stock units of our bestselling products.

Our products are designed keeping multi-utility and versatility in mind, we don’t advocate the idea of impulse buying or frequent buying. We believe in investing in a good quality handcrafted product that can be used in multiple ways, is made in fair condition by an artisan who is paid fairly and can be used for years. Now we are present on more than one channel and platform, the storytelling continues there too.

In today’s time, when one is spoilt for choice by the amazons of the world with 2-hour delivery windows, we are trying to unlearn this ease of quick, impulsive and mindless buying thus feeding the fast fashion world too which itself is a curse in disguise.

At Pine Cone, we emphasize to order model to ensure the consumer is mindfully investing in a certain product. At the same time, we keep very small units of our bestsellers to ensure mindfulness as well as access to buying these products.

Our multi-utility baskets work as towel baskets, trinket trays, toiletries/ makeup baskets, and organizers and can be used in the kitchen, washroom, powder room, and living room. This way not only one use the product more often, but also helps one maintain a conscious, sustainable lifestyle.

Similarly, our bags work both as handbags, shopping bags, tiffin bags, as beach bags, and when not used as an accessory, these can be used at home as magazine holders, throw baskets, cushion baskets, and so on

This helps the products to merge categories seamlessly.

Salt reed grass, known as kasha or druba, is considered sacred grass and is often used in puja and havan. This versatile material is considered pure and has natural insulating properties and hence makes for an excellent roti box or a floor mat for winters. Unlike pine needle grass, Kusha grass products are robust do not catch mold easily, and last a good 6-8 years. In addition, Buraansh collection products can also be occasionally washed with mild soapy water, thus enabling one to use it for eatables too. It is the most versatile material and allows us to create so many forms with it.

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Buraansh is a Hindi word for rhododendron flower, which is found abundantly in the Himalayan state of Himachal, hence the name. Himachal is also my mother’s birthplace and has a special place in my heart as I have many fond memories of my childhood as we spent every summer here at my nani’s plane. The brand name- Pine Cone is also derived from my fondness for Himachal and all things connected with mountain life.

Macrame` combined with basketry was developed by myself, The first ever product that Pine Cone launched used macrame` and, to date, is one of our most loved, sold, and customized products – Spa basket.

Macrame’s collection is 100% designed and made by myself. Bohemian sense of style and décor gained popularity in India in the last decade, but over time it has evolved into a more sublime and subtle form and has hints of Scandinavian aesthetics to it. This kind of product offering was hard to find in India when we started Pine Cone. It either lacked quality or the intricacy of macrame`, or the macrame` bit was too overpowering.

Hence, the macrame collection, which is a mix of wall décor, gifting, table décor as well and handbags, is a collection of Boho products with a subtle hint of Bohemian aesthetic to appeal to Bohemian souls as well as minimalists.

Each piece is a story in itself of how it came into being. Santorini, for example, was created for the love of the pristine blue and white of the iconic Greek island. The macramé curtain tiebacks were custom-made by me for a dear family member for her newly renovated home. it clicked, and as soon as I launched it, it became a sudden hit, as it allows people to add just a touch of boho in their cozy spaces while having the option of getting those in custom colors. Similarly, the bags and spa baskets were developed and launched out of personal requirement and were launched eventually to be ordered by anyone.

To see all the wonderful products offered by Pine Cone simply visit them at pineconeindia.in

By Soumyajit Dutta

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