IN Interviews : Manuja Waldia
It’s not everyday you meet a talented 26 year-old creative that has their act together and a savvy business sense that would be any art director's dream come true.
Meet Manuja Waldia: artist, illustrator, and designer extraordinaire. We first discovered Waldia during her talk at Portland's WeMake Conference last year. Keep in mind that we went specifically to see Waldia speak — the rest of the event was a blur of chatter and several rounds of coffee.
But what is most breathtaking is the detail in Waldia's work. The illustrator's portfolio is the embodiment of gorgeous hues, incredible textures, and thoughtful narratives. Each of her pieces draws inspiration from an overabundance of stimuli from old Indian cinema praising a female heroine to haute couture collections from the runways of London and Paris.
We had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Waldia for Sunday tea and biscuits in her chic home studio to discuss her self-initiated search for the perfect uniform, her creative process for a Penguin Classics' brief, and why her mom deserves overdue credit for the best biryani known to man.
Tell us a bit about yourself (anything: where you're from, family, background, interests/passions, etc.)
I was born and brought up in India. My family moved here six years ago while I was still going to school in New Delhi. My graphic design course was heavily-focused on fashion, which is why my work now is influenced by it too, but I thought it was pigeon-holing me at the time, so I decided to switch to a graphic design program focused on a broader range of industries and not just fashion. That's when I transferred to Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD).
How did you start illustrating? Did it come naturally or was it encouraged by family/friends?
I've always been a creative person. I was the go-to person at my high school and stuff, you know, for doing creative things. There was a lot of encouragement from family and friends in that aspect. I never thought of doing it seriously until high school. When the time came, to pick a major that's when many of my friends pushed me into it. Like, "Yeah, that's what you like doing, so why not just go for it?"
I was also going to school in New Delhi for fashion, like communication design based on fashion. And then MIAD was also pretty much graphic design, so I pretty much picked up the illustration on my own once I graduated.
Do you feel like you're borrowing certain techniques or ways of thinking from what you learned in fashion and then applying that to illustration?
Definitely. I feel like there is a certain sensibility with fashion's influences such as colors and also the way in which I seek influences and inspiration in general.
Are there any Indian fashion designers that you admire, but aren't as well-known in the United States?
There are so many great indie fashion designers like Bodice and Love Birds. Raw Mango not so much anymore because they've blown up into this huge thing, but Sanjay Garg creates it. He's amazing. He is more than a fashion designer, I see him as like this genius guy who does everything. Some other Indian designers I also love are Manish Arora, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Tarun Tahiliani, Pari Desai, Abujani and Sandeep Khosla, and IKAI by Ragini Ahuja.
Tell us more about your fashionable ensembles and drawing inspiration from Indian cinema.
Cinema has always been a way for me to come across great taste in abundance because it's not just one person making a film — there are costume designers, color artists, cinematographers and art direction all coming together. And then you have one director who ties all of these artists together, you know, into this whole cohesive, unified thing, which I've always found interesting. That's what inspires me about cinema, all of those various aspects and facets of it.
I like following directors and their bodies work, not just one movie and then calling it done. There's a voice you know, that kind of carries through the work, which kind of inspires me to do the same with my illustration. Not just make random pictures, but have one voice that carries throughout the body of work, too.
"I like following directors and their bodies work, not just one movie and then calling it done. There's a voice you know, that kind of carries through the work, which kind of inspires me to do the same with my illustration."
How would you describe your clothing and style?
It's just functional. Starting this year, I tried to do a uniform. Uniforms are pretty standard in India. Where I did my schooling, everyone had a uniform, and I hated it so much. But as I'm getting older, like I see the merits of not having to make decisions in the morning. So I'm trying to figure out what is it that I really enjoy wearing and the things that I are most functional and comfortable, and just limit or minimize my wardrobe, so I don't have to think about it too much.
Now that I have fewer decisions to make and fewer things to buy, it's just fewer things to do every day as well ... more time to do other things.
What are your key pieces? What are your go-tos during the colder months?
I like wearing khakis and pants with just a t-shirt, and then layer up with a nice coat or something. So if I'm wearing something with fur, I like to wear them as pastels, so that it's evident that it's fur! It's pretty straightforward, I don’t have any elaborate thinking that goes behind my wardrobe. I also like collecting vintage bags and there are so many cool shops on Etsy and Instagram.
Share all the good, bad, and ugly of working independently.
