Mira Malhotra recalls journey into the world of design, and overcoming resistance to build a business she believes in, for the community she loves.
I am always inspired by women who never dilute their opinions to sound “likable” to the world and unapologetically put out their authentic selves out there. I have admired the visual artist Mira Malhotra (founder of Studio Kohl), for months from afar. She has some strong ideas on her work process and the way she approaches her industry. One of my favorite aspects of Mira’s work is how she embraces the word around her and how she recreates it in her own context.
Your illustrations are quirky, witty and your work seems to draws inspiration from the various aspects of Indian life. How would you describe your style?
I like bright colors but with a slightly offbeat vibe which is what most people notice first about my work. But the other thing I put into my work which doesn’t seem so obvious is dynamism and movement. There’s a lot of stuff going on in terms of line, which is very visceral. I like having a sense of humour embedded in the work, and someone whose work I really admire in that regard is an Illustrator called Ray Fenwick. I like to observe things I find around me: Indian folk arts, the bazaar, women’s domestic life, these endlessly inspire me, and now I’ve branched out into work in the gender and sexuality space as well. I’d say my style is still very much evolving, as it can only move forward when I’m not engaged in commercial work, and I do not get that much time for personal work as I’d like.
How did your style evolve from two cultures you grew up in – one that is Indian and the western design elements we are exposed to.
We are always exposed to western work and I think that’s great. They have a stronger contemporary visual culture and more people understand visual work there. Even before the Behances or Dribbbles of the world, I was exposed to a lot of packaging on the shelves of supermarkets in middle East, Riyadh to be exact, where I grew up. I still find packaging the easiest thing to design. However, when I search for inspiration I need to look around me and find things that exist in my own context, in the physical world, ideas in my own head- that’s where the Indianness comes from. My work I hope, has evolved from imitating the prevalent graphic arts I could see around me to now being more about personal ideas or a personal approach, and conveying emotion.
What are the key observations about creating art for social cause/change?
Many people’s approaches are different in this regard. I know that in my collective (Kadak collective) each of them look at it in varying ways. My own I feel is a cross between graphic design, type, and illustration. An abstract way of representing ideas, as I am fond of symbolism. At the same time, I like work that emotes, has character, and makes you really feel something, and I feel that is what really affects people behaviourally when they can empathise and feel for the cause. Lastly, there’s a lot of work out there that is created for social change actors already in the know, but I feel it’s still very important for artists to address a larger audience so that the message goes out to the masses rather than stays within one group of people.
This is why I love memes because they are simple, non-threatening but still make people think. In short, I am more focused on creating accessible work.
What do you feel when you stare at a blank page before your art take shape on the whiteness of the sheet?
That is truly terrifying. I try to not have that happen because my mind mirrors the paper, I blank out. I like the concept or idea to inform me first. Once one has a concept or idea the white paper isn’t so daunting and doesn’t have the time to question (or sometimes mock!) you too much. Either I’m randomly doodling without any purpose to create finished work, or I have a bunch of thoughts I’m trying to string together when I approach the paper but I can see the end in mind. I am not the kind of person who keeps finished drawings from life, or otherwise, in a sketchbook, carefully drawn with no immediate use for them.
If someone issues a search warrant through your tools and sketchbooks, what are they likely to stumble into?
As I mentioned before, I do not keep formal sketchbooks. I know some artists have a disciplined practice of drawing every day and their sketchbooks are dated chronologically but so far I’m terrible with that. Instead, I use 3-4 different sketchbooks, loose papers (the backs of print outs) and I draw on them when I need to. Most often you can’t tell what the drawings are, and if you can they are never from life, I have no fascination with realism. I appear quite scatterbrained, and that is pretty accurate. As for tools, I am particularly drawn to 0.5 2B mechanical pencils, coloured Uniball pens, posca pens, my Wacom Intuos, Nikon DSLR (50mm lens is my fav) and a camera phone.
Tell us more about Studio Kohl.
Studio Kohl is my boutique design practice that started a couple of years ago. I do branding, packaging, print and a lot of self-initiated work under the studio and it’s growing with the addition of new, like-minded people. We do some work for gender and the mental health space as well. While the work is primarily graphic design there is a strong emphasis and basis in image-making practices, from illustration to photography. I try to come up with unique solutions for clients hence I choose them carefully.
In the world where women never take that enough space with their thoughts and opinions, it is inspiring to know there are women like Mira who speak their minds candidly.
Check out her work here
Today is World Cat Day. One of my favourite kitty characteristics is how they posses the subtle art of not giving a fuck. It’s their bona-fide non-conformist aura that makes them so dear to writers and artists in general.
