A Kochi-based Swiss designer makes rugs that challenge the stereotypical portrayal of women


Vanessa Meister Varma’s Statement Rug Features Women of Diverse Ethnicities and Physical Attributes

Vanessa Meister Varma’s Statement Rug Features Women of Diverse Ethnicities and Physical Attributes

During the first months of confinement, Vanessa Meister Varma painted nearly 100 portraits of women. They were diverse – with different hairstyles, skin types, nose shapes, with and without makeup. The Kochi-based Swiss designer and creative consultant says the project was an exploration of female identity. “I’m a woman who works with visuals and found myself thinking about ways to change the way women are portrayed in mainstream media,” she says.

Vanessa used 16 of her portraits to design a rug for Neytt, a home furnishings brand from Cherthala-based company Extraweave. “When we think of rugs, the usual images that come to mind are geometric and abstract patterns. But I wanted mine to be figurative, to have a message, to tell a story,” Vanessa explains. When she discussed the idea with Neytt’s team, they shared her enthusiasm.

Beyond functionality

The 5′ x 8′ rug called the “Women Power” rug is a brightly colored mosaic of women’s faces, combining 3D elements, embroidery and even jewels. Beyond functionality, it’s perfect as a statement wall piece. The rug was a big hit when it was exhibited at Fiere India, an exhibition showcasing luxury furniture and home decor brands in New Delhi in December 2021. “People were curious and asked a lot of questions. It’s great to see my work start a discussion about important things,” says Vanessa. The company plans to showcase it at the India Design ID showcase in New Delhi in May.

It all started with her son’s storybook, Vanessa says. She was struck by the image of a family in the book. The mother was depicted in a salwar kameez with long hair. “I realized I didn’t look like that. I have short hair and actually looked more like the dad in the picture. She began to examine how women were portrayed in the public domain.

Beyond traditional concepts

Vanessa’s women go beyond traditional concepts of beauty. They do not conform to stereotypical gender norms. One even sports a mustache, possibly a graphic representation of a financially independent woman, or at least one who does what she wants, Vanessa says.

Some of them are close family members, some are public figures or women she has seen, others are women she doesn’t know but would like to get to know better. “I constantly asked myself questions about these women, their experiences, their personalities. I was thinking about my own experiences in the process,” Vanessa explains. “I wanted to represent a wider range of women.”

Play cards

As an extension of the project, Vanessa made a deck of playing cards with these images. While one side of the card features women’s faces, the other side contains a word. “There are no set rules of the game. You could invent your own game,” she says. Beyond obvious love, money and work, Vanessa includes a more complex repertoire with words such as body, pleasure, death, freedom, gender, skill, community, independence and divorce to name a few. Even some Kerala-specific ones like ‘thoran’ and ‘nighty’.” These cards could spark some serious self-exploration or be used for a fun game with friends,” she says. The 91-card pack can be purchased on her Instagram handle.

Vanessa started working on another rug, in black and white, also for Neytt. Her portraits of women, she says, are just beginning.

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