From Mumbai, India, where they met as students, to their home today in America's heartland, husband-and-wife team Sanjay and Jigna Jani have carried with them a core belief that inspiring objects all come from the same creative place, be it a building, handbag, painting or pot. At their architecture firm and gallery akar (Sanskrit for “forms and shapes”), they've put that philosophy into practice, offering a wide range of art and design with a specialty in ceramics, such as Jenny Mendes’s Friend Party and Joy Brown's Recliner with Head in Hand, which they regard as "the closest relative to architecture in art."
You take a broad, integrated view of art, craft, design, sculpture, function, handmade and machine-made. How has that translated into a business and marketing approach?
SJ: Most galleries tend to put handmade and man-made in a separate basket, so to speak. We are basically architects, and we think architects, ceramists and designers all strive for the perfect balance between form and function, to design something people fall in love with. There are different approaches and materials, but the goal is always the same-to get pleasure out of an object when you use it.
JJ: We opened the gallery in 1997, and from the very beginning that's how it was designed.
SJ: The architecture business and the gallery grew together, and fed each other clientele. We do high-end custom residential architecture, and clients always blamed us for having too many shelves. I always said, “I know a place where you can get things to fill them with.”
You have a very interactive website, with lots of links. You Facebook, you Tweet...
SJ: It’s the only way to do things nowadays, I think. We were pretty much the first ceramics gallery [to expand] into a web gallery platform. I mean, we’re in Iowa City, population 65,000. Once we knew the kind of gallery we wanted, with ceramics, we knew we could not survive in a small town without a Web presence. We designed our own site. There’s been a lot of research and learning, things that took us years to figure out. When we first started, 10 or 11 years ago, I used to talk with artists and say, “I’m going to put work on the Internet,” and they’d say, “Really? You think you can sell pots on the Web? Are you sure?”
What's the nature of your collaboration?
JJ: I take on most of the ceramic-related business. Most of the time he's the one who comes up with the crazy idea, and I help him make it real and practical.
SJ: Jigna is a lot better than me when it comes to organizing, definitely. I’m good at big dreams.Every year we do a yunomi [Japanese teacup] invitational, an online-only sale. That’s the craziest thing we ever thought up, to deal with 200 artists and a thousand pots. We love the yunomi; it's like the smallest form that artists can pour their style into, a simple, everyday form but very difficult to do. But that show is so ambitious! You just have to be in happy denial all the time to run a gallery like this.