rugrads Designer Chetan Singh Kunwar is Making Fine Art You Can Touch

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Chetan Singh Kunwar is one of those artists with an insatiable creative appetite. The New York-based multi-hyphenate designs full-time for the agency loyalkaspar, nurses a personal illustration practice, and creates rugs with his wife, Kashish Chopra. Together, the couple has managed to turn a humble pandemic hobby into an increasingly popular small business.

I first came upon rugrads back in April, when I was curating a round-up of noteworthy submissions to the annual type design challenge 36 Days of Type. While most participants used digital programs to create entries, rugrads turned their letters into real-life rugs, which caught my eye for their ingenuity and unique fiber material. I’ve since had the pleasure of speaking with Kunwar directly, where we discussed his background, creative process, and the harmony of his various artistic outputs.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Why rugs? How did you get into this art form? 

Growing up in India, my grandmother was a weaver as a side hustle. Watching her, I thought she was just doing it as a hobby and a time pass; I didn’t know she was actually making money off of it. But it stayed with me, and now I’m doing my work with fibers. It’s sort of an homage to her, in a way; a little nod to her craft that never really got the recognition that it deserved. She used to hand-spin all of her yarns, and now I’m using the same sort of yarn in my art. It’s a full-circle moment for me: getting introduced to fiber and yarn at a very young age, then deciding to take on digital media more avidly, only to somehow find my way back into fiber arts.

I also got into rug TikTok—you know how you can just get into a specific genre or cycle on TikTok—and I was like, Okay, this looks very interesting. Maybe I should just try it. I ordered a tufting gun, and then I just started making things. I love the tactile quality of it, to be able to touch the art that you make. Then that small idea just turned into a business. 

We’ve tried to make our own rug TikToks. None of them have gone viral, but they’ve gotten pretty good responses on Instagram Reels. We’ve been posting a lot of our process videos on Instagram, and that’s something people have been responding to a lot. 

Has your Indian upbringing and heritage played a role in your rug making? 

Rugs are pretty famous in India, in terms of craftsmanship and design. I never really thought that I would get into a rug business, but now that I’m here, I think it’s because I miss home a little bit. Creating a rug takes me back to India— using those colors, the textures, and the idea of it. It takes me a step closer to India, even though I’m so far away from it.

Because I lived in India for so long, I can’t really make a neutral rug; there has to be some sort of pop element. Growing up there, I’ve just seen so many colors. There are also so many crafts in India, not just rug making. There’s so much craftsmanship, so many embroidery techniques. Even within India, I feel like I haven’t explored all of the textile options that India has to offer yet.

What’s your design process like when creating a rug?

Despite these rugs being tactile, the process really begins on a screen. I like to sketch out various amorphous shapes from which elements are eliminated and added. Once I have a basic outline of what I’m going to make, the design is taken out of that 2D world and taken into a 3D context.

India is so rich in textiles and colors, so by default, I gravitate toward bold, playful, and chunky shapes that have never been seen on rugs before. On the surface, the rug designs appear so simple, but deep down there’s a choreography of shapes, color, and yarn coming together. Deciding the color palette is another crucial element in my process— it really has to sit well together, and eventually be a good contrast.

What sets fiber arts apart from other mediums? 

When I was first introduced to art, I remember looking at these magnificent oil paintings hung on walls with extravagant frames that I was told not to touch. I have seen a massive shift in the definition of art as I’ve grown older. Not only have the mediums changed, but the whole way we experience an artwork defines what that art does to our creative cells. With these rugs, I try to break that notion of do not touch. Instead, I ask people to experience it not only with their eyes but also with a sense of touch. That way, tactility becomes a part of the process, making it more theatrical, and evoking a reaction.

What’s it like running rugrads with your wife, Kashish?

I’ve heard of people who are married that don’t get along in terms of work decisions, but that’s not true for us. We’re in sync when it comes to making creative decisions. Our aesthetics are pretty similar, so it’s very easy to work with her. Also in terms of choices and where we envision this brand going, I think we’re on the same wavelength. 

Because I know her as a person too, and not just on a business level, it’s just easier for us to be able to even come up with designs: I know what she’s going to like, and it’s also in sync with the brand. It catalyzes the process, so we’re not going back and forth thinking about what we’re going to make; we’re quicker at making decisions. Oh, I know she would also like this, and it’s apt for the brand too, so let’s just make it.