“One of the excellent features of the cat – that when you are down, really down – the cat looks at you and is able to encrypt something. How they usually do that that’s a lesson of perseverance against all difficulties and troubles.” November 15, 1985 – Bukowski on Cats
Here are some lovely women writers with their cats
Rita Mae Brown
I love how all the great adventures and collaborations always start with one person saying “Why don’t we <insert a ridiculous idea here> ? and the other one going “Why Not?”
So when Howard Gossage (a nonconformist advertising genius famously known as The Socrates of San Francisco) sat with the Publisher of Scientific American in a New York Restaurant to explore some new ways to expand the magazine’s reach, he suggested having a paper plane competition for the magazine. The publishers agreed. Details aside, the 1st International Paper Airplane contest was signed off. The contest received 12,000 entries within six weeks of placing ads in local newspapers asking people to join the competition.
The results from the contest were compiled into this book – The Great International Paper Airplane Book. It also featured the winning entries with DIY instructions.
The book explains how paper airplanes are quite different with paper darts. Darts do not have any personality – they fly straight and that’s it.
“The paper airplane is a very different affair. It is, more accurately, a paper glider. You do not throw it. You let it go or push it very slightly; and the weight head carries it forward, gracefully and gently, like a seagull coming to rest upon the deck of a ship. A little while ago it was a sheet of notepaper, but now it glides like the fairest of white birds. Yet a perfect flight requires very often an infinitude of patience, a folding and refolding, a shaping and reshaping with the scissors.”
Jerry Mander, George Dippel and Howard Gossage, authors of the book write, “In our experience, we have found that the biggest thinkers we have dealt with are the ones most willing to support such “frivolous”projects”
It’s important to explore our ability to go astray and come up with some really frivolous ideas.
St-Paul de Vence is such an amazing place with incredible art, antique shops, charming boutiques at every turn. I was really amazed by the sheer number of galleries in the city, and the fact that it was home to artists that I love – Chagall, Matisse, Picasso. While this too beautiful-to-true place left me so overwhelmed what stayed with me was a beautiful nest I saw floating in isolation, hidden away below the ramparts. Apart from the creative artistry behind the project, there was a kind of comforting aspect to it. If I was not in South of France I wonder if I would ever come across this beautiful project. I really want these wonderful sculptures and the artist behind it to be known.
Kim Cao uses weaved bamboos as the only material to make his floating nests. The manner they support and intersect to form natural shapes inspired him to create this artistic vision of the perfect society. “The bamboos are men, relying on each other to shelter something bigger, something more beautiful, some unspeakable, and invisible mystery, floating on the winds. A testimony to the grace and solidarity that we humans can show.” The beautiful thing about such art is that it does not always answer the problems faced by the society but makes us ask the right questions.
Biases. We all have them.
We deal with them, we silence them, but there’s no denying how much they affect our creative judgment.
Our creative journey is always filled with highs and lows — days when we feel the flow; someday nothing inspires us. Some days we hate everything around us and there are some days when everything around us inspires us.
We have bundles of stuff we go through each day – some intrigues and some inspires. Biases have the power to shape our judgment, make us see things in a new light, and can set the tone for our entire line of work.
There is a Wikipedia page for biases. Attentional bias, lesser-is-better bias, pro-innovation bias, belief bias, choice-supportive bias, confirmation bias, curse of knowledge bias, hindsight bias, illusion of control bias omission bias, optimism bias, pessimism bias, reactive devaluation bias, selective perception bias, survivorship bias, triviality bias, actor-observer bias, group attribution error, and projection bias.
Expressing a creative concept on a blank paper calls forth a mysterious meeting point for all our deep-rooted biases. Our biases – born from our constant aim for self-actualization remind us of our past while we try to create something new in the premise of something unknown and new.
These biases dismiss the distinctively new idea from being birthed or shaped on the blank page. A self-serving bias which is basically “The tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures” often stops us from creating more ideas that we fear might fail.
Our past shores up all the experiences and validates a new idea against various standards it has set. The standards of perfection, of being safe, of being culturally/socially right, of seeing the idea through its completion, of being the first of its kind.
History sets the context for the present. Unfortunately it also sets context to ideas that we work on and those that we don’t. While our creativity and art belong to the future, our past is already setting context to it.
Blank paper is where this confluence lies.
A number of mental processes of retrieval, association, synthesis, transformation, analogical transfer go into a creative process. Retrieval of what we have seen, earned, learned. Not that we can dismiss it. But we can reorient our ideas to see that they stand to be real and minus the flavors of our mind’s biases.