I first encountered the work of Bombay artist Sameer Kulavoor in 2013 when It’s Nice That ran a feature on his beguiling book BLUED. BLUED is a beautifully produced publication hand screenprinted in two colours (black and blue) depicting ubiquitous use of blue tarpaulin in contemporary Indian life. The subject matter, style and execution of this book resonated with me and I quickly clicked through to purchase a copy (and picked up few of his other publications at the same time).
Sameer runs a design and branding agency called Bombay Duck Designs with his sister Zeenat. Browsing through their portfolio I discovered that I’d actually come across their work a few years earlier when I was playing with King Creosote and the Fence Collective at the NH7 Weekender music festival in Pune, India.
I decided to drop Sameer an email saying how much I liked his work. We became Internet-pals and collaborators’ – I contributed some work to an issue of 100% Zine (a great project that Sameer runs with Lokesh Karekar) and Sameer contributed a “video selfie” to a music video accompanying one of my projects Great Circle).
Sameer has a brilliant Instagram feed which he uses like a digital sketchbook. I love looking at his drawings – they’re bold, immediate, full of life and very definitely handmade (Sameer is a firm believer in analogue techniques). He’s a prolific artist with a genuine enthusiasm for his discipline and a clear entrepreneurial flare. All of which makes him a perfect interviewee for my Communication Design students at DJCAD.
A wider perspective
One of the things I’m keen to ask on behalf of my students is how professional artists have managed the transition from formal education to the working world. It turns out that Sameer had been freelancing before he even started at the Sir. J. J. Institute of Applied Arts in Mumbai.
“I started freelancing for college magazines and youth portals before I joined art school. That was early 2000s when the ‘dotcom boom’ had taken over India. Before I decided to join art school I was offered a ‘stable’ job as an illustrator/animator which would pay me as much as someone with a couple of years experience post art school – but they wanted me full-time which meant I couldn’t study if I took it up. I was tempted, but fortunately an art director from the same company told me not to take it up and instead go to art school! That was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given. Art school opened up design / illustration and its possibilities – it gave me a wider perspective about what else I could be doing. Also taught me the importance of having a ‘unique voice’ in your work.”
Through his studies Sameer received lots of offers for freelance work from advertising agencies, TV channels and the local music scene. He quickly built up a portfolio spanning illustrated print ads, album artwork and motion graphics. As his reputation grew, clients would go to Sameer for that “little bit extra” he would add to their brief.
Even at this early stage of his professional career Sameer realised the importance of maintaining self-initiated projects: “All that while I used to aspire to create my own body of work, independent from clients.”
Sameer built up some good connections working for others and when he officially formed Bombay Duck Designs in 2008 he decided to invest some of his “hard-earned” money into his own projects releasing them as books, zines and art prints.
“Initially my personal projects were funded through my commercial work income. When I started self-publishing my projects in 2009, no one else was doing it here. There were fewer outlets to sell and reach out to an audience. There was not much awareness. But over the years, things have changed. We have more design stores and book stores in Bombay now and that means more reach. More online platforms as well. I can now say that my personal projects sustain themselves. It is still not as profitable as commercial work but the situation is much better now.”
Sameer acknowledges that his self-directed projects do inform his commercial work but he thinks about the two strands in different ways. “When I am working on an external brief there are certain expectations that need to be met, conceptually and aesthetically. With my personal work, I have the freedom of putting it out exactly the way I want to – that is immensely satisfying.”
As I already mentioned Sameer regularly collaborates with his sister Zeenat and friend Lokesh with very successful outcomes. For Sameer a good collaboration can only happen with mutual respect, without hierarchy and if each party offers different skills and ideas. “It is about adding value to the end product and knowing that it wouldn’t have been possible to do it alone, you know? It can be a great way to learn new things or unlearn, depending on how you see it.”
Simple and sharp
Sameer explains that his most high profile collaboration to date, the Paul Smith + Ghoda Cycle Project, worked so well because he knew he wouldn’t have been able to create the t-shirt range alone. “Paul Smith brought so much creative expertise and value to the end product – the fabric, the cut of the tees, the tags and the way it was packaged – all top class. There was absolutely no interference from me or from them. We pretty much agreed on everything right from the start. Also the collaboration helped The Ghoda Cycle Project reach a worldwide audience – something that I couldn’t have been able to achieve myself.”
From a Scottish perspective, mostly gleaned from the Internet, it looks like the Indian print scene is flourishing but Sameer isn’t so sure. “Well, there is a lot of print happening in Bombay. But the applications are boring you know? Badly designed pharmaceutical packaging, flyers for shady astrologers or ‘sex doctors’, all using screenprint or litho offset and so on. Lately I have seen designers and artists using these printing techniques to produce interesting things. The ‘social media generation’ needs to understand the beauty of print – it is slow but it is happening. We do have a bunch of ‘go to’ printers in Bombay and they understand what we are doing. They love it when we get good press or awards for a book that they have printed! One of my printers (who helped me with my solo show ‘Please Have a Seat’) has put up newspaper cutouts proudly in his studio of the press articles that were published about ‘Please Have a Seat’ in the newspapers here!”
Above: “Please Have A Seat”
Sameer has mentioned in interviews before that he dislikes labels (such as being described purely as an illustrator) as they can impose limitations. I wondered though if when it comes to making work if he finds limitations can be liberating and I asked him if he ever consciously sets himself limits for projects. “Well I don’t think its a conscious decision. I look at it this way – if I can communicate something using 2 colours, why use more? For example BLUED book. I think restraint in design creates interest. I like keeping things simple and sharp – be it a music video or a flipbook, a zine or an exhibit.”