Studio Kohl

We caught up with the lovely Mira Felicia Malhotra of Studio Koh based in Mumbai. Mira talked to us all about how she started out in publishing - which led to her love for self-publishing, how she came up with her studio name, and how she developed her colourful style by taking inspiration from some of her favourite creatives!  

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I studied both fine art (applied arts) with a specialisation in illustration and graphic design at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Most of my jobs prior to setting up my own studio were in publishing and I guess it’s not a coincidence that I have such a massive interest in self-publishing. My first ever job as an intern was in DNA newspaper, and then I had a few short stints at advertising agencies and event companies and then I worked in Seventeen magazine, India. After that I worked in a small advertising agency where we worked with hospitality clients primarily and last of all, before I went independent I worked for  Sony Music India where I worked on a lot of indie music titles. While I worked there I also freelanced for other departments, so I ended up working on every genre of music there was.

Whats the worst design job you’ve ever had and how does that make you a better designer?

I had this one job which I actually made a beautiful logo for and a great design system (pats self on back) and it’s still one of my favourite works in my folio. However I wasn’t very clear with terms and conditions with the client and so while it was a simple job for me to do, it took 2 long years, the client only responded on weekends and after the two years of making subtle tweaks here and there, when I thought we had made a final logo, the client actually gave the logo to someone else who edited in ways I thought were incorrect. I learned something: you can be talented and creative and you might think that’s enough for people to value your work and your time, but actually nothing gets done unless you set boundaries in your contract. I’m lucky I got paid.

How did you name your practice and what does the name represent to you?

I toyed with multiple names including Etniq (no idea why) and then I realised it wasn’t cutting ice with anyone. I of all people know brands matter, and so do brand names, but the difference in renaming myself was phenomenal. There was such a different reaction and response from people. It looked legitimate – which it had always been! My brief to myself was to choose a name that felt feminine yet unisex, and be based loosely on a very distinctly Indian object or custom! Kohl to me felt feminine but it is worn by both sexes, and while kajal was my first thought, kohl is a more Arabian word and I was raised in Saudi Arabia so Kohl it was. It also made sense because it directly brought in the visual aspect of communication and the beautifying, functional nature of kohl. We feel as a studio we take equal effort for both the form and function.

I learned something: you can be talented and creative and you might think that's enough for people to value your work and your time, but actually nothing gets done unless you set boundaries in your contract.

How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others?

I feel like it’s still in flux, I’d like a LOT more growth still in that regard. I think while to many people it happens naturally, for me it’s a mix of both. I had often just done stuff randomly, got inspired from some reference and did more exploration, focusing more on working on my weaknesses but recently I’ve been trying to see whose work really matters to me and what my strengths are and how I can combine that, and also what my unique voice is. I plan to do more artwork which features animals, women, goth and Indian culture and music. To develop your own style more consistently I’d advise that young illustrators of course draw a lot, and draw consciously. Write down what you like about your own work, whether it’s aesthetic or theme or concept, anything you see reoccurring in your work. Drawing a lot helps you see the patterns faster. Apart from that write down what you like in other people’s work you admire and see of you can see what patterns emerge there. What happens then is you may see things you want to achieve which you aren’t good at yet, and may want to hone in on it, and then you may see things you already like that you want to keep. For example I like bright pop colour palettes, flat colours, big forms, what I call “picture plane” work, a lot of movement, themes on gender, themes on animals, highly stylised work based on unique and interesting shapes that do not need to feel realistic.

Whats on the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months?

I really want to take my illustration work to the next level. Bigger scale work, more odd and weird work and perhaps putting it even in a space where it can be fine art– though my work would probably be low brow anyway 😉

I also want to open up to employing people remotely on multiple projects where I can be more of a director and make sure some pretty cool ideas I’m.excited about can be made possible.

What do you think the design community could do more to give back?

I really think that design, at least in india is not adequately understood by people who commission it. It would be great if we had a critical eye here on the work we do but it’s not very welcomed to self critique here, its considered negative or gossipy. If we don’t critique and evaluate stuff we are going to retard our own rate of improving, and communicate less our efficacy or the principles with which we judge efficacy to people who commission our work.

I think designers should also be more focused on and involved with social change from a rights based perspective, and be interested in making amazing work for issues the world is ignoring, and starting a dialogue rather than just creating a lot of commercial waste.

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