The good part is that if I want to follow my intuition or voice then that's achievable. The bad would be that it’s almost too much freedom at certain points. But if there were a deadline attached to this or if there was someone art directing it, you know, I would just have to do it, and not do those things on my own. When I’m working independently, it feels like I'm doing everything on my own, which can get pretty ugly too!
Do you have people you know and trust that provide helpful guidance/feedback when you need it?
Yeah, for sure. So I have that go-to people for design and also people for the business aspect of things because I'm still learning that too. I also hit up my friends from school mostly for design work and some of them are really talented illustrators or graphic designers, depending on what I'm working on right then. And there are some of my friends back home that are independent entrepreneurs now, so they have very good business advice.
How do you approach your commissioned work versus your own personal work? Is there a specific protocol put in place when taking art direction from clientele?
So for marketing there are lists that you can buy, like directories of art directors, magazines, and advertising agencies that are always looking for illustrators. A few years ago I started cold-calling art directors and some people like to send direct mailers, too. But now that my focus has shifted a little bit, I'm not actively promoting, so most people that find my work, it's mostly on Instagram or on the Internet. So I make sure that my Instagram is up-to-date, even if my website is not.
How do you choose your palettes? Is it more visceral or prescriptive?
I lean towards a certain palette for sure. I think it takes a backseat when it comes to certain work because there are other elements that take the lead, like when line work is more important. But definitely for my personal work I think color is a big, big influence and also something that I want people to be engaged by when they’re looking at my work.
I also take snippets and screenshots of the movies that I like to watch and derive my color palettes from film. I feel like the tone in my work comes from just those images being older. There’s something about the tone that’s vintage-y and washed out which I’m really drawn to.
What genres in film / period pieces are you into?
It’s difficult to determine time period, but I guess it’s movies that glorify the underdog are always nice, so stories about women mostly.
I also see a lot of Shyam Benegal and all of his individual films are supposed to be about one type of woman or women, so they're all little feminist manifestos that he’s created, which is so genius and brilliant in my opinion. Which is also why I love Tarantino’s work because he kind of does the same thing, too. And then the way he's inspired also: all of his movies are pretty much an amalgamation of all of his influences and some people say there’s nothing original about him, but I disagree because he knew how to bring these things altogether into this one cohesive thing.
For genres, it would be so difficult to pinpoint what I like because I watch so much stuff. And some of it is so weird, like strange Soviet movies, they’re so Dada, where they have no storyline, but they’re so beautiful.
Where are you watching your movies?
Anywhere I can find them. There’s a lot on YouTube — like weird foreign movies that I don’t see in libraries if I go looking for them. I don't see like in libraries and if I go looking for them. Do you guys know Satyajit Ray? He’s also an Indian filmmaker and his body is phenomenal.
And when I say Bollywood or Indian cinema, the connotation associated with it is typically the signature “Bollywood,” but there’s also a big indie scene, which I guess is not as active as it used to be in the 80s and 90s, but the movies from the 70s through the 90s made by those indie artists and directors are so phenomenal. The bigger mainstream Bollywood has been here since the 40s, and the indie movement was also there, but not a lot of people knew about those movies.
Do you feel like younger audiences are asking for older Indian film work?
Yeah, it feels like that there's always going to be an audience for, you know, good, good, movies in either India or the commercial market. But I feel like the industry doesn't listen to the audience, too.
It's like how it is in Hollywood, too where movies are made specifically for the broader audience that is so used to mediocre cinema where they have to feed them mediocrity. But then there are films made for specific audiences that would appreciate it. So I guess that's how we it is for Bollywood, because the majority of it is shit, but that is good! (Laughs)
What's next for Manuja Waldia?
Ideally I would love to collaborate with some of my fashion friends back in India and do something collaborative where they could bring in their skill set, but that takes some planning and the time difference makes it so much more difficult!
Hottest pepper ever you've tried?
I guess I would say the most famous one in India called, Bhut jolokia, which I haven't eaten yet, but it's supposed to be really, really, hot.
Music while you work? If so, three top artists currently.
So this year, I've been back to my teenage angst, Nirvana, Sonic Youth ... and I'll give you a current ones — MIA, and Run the Jewels is really cool.
Too many people have told me I look like [insert name here].
I've never been told that before! I guess I have a tooth here that qualifies me as Dracula maybe?
What’s one thing you love about Portland, and one thing you would change?
I love it; I feel there's so little to change here. Maybe more diversity, but that's just the demographics here.
One item in which you're completely Infashuated with.
My cat, Luca.