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Fantasy botanist Priyanka Shah on using nature as a medium for storytelling

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Priyanka Shah is a Mumbai-based art director, set designer and fantasy botanist. Some images on her Instagram handle @pri_ism look like portraits from the aftermath of Alice’s Wonderland tea-party. Pictures of plants at their Sunday best, rich and elegant, idiosyncratic, like characters in a fairy godmother’s vaudevillian play. In her visuals, botanicals have personalities, serving up sides of humour, joy and idiosyncrasies in a way that you’ll never find in a pretty floral setting.

Priyanka trained as a graphic designer at Rachana Sansad College in Mumbai and has a post-graduate degree from London College of Communication. After working as a graphic designer for seven years she ventured into art direction, set design and event design. Recently her work as a botanicals designer has taken off and garnered a lot of attention, thanks to her penchant for unusual combinations. In the last few months this young designer has been working non-stop on brand collaborations, celebrity Diwali parties and editorial work. For beautifulhomes.com’s yearend celebration season, we invited Priyanka to style a Christmas setting and create joy and sensuousness from everyday things and objects, from pumpkins and lotus seeds to cotton balls. And she did it. Before we show you the images, learn about her style and how she began doing what she does. 

When and how did you get started?
I have always worked on branding projects, packaging design, websites, etc. Most of my work was on the computer, and eventually I got fed up. One day at work, while cleaning the table, I 

Portrait of stylist Priyanka Shah

Priyanka Shah's list of clients include names from retail, editorial, and of course, celebrities.

found a rose stem (without the rose) and a frangipani flower. I tied the two together and was joking around that I designed my own flower. This got me thinking that nature has always inspired man-made design, but what if it was the other way around? What if I could design nature instead? And I started a series called Fantasy Botanicals. It was an opportunity to express myself through different sculptures and materials. I started telling stories for brands using botanicals, and it took off. I now art direct and style shoots for brands, do visual merchandising for stores, installations and small events.

How do you categorise your style and designs?
I look at botanicals as a medium of storytelling. The outcome could be anything from a brand campaign to an event setup, embroidery on an outfit to designing functional objects, a frame on the wall to designing a cake. It is more about the approach and the process. As cliche as it sounds, nature is very very inspiring. It is under appreciated. My inspiration comes from the details inherent in nature: the patterns and shapes of leaves, the different ways seeds are packed in a pod, the texture and form of fruits and vegetables from the inside. They’re all so unique.

What is your process of going from idea to fruition?
I have always been very rigid with my process. I like to have a plan for everything and know the direction in which things are headed. But the botanical series taught me to take it as it comes. The process includes foraging botanical elements from all around—on my way to work, parks, travel, etc and then building something with it. I have no control on what I will find. It’s a new game every time I sit to design a plant/sculpture. These finds are then tweaked and treated, to take them out of their original context to unearth a new meaning; slowly building a world of my own fantasy. This applies to my commercial work as well. Depending on the brief given, we first gather basic ideas and elements. As humans, we're conditioned to make meaning of objects instantly. But through deconstruction and juxtaposition of these elements, we strip them off their learned meanings and play with the deep conditionings of our minds. It is all about questioning the existing and uncovering our own natural aesthetic sensibilities.

A lipstick placed among some red fruits and yellow flowers with 'fae' written on it

FAE beauty's vegan lipsticks got the botanicals treatment.

Some interesting projects that have come your way…
One of my favourite projects was for a magazine that wanted me to make my botanicals sculptures with a human in it. I really enjoyed how Jim Sarbh added his own character and eccentricity to the stuff I made. Le Mill, a multi-brand luxury fashion house based in Mumbai has been a really fun client that allows me to experiment with their shoots, visual merchandising and events. We recently designed an event to celebrate the work of a fashion designer called Halpern. We took inspiration from his over-the-top outfits and transformed the store to depict layers of indulgence and rebellion.

What do clients ask for?
I have been very lucky with the kind of clients my work has attracted. They have always given me plenty room to play around, experiment and break the rules. We put animals on the fashion week runway or designed a Christmas layout without red and green and shot lipsticks on fruits and vegetables.

How busy have you become?
This question is as real as it gets. I am blessed with the number of exciting opportunities that are coming my way. I hate saying no to 

anything. I don’t sleep for more than six hours and I work two shifts a day. But the joy I get from working is unmatchable! In the process, I have learnt lessons on discipline, management and efficiency. Our team consists of people from various disciplines, our approach is fresh and we are equipped to take on a variety of projects. 

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