Ekta Doctor may have changed both location and career but she's cleverly held on to her visual references over the last decade. From working at an ad agency in Mumbai to helming the Vadodara-based glass studio, Wonky Works, she's always been inspired by shapes and colors.
We caught up with her to discuss what it takes to run a business and keep your contemporary edge:
How did Wonky Works come to be?
I went to the UK for a year to study glass. That was my aim and when I saw that included blown glass and stained glass, all different techniques. And when I came back to India, I wanted to start my own studio. So the first year or so I was focused primarily on the material glass and I was just making these thin is I am. So it was more single pieces and artistic pieces out of glass in the techniques that I had learned. It was a little difficult to get into it because it becomes an art from so as soon as it becomes an art form, you are expected to do art gallery rounds.
So you started with art installations, before you began creating products for sale?
Yeah. So I was trying that and in the meantime I started melting bottles. You need certain specialized equipment for this and I had a furnace available and I had time. I was trying to figure out how to sell all the glass. So I just started melting bottles and I just started working on how to bend them and make them into different things.
I started off by wanting to make something functional because you can take waste glass and make it into art, but it made more sense to make it into a product someone can actually use. That's how I got into upcycling. In a way, it changed the direction of my life.
So you work with glass waste?
Yes. But I also started looking at waste in general, and I realized how much I was just throwing away without even knowing what was happening to it. So while I was working with glass waste, I was also looking into how the garbage is disposed of and what happens to it and whether it's being recycled or upcycled. I was actually quite appalled at what we're doing to the earth.
So obviously I started looking at waste glass, but I also looked into all kinds of waste including plastic and metal, and the disposal of all these things. Once that realization came to me, there wasn't any looking back. I made sure that we were going in a sustainable direction.
Individually as well, I started leading a low impact lifestyle - it's been a little over six years. I don't use single-use plastic. There are, of course, some instances where you can’t help it - like when you are travelling, it's more difficult. But I try to avoid it as much as possible. I even eat a vegan diet now, for ethical and environmental reasons.
Where do you get the glass from - the neighborhood, or as excess from companies?
Vadodara is a pretty small city. A lot of people know that Wonky Works uses waste glass, so they'll come and drop off the bottles. Gujarat is a dry state, so most people don't want them lying around, which is something that actually works in our favor. Sometimes people will call to let us know they have extra, and we'll go pick it up. Most people have met us at the studio or know of us through someone. Because we're well known, people know we're not going to misuse it and that at least what they're giving away is not getting refilled with illegal booze. Most of our bottles come to us this way.
And what about the rest?
We've been associated with the local scrap guys and if they have anything interesting, they contact us. They get all kinds of glass: window glass, medical beakers, booze bottles, all kinds of stuff. Although we accept all kinds of glass, not all of can be used for products. Because we sell online, there needs to be consistency. So if I get a lot of clear bottles, there will be only ten or fifteen clear bottles which I can actually use.
We have little lockets and vases, and we create those from medical waste. But hospitals have very strict rules for disposal so it needs to go through an entire process before we can use any.
That's innovative. What is the timeline from when you get the bottles to when it hits shelves?
About three days. If I got a bottle today, it would take a day to wash, a day in the furnace and a day to pack. If it's a rush order, we can do it faster. But we'll create on average six a day.
We also create more interesting, one-off pieces which are on display in our studio. But we can't list those online because we can't recreate them.
Could you tell us more about your team?
We are an all-woman team. I started Wonky Works in 2010, but it's only during the last few years that the work has picked up. There are six of us and the work is divided.
Shilpa is in charge of the furnace, Usha is in charge of washing the bottles and making the jewelry, Gayatri is in charge of packing, Megha would is in charge of processing the orders and Vijaybhai is in charge of the social media. So the work is pretty much divided, but everybody also does everything, because we're a small company.
Is that how you'd describe the company culture?
Yes, because I think that's the way a company like this should be. Rather than a job where you do your bit and leave.
Every Friday we have an open studio where people can just come in and meet other people. We run a thrift shop where you can exchange books for free or buy them for a nominal amount. You could buy novelty items like upcycled kettles which we've made into planters. make them into planters. We always have free tea and coffee for whoever comes on a Friday. But come to think of it, we should actually begin giving tea and coffee on other days too. We do have a lot of fun at work, unless there's a bulk order - that's when it becomes a bit more stressful.
We make sure our schedules are a clear on that day, as far as possible, so we have time to talk to people. If the furnace is being loaded, people can come and see that and if Usha is making the jewelry, they can try their hand at it if they want. We're also stocking some clothes now. We usually have 20 or 30 items, which people can exchange or buy for around ₹100. The idea is to build a community that wants to exchange or reuse things, rather than throwing them away or buying new things.
We are trying to cultivate a community that understand the reduce, reuse, recycle, re-purpose philosophy. There are a lot of people, more than I thought, who have been interested.
And that's how the word gets out?
Exactly. So one person will come over, and the next Friday they'd get a few friends, then the other Friday they’d get a few family members.
Are there other activities the team participates in together?
We've also started working on a little organic farming project. One day a week we'll go there and plant and grow things which we can eat. The goal is, hopefully by next year, we can grow enough to sustain a cafe at the studio - a sort of small-scale farm to table experience. I think it would be a good thing to introduce in Vadodara.
Do you think there a wider market for glass items?
The first hurdle for us is that people are not very aware of glass making. Everyone knows what ceramics are, but other than people who went to design school or maybe people in the big cities, we've found that people don't really know about glass work.
A lot of times, when potential customers see our products online, they think it's plastic because they don't understand that how we make and bend glass. We used to have this issue at flea markets especially, where until a person touched and held a product, they wouldn't think that it was made of glass.
Do you work with materials other than glass?
Absolutely. Even though we only sell glass works online, we work with a lot of different scrap material. But they end up being unique pieces that are only available in our studio.
How do you let people know if you've got something interesting in stock?
Honestly, without social media marketing, there are no sales. Only about 10% of the business is from walk-in customers, because Vadodara is a small place. Maybe if it was Bombay or Kolkata or Bangalore, it would be different, because you have tourists and other visitors who will help you reach your targets.
Our store has been online for the last five years or so, and we use Instagram as our main platform. We have to advertise, and we have an allocated monthly budget for Instagram ads.
Are there any particular troubles you face as a business owner?
Pricing. I wouldn't say our products are cheap. It starts with the equipment which is expensive. There are so many artisanal practices in India like wood or ceramics which don't require a huge start-up cost or specialized equipment, you just need skill. Our products are expensive because we handcraft them and we make sure they are well-designed. If there is a mishap and something breaks, we will replace it.
I think once the products are delivered, people understand the price.
Do you have any practical advice for how to start a company?
Wonky Works is a sole proprietorship. It started with just me and it has grown organically since then.
The legal process is quite simple too. You just need a pan card and a bank account. These days there are websites that will take care of all of it for you. I try and invest in a different thing every year. For example, one year you'd invest in a copyright, one year you'd invest in an import-export licence, etc.
But largely, it's just hard work. You're working long hours, but there's no bureaucracy and it's easy if you're passionate.
If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?
Either farming full-time or backpacking.
Those are two very different answers! One requires you to always be in one place, and one requires you to never be in one place.
I think right now I'm at a threshold, where I need to decide what I want to do next. I love traveling and just thinking about the future and the possibilities, but I also realize the importance of growing my own food and being present for each and every step. I think I've already made the decision, because I know what's best for me and for the earth.
Images by Wonky Works.