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"I define my style as basically reducing an element to its most basic form without losing its essence." - Shweta Malhotra

Looking through graphic artist Shweta Malhotra’s work is like being deep down in a sea of pastel colours and serene compositions. Well-known for her fashion illustrations, Shweta’s ‘minimal, bold and graphic’ style has now become her signature.

After studying Applied Arts from Sophia Polytechnic, she worked in advertising agencies like McCann Erickson, Contract Advertising and Ogilvy. A short stint at Fabrica (Benetton’s Visual Arts Research Centre in Italy) in 2008 ended up being a huge turning point for her career. She swiftly jumped from advertising to graphic design and worked with firms like Grandmother India and Rediffusion Y&R Design. She currently works independently in Mumbai.

Payal Khandelwal speaks to Shweta about her signature style, cities, travel, and personal projects, among other things. Edited excerpts:

Shweta Malhotra

How was the Fabrica experience?

I applied for the scholarship in 2005 when I was 25 years old. Since I got through the first two rounds, I was invited there for two weeks for a trial period. Overall, my experience there was very eye-opening as I met and interacted with people from all over the world. The kind of work and projects I did there was really inspiring too – I did one ad for Colors magazine and worked on a poster campaign for WHO. I was so inspired when I came back. It turned out to be a turning point in my career and I switched from advertising to graphic design.

Could you tell us more about the switch?

I was working at Ogilvy at that time and was getting a bit frustrated with advertising and was questioning the work I was doing. And when I got to do amazing design and craft led work at Fabrica, I realised that was the direction I wanted to take. I quit my job and joined Grandmother, a design agency.

Did you have any artistic influences while you were growing up?

While growing up, art was just a hobby for me. I used to doodle in school and take part in various art competitions. Though I did not have any influence from my family, I knew I wanted to pursue art eventually. When it finally came to taking a decision, I chose to study Commercial Arts at Sophia Polytechnic as there weren’t too many options back then.

You worked with a couple of design studios, and then you decided to go on your own. Did you think you were taking a big risk?

When I decided to quit, there were not many good design studios in India, and I had a lot of experience by then. So, I finally started working independently in Mumbai, and it was working out okay. Then I got married and moved to Delhi where it took me time to get some grounding.

However, I feel like Delhi really helped me creatively. Being a part of the creative community (the art, culture, music and general creative scene is very strong there), I felt constantly inspired. Delhi was where I really established myself as an independent designer.

Did the city itself inspire you as well?

It did, in terms of culture. There was always a lot going on and everyone was following their passion, working on collaborations, and I was lucky to be in and around that community. Delhi was really great for me. Initially, I started off with passion projects which then became my entry point to commercial work. I lived and worked in Delhi for about five years.

And how was the experience of moving back to Mumbai?

Not that great (laughs). I don’t feel the sense of community here in the creative field, the way it is in Delhi.

A lot of your work is fashion-centric. What is the background of this deep interest in fashion?

It comes to me quite naturally. It started out through my personal project ‘Something Cool Everyday’ where I created a piece of artwork every day for 365 days. At that time, the Lakme Fashion Week was going on and I ended up doing a series around it which was spotted by someone and eventually got me featured in Grazia magazine. And then I got a project commissioned by Elle for the next fashion week. It just rolled on from there.

Illustrated series for fashion label Lovebirds' Resort '17 collection.

Cover Art for Grazia India's 8th anniversary issue

A graphic art piece created for an India themed exhibition 'Faith', at the Lokal Gallery in Helsinki.

"I am a little particular about where I work. I definitely can’t work out of home. The last studio I was working out of was this old Bandra bungalow with a garden, so it was a really nice, charming place. The space I am working out of needs to have a certain vibe."

You have this very minimal, bold colour signature style. You have mentioned on your website that it is a reaction to the whole Indian, maximalist visual language thing. How did you develop this style?

While I was working on ‘Something Cool Everyday’, I experimented with this style. Also, I didn't really illustrate before that, and even now, I don't call myself an illustrator. I call myself a graphic artist.

After 4-5 years, it started coming to me naturally. From my wardrobe to the things I buy in my house - they all have a very similar aesthetic. It’s very innate and comes out in my work in terms of colours and minimalism.

From that time till now, how has it evolved?

I feel like it is evolving with every project. I have established a colour palette now which includes pastel colours and is more refined. I define my style as basically reducing an element to its most basic form without losing its essence. And it is very geometry-based. I mean it keeps evolving but that is where I am at now - trying to make it more minimal but keeping its essentials.

When a client comes to you and wants something similar to your previous work, do you feel excited that you have developed a signature style or does it bother you a bit?

I think I am fine with it because this is the kind of work I like to do. But then again, I am also a designer, so when I am doing branding and communication work, I work as per the brief and target audience. In terms of the illustration work though, it works out great because now I have a style and people come to me specifically for that. And I guess that’s also what sets it apart from everything else out there.

While doing commercial work, how do you maintain the balance between creative freedom and being bound by a brief?

I think with some projects, you just get lucky with the person you are working with. For example, for Limón, Aradhana Anand (founder) and I were on the same wavelength and ended up doing such great work together. I just feel like it depends on the project and the person that you are working with. I now make it a point to ensure right from the start that we are on the same wavelength so that the best work comes out of the collaboration.

Could you tell us more about the Limón project where you also collaborated on furniture apart from branding?

I basically helped start the brand. I did the branding and communication, and then I was working with them on and off. For their next collection post the launch, Aradhana suggested that we collaborate. And that is how I ended up designing textiles for the furniture she designed. Screen printing on textiles was something I hadn't done before so it was a super fun experience to see your designs come to life.

Collaboration with Limón

Talking about travel, where did you travel to last?

I went to Japan which was an explosion for all my senses. It is entirely different from anything else I have seen. Even before I left, I knew I was going to another planet of sorts. It was inspiring in every way, from the streets to the food to the art to the people.

It was also interesting because of the language barrier which made it a whole other experience. And art and design were like next level. My favourite place was Naoshima Island which is an art island where most of the architecture is by Tadao Ando who is one of my favourite architects. The whole space has this meditative feel to it, which is the way he has designed it. All the installations are site-specific or rather all the artworks and the space were planned and built together. Tadao Ando and James Turrell have built some serious magic together, amongst other amazing artists.

I am actually doing a series of posters inspired from the high points of this trip. I am just so much in love with Japan.

Could you tell us a bit about your studio where you work out of?

Ever since I moved back to Bombay two years back, I have been sharing studio spaces with friends. It has worked out well for me so far as I travel quite often, which I love. And I try to work while I travel too.

Do you see yourself as someone who can work out of anywhere?

I am a little particular about where I work. I definitely can’t work out of home. The last studio I was working out of was this old Bandra bungalow with a garden, so it was a really nice, charming place. The space I am working out of needs to have a certain vibe. In Delhi too, we had this lovely studio which was shared by various creative ventures including Safomasi.

And I have not completely cracked the whole ‘working while travelling’ thing yet, but I do carry my laptop wherever I go.

Identity design for Nicobar

'The Shape of things to come', an illustration series for Architectural Digest Magazine

Personal illustration work

Shweta’s images are by Shradha Chopra and Rachna Chopra © FormaLife unless mentioned otherwise. Shweta’s artworks have been used with her permission.