Studio Kohl is a Mumbai-based design agency working at the intersection of graphic design, web publishing, and illustration. We spoke with its founder, Mira Malhotra, about South-Asian design traditions and raising awareness of gender issues in India.
Forming her own design studio
I started Studio Kohl as a response to my lack of an image-making practice, as well as past job frustrations. I’ve always straddled two worlds — illustration and graphic design — and I wasn’t finding much work like that here. Clients and the marketplace are slow to understand and appreciate the nuances of the nexus of these two pursuits.
However, there’s an ever-growing number of brands entering the Indian market who want to differentiate themselves from the established ones. This difference is exactly what we bring: a niche yet international approach that still retains a South Asian feel.
Also, since I have a keen interest in gender and mental health, I try to use image-making and design to raise awareness about these issues within a wider audience. Our work with Breakthrough, Oxfam, and Mariwala Health Initiative represents another spectrum of our efforts in which we push for social good.
Additionally, we’re very committed to self-publishing. I’m a huge fan of DIY culture, and we at Studio Kohl are very interested in making quality content in the form of zines.
Studio Kohl is never more than five people at a time. We enjoy working on lifestyle commissions that require a certain aesthetic and plan to launch larger projects of our own initiative soon.
Mira’s approach to design and how Readymag fits in
I’m still figuring out my own design style. Sometimes friends tell me, “Oh that’s so Mira,” but I don’t know quite what that means.
I like drawing a little ‘toony;’ I’m not much for realism. I’m a big fan of cartoons, especially Adult Swim, and designing for music projects, like posters for rock artists. Also, I’m certainly interested in the crafts of India: bright colours, and aesthetics that doesn’t take themselves too seriously. I think that might be reflected in my work.
India has a great tradition of graphic design and illustration overlapping. We have a lot of abstract art, like what you see in old tantric art, and our folk art is not hyperrealistic. I like to think I’m continuing that tradition.
As far as fonts, I love most of what Velvetyne.fr puts out. A recent favourite is Domaine Sans, which we used in the book Shop Lifting Boston.
I started using Readymag almost by accident: a friend recommended it to me simply because he liked the website. I was looking for an “InDesign for the web” at the time, and it was love at first sight. Readymag is design-focused, drag-and-drop-based, and very versatile. Best of all, I’m not dependent on a coder. It has changed my business and my visibility so much!
I love the animation features, the position and fix features — they’re so flexible. But perhaps my favourite feature is anchor link: the “go back” button at the bottom of the page. Small but powerful — a true game-changer.
Being a female designer in India
There are fewer of us, for sure, but working in design as opposed to advertising isn’t quite as bad. The industry is changing gradually to accommodate us and our unique approach.
Recently we did an International Women’s Day ’19 project to raise awareness. Studio Kohl and Bakheda worked in tandem to create a set of stickers for Snapchat India on Women’s Day. We also commissioned other women artists to contribute on topics of women’s friendship and creative expression. This took the form of stickers and filters and was launched nationwide.
I think women artists in India and South Asia understand their position in the social hierarchy and are therefore far more politically aware than their male counterparts. We are currently forming our own networks and we work a lot through referrals and friendships made through social media.