Also we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we try to fill in and cover for each other wherever needed.

Do you have a rugrads studio? 

We don’t have a studio; we’re using our bedroom as a studio set-up. It’s all yarn— we sleep with yarn! We didn’t expect this sort of response; we were just making rugs for fun, because it was something that we enjoyed doing. Maybe we’ll think about getting a studio now— we’ll see.

How have you developed your personal illustration style? 

All of my work as a system flows really well together. When I was studying graphic design back in undergrad, I did my senior thesis as an illustration project. It was just a hobby after I submitted my senior thesis, and it was only during the pandemic that I had the time to make these little moments, because I was spending so much time at home. 

I was illustrating the little moments you see within your day that are so temporary: you just see something for a second, and then you won’t even notice it the next day. I like to capture those little, tender moments and make them permanent by illustrating them. I don’t intend to do it, but my art is very relatable. You might have that corner in your house; you might have that little orange food basket in your house that you will be able to relate my work to. So in that way, my art is open to interpretation; people can connect my work to their household and their lifestyle.

How are you able to juggle your personal art practice with your full-time job at loyalkaspar?

I’m a very quick learner, and just a big learner in general. There are so many things that this world has to offer. I’m very greedy in terms of that: I want to learn everything. So if I see something online, if I see something that interests me and makes me curious, I just go for it. 

The same thing goes for my job. I wanted to get into broadcast design, and I found loyalkaspar. They’ve been great in terms of letting me do these other things as well. Whenever I’m waiting for feedback while at work, I take out my iPad and quickly sketch something; I don’t like to waste time. Whenever I find these little spurts of free moments, I quickly do something, whether it be testing or illustrating an idea. 

Weekends are really big for me too. I plan my time— I’m going to illustrate something from this time to this time, and then I’m going to focus on a rug, then maybe I’ll do something else. Then I’ll take a break. Taking a break is great for your creative process. 

Have your personal illustration and rug design skills benefited your branding work at loyalkaspar? Does this unique perspective help you approach client work differently?

I love the juxtaposition of the digital and the tangible. Even though my illustrations and rug designs start on a digital screen, they always end up as a tactile product, whether as art prints of my illustrations or as physical textured rugs. Both these things have taught me how to take my digital ideas and make a product that will exist in the real world. 

I tend to follow the same thought process when I’m designing for these bigger clients at loyalkaspar. It doesn’t stop at logo design, and creating a meaningful visual language on a screen. I push the envelope and think about how these branded elements are going to exist in real practice, be it print media, billboards, posters, or something as simple as a post on Instagram.

Juggling between illustration and rug design has taught me to multitask as well. I’ve always liked to be busy— if I’m not illustrating, I’m spooling yarn. If not that, I’m thinking of new designs that can be turned into a collection. As a senior designer at an agency like loyalkaspar, I need to be able to contribute to different projects and switch gears from one to another. Handling multiple ventures on the side has definitely prepared me with that adaptability.

What does your branding work at loyalkaspar offer you as an outlet that your personal art practice doesn’t? 

When I’m creating illustrations or rug designs, they tend to be for myself, with the world as my oyster. I can pull inspiration from anywhere: a wildflower that I see on the sidewalk on my way to work, or even my childhood memories. 

When I work for a client at loyalkaspar, it’s a much bigger challenge; not only because I’m designing something for someone else, but because I’m taking into consideration the guidelines that they have provided, and a certain expectation that they may have. It pushes me outside of my comfort zone, which is what I enjoy the most. 

I love to learn and adapt, finding common insights and creating design systems that work in favor of the brand. Working under major clients’ briefs has helped me grow personally on an artistic level; I’ve started to see the world from a different eye. I used to only draw small everyday objects as my subjects, but this has snowballed into bigger landscapes. Even my rug designs started really simple, but are now becoming more artistic and sculptural. That drive to expand my skills has definitely come from working on these big branding projects. 

With so much going on for you artistically both personally and professionally, what’s next for you?

I’m just trying to expand this rug idea. We’ve been making rugs for a while now, and have made a lot of smaller and medium-sized rugs, but I want to expand on that and make it into a more premium brand where we’re making art, but with yarn. Taking an idea that I have as a drawing, but making it with tufting, so that people can really experience it with touch. A rug doesn’t have to be on the floor!