Interviewed by Gabriella Alziari
“I admire designers whose work is intelligent, audacious, fearless, inimitable.”
Evelin Kasikov is an Estonian-born designer and illustrator based in London, England. She received her MA in Communication Design in 2008 from Central Saint Martins, where she also developed CMYK embroidery. (CMYK refers to the four inks used in some color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key-black) . Evelin’s work experiments with grid systems, typography, design techniques and digital and analogue processes to develop new styles of embroidery. Her designs are both mathematically accurate and created by hand. In the past, Evelin has created stitched illustrations for The New York Times, NIKE, WIRED, and ELLE Magazine, among others. Evelin also collaborates with publishers such as Bloomsbury and Laurence King to create book designs.
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I was born and grew up in Tallinn, Estonia. I did my BA in Fine Art but looking back, I don’t think I was passionate about art back then. Instead I got a job in advertising and I worked as a designer and art director for a number of years. It was great fun but as the years passed I realised that design and advertising are not the same thing. I knew that if I ever wanted to become a good designer then there was a lot more to learn. In 2006, I quit my job and moved to London to study at Central St Martins, and in 2008 I graduated with an MA in Communication Design. During the first year of my MA I didn’t really know what I was doing; my work changed radically and change is not necessarily an easy and comfortable process. As I came from a commercial design background, having been sitting in front of a screen day in/day out, I wanted to explore more tactile, slower ways of designing. This is how I got excited about handmade design. I discovered that stitching/knitting/crocheting skills are easy to pick up and it was intriguing to marry craft techniques with graphic design processes. CMYK printing is a universal language for designers, but what happens when you add handcraft to technology? How does material affect perception? The idea of stitched print started from a simple idea: what if I could add a third dimension to a printed page, and make the inner structure of it visible and tactile?
Now that you have worked with CMYK embroidery for an extended period of time, how does it feel? Has your approach to the process changed at all?
It’s essentially about technology versus craft, and CMYK embroidery is just one idea in that context. It was born as part of my MA project in 2007, and the idea of graphic craft is still very much alive in my work. Although the technique has not changed, I try to push my work to new directions and find new contexts and mediums. A dream project would be to work on something large scale, like a fully stitched billboard poster.
Where is your inspiration from?
It’s hard to pin down where exactly inspiration comes from. Inspirations change constantly and they come from many sources. I admire designers whose work is intelligent, audacious, fearless, inimitable– Karel Martens, Irma Boom, Fanette Mellier, Sonya Dyakova, to name but a few. Also, I often travel between two cities, Tallinn (where I’m from) and London (where I now live and work). This two-hour flight is a great opportunity to think and reflect on ideas. It always makes me see things with fresh eyes.
What do you try to achieve when making a piece?
It depends on a project really. Design is not about pleasing the client or satisfying the designer’s ego, it’s about the subject at hand. In personal work I create countless studies letterforms—I experiment with different forms, shapes and materials. These are nearly always geometric, organised, grid based. They might seem like aimless sketches, but sooner or later, most of these ideas find their way to more substantial, conceptual projects.
If someone with no experience in CMYK embroidery were to try it, what advice would you give?
Above all, it requires patience and lots of it. It’s hugely time-consuming: crosses are stitched on paper layer by layer, with threads in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black colours. Embroidery has to be precise, and also quite dense for an image to be visible. The smaller the crosses, the clearer the image.
Tell us about your experiences with bookmaking.
During my MA at St Martins I took a couple of short courses, and I loved it. These gave me essential skills and experience with different materials. I have been experimenting with book forms ever since. I like to take a simple, well-known technique, and see what I can do with it. For instance, my MA books have colourful stitched spines and students often ask what kind of binding it is. It’s actually just coptic binding but done in a slightly different way. French-folded sheets all have colourful stitched spine-edges. These thread colours correspond with the ones used on pages– this way, the content becomes visible on the spine too. The actual binding structure is not immediately obvious, because instead of heavy cords, I used very thin neutral-coloured threads.
You have collaborated with a number of companies and publishers. What has one of your favorite collaborations been and why?
Illustrators are hired for their style and I’m okay with that. But it’s super nice if the client trusts you enough to go beyond style. For instance, when WIRED approached me for HOME illustration, they said straight away that they want me to be able to benefit from this too and encouraged me to try whatever ideas I wanted to. As a result, this illustration turned out very differently from the rest of my work. It was also the first commercial piece where I didn’t use CMYK-stitching and it was a liberating experience for me. Recently, I created a series of fashion illustrations for ELLE Magazine that didn’t use grid at all. It’s not natural for me to work that way, but I was quite pleased with the outcome.
Can you talk about the importance of mathematics in your artwork?
My analytical approach to craft grew out of my personal interests and preferences. I am fascinated with sequences, multiplications, permutations. It’s all very obsessive but so is embroidery. I always look for system and structure in design and start with a grid. I can’t imagine working in any other way. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a handmade book of stitched CMYK-swatches. It will have over 500 colour combinations that are created using 4 colours and screens in 30% increments. It’s more like mathematical exercise rather than a crafty one. You can see the process on my blog.
How do you find being a woman in your field? How have you risen above previous challenges, if there have been any?
I don’t think I have experienced any gender-related challenges in the workplace. Before moving to London, I worked at advertising agencies in Tallinn, Estonia and both of the companies I worked for were run by women. But now, working with embroidery has been challenging in many ways. My work belongs to the graphic design/typography area but it’s not always perceived that way. It sometimes makes me sad, but it is definitely a challenge and it has forced me to think about the essence of my work. Embroidery is loaded with feminine associations, all of which I have chosen to ignore in my work. People often assume that I must like DIY (do it yourself) and everything crafty but I don’t. My approach to embroidery is somewhat non-traditional. I think I can work with this medium only because I’m not emotionally attached to it. In my work, typography comes first and craft comes second.
What advice would you give to aspiring women artists?
When you are just starting out you are often told to grab every opportunity. I feel this is wrong. The creative industry can be exploitative. Yes, it’s important to gain experience, but it’s also important to keep in mind that your time and ideas are valuable.
Are you working on any projects currently?
My practise is two-fold, I create stitched illustrations and I’m also a book designer. Currently there are a couple of book projects in the works for Laurence King Publishing.