Design talks with Mira Malhotra

Mira Malhotra recalls journey into the world of design, and overcoming resistance to build a business she believes in, for the community she loves.

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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. 

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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. 

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diwali15_4 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. 

3e6dbb41576657-57ab69b43ba28In 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