Giving a new lease of life: a unique Auroville unit restores old and abandoned furniture
“They look so pitiful when they come in, but when they leave us, they are so bright, happy and really beautiful!” rhapsodizes Coco . She is referring to the wooden artefacts and furniture that find their way into Aurorachana, a 9-year old business that she and her husband Clemens operate out of their home in Hope. Both diehard entrepreneurs, they have behind them a chequered and colourful trail of attempted and partial successful businesses – a bakery, candle-making unit, fashion tailoring, creating cosmetics, with the last in the series being a fish-farm called Golden Tilapia' [see AVToday, May 1989]. All this within a span of 30 years. While the fashion tailoring unit flourishes, they entered the new venture, that of furniture renovation, by accident. Being an ardent collector of antiques (her home feels like a curio shop-cum-museum), she was once approached by a seller of antique Indian figurines. “Then by chance I asked him if he could also bring furniture, and he said that he could. So I gave him all the cash I had with me, just about Rs 5000, and said perhaps that he could get me something with that. And that night I had the strangest of dreams – our entire garden was full of furniture!” The agent came back with three pieces which she then restored, and these were immediately bought by friends. Slowly more pieces were obtained and business grew.” Now their garden indeed spills over with furniture at various stages of completion, and business is going strong.
The furniture that Aurorachana deals with is of the colonial era – English and Pondicherry French, with some of Chettinad style. Made of teak or rosewood, these pieces are bought mainly from South India . Occasionally, unique pieces also come from far corners of the country for restoration in Aurorachna, like an elaborately carved Rajasthani Rice box. “We have our Tamil agents who do the travelling and scouting for us,” she says. “They buy from private homes where much of the old furniture lies forgotten and neglected. Young people want modern stuff and old furniture gets damaged. Since they don't know how to make it nice again, they want to get rid of it.” She also adds that there is a growing trend amongst young urbanites from the major metropolises like Chennai or Bangalore who are beginning to appreciate antiques. “I am always very happy if things stay in Auroville or in India .” She shows a baby's crib stand being made into a garment rack for an Aurovilian. The little cradle is on its way to becoming an end-table.
Success did not come easy. The lowest point in Aurorachana's history immediately followed Sept. 11th, 2001 . She recounts, “No customer showed up, no orders came, and we had no money to buy pieces to do work. Clemens and I even began to think of sending some of our people home because we couldn't afford their wages. At this point, it was not Auroville that stepped in to bail us out, but the local bank. They gave us a 5 lakh rupees (US $ 10,000) overdraft that was a lifesaver!” The money was used to buy a few pieces of furniture and start work again. “And miraculously on the last day of 2001, a customer stopped by and bought some pieces, and business quickly picked up again,” says Coco .
This experience left her feeling poorly supported by Auroville. So how can Auroville be supportive? Sharing is the obvious answer according to Coco ; sharing work and resources in hard times, in addition to financial help from Auroville. “At present,” she explains, “if I need help, I go to friends; I do not expect anything from Auroville.” What does she think of the 1 crore rupee emergency standby fund for businesses that Ulli is proposing? “That would be fantastic! For us, a 5 to 10 lakh Rs credit line (US $ 11,500-23,000) would make us more efficient.” In a business where expenses – price of pieces, raw material costs, worker wages, packing and mailing charges – are incurred well in advance before payment is realized, it is not uncommon to find oneself short of funds. “There are times when rare pieces come for sale but we don't have the money,” says Coco . “Without cash in hand, the pieces get quickly sold to the next buyer. And then it is gone for ever!” Competition in the antique furniture market is stiff. “In the past, we were one of the few in this business, but now there are at least fifty or more shops in this area alone.” Coco uses their presence to her advantage. For some of her regular customers, she assembles an assortment of pieces from other shops besides her own. “This gives them the freedom to not feel obliged to buy only from us,” she adds.
Aurorachana runs with a team of thirty – skilled carpenters and apprentices who are working their way up. Apart from Coco and Clemens, there are no other Aurovilians in the unit. “We tried, but our hours did not suit many. We work late; sometimes packing containers in the middle of the night from 2.30 am till 7 am . Most Aurovilians want regular hours. And this for us is almost impossible. There is no free day, not even Sunday, when we have the most visitors stopping on their way from Matrimandir.” She also describes herself and Clemens as ‘workaholics' an attitude that has been immensely useful in running the business. But more than that, Coco believes that furniture is her true calling. Having grown up in Germany with antique furniture, she had always dreamed of owning a furniture shop. “And when I first came to Pondy, I remember a very old French lady. Her name was Madame Pierre and she sold beautiful furniture. Most early Aurovilians bought their first pieces from her. I remember her sitting in the middle of all her wonderful furniture and I wanted to end up like that – and I guess I have!”