“I come from what one could call an ‘artistic family’,” says talented Finnish illustrator, graphic designer and art director Lotta Nieminen. “My mum’s a painter, her mum was a painter, my dad’s in music, my sister’s in fashion,” she continues. “When I was 12 I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and, like any normal teen, I resorted to rebellion. I wanted to be everything except what my family represented, and said I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer instead.”
Now based in New York, the young creative has worked for fashion magazine Trendi, completed a three-month internship at Pentagram and was a senior designer at multidisciplinary design studio RoAndCo, before deciding to go it alone.
“Working for other people, instead of going full-time freelance straight after graduating, is something that I’ve never regretted,” she says of her career as a full-timer. “I’ve learned most from other people: watching them work in different ways, manage in different ways, get inspired in different ways. Those are things that are hard to learn at school,” she explains.
“After working at a fashion magazine, a big design company and a smaller boutique design firm, I started getting a pretty good idea of how I’d like my own practice to be once I went solo. I think it’s really important to explore different working environments, learn from other people’s strengths and study their flaws to be fully equipped to go out on your own.”
Nieminen says her move to New York was one of the defining moments in her career: “It was one of those mornings where you just lie in your bed and think about life and what you’re going to do with it. I loved my job and my apartment and my friends in Finland. Everything was good, but it’s like when you’re a kid and you build a big tower with blocks, but when it’s done, you don’t just want to look at it, you want to knock it over and build a new one. I realised I was really lucky, but also really wanted to see if I could build something bigger and taller. It’s not that I wanted to be uncomfortable, I just felt like I still had time to see a ‘what if’. What if I lived in New York? What would that be like?”
Nieminen already had tickets booked to New York (she was selected by Print magazine for its annual New Visual Artist review), so when she arrived she started applying for jobs. It was then that she grabbed the internship at Pentagram, working under Paula Scher.
Nieminen takes a very different approach to her graphic design and illustration work: her graphics being, in her words, rather minimalist and deliberately colourful. “I aim for a strong feel of space in my compositions,” she reflects. “I also have a weakness for carefully placed details and small type. Materials are very important to me, and I love choosing the right ones for each project. In illustrations my style is more generous, with lots of elements and details. I find it easier to play with colours and patterns in illustration than in graphic design, where my taste is more simple.”
She continues: “The style in which I illustrate started out as handmade collage, but has slowly become more digital. I fill shapes with patterns I have in a surface library, which I’ve collected by scanning grainy prints from heavy black-and-white photocopying. Then I multiply them with each other and layers of colour. Having the handmade texture in my illustrations is very important to me. I’ve always wanted to keep a tactile feel, but I like it if people can’t quite figure out the technique at first glance.”
Nieminen started out in graphic design, but felt there were some jobs she could only express through illustration: “To me they serve different, equally important purposes. Working with illustrations is a nice change if I get designer’s block with graphic design – and vice versa,” she smiles.
To date, a stand-out project in Nieminen’s portfolio includes window displays for French high fashion house Herms. She created displays for seven of the brand’s stores on the US east coast: “Working on window displays had been a long-time dream of mine, so when the opportunity presented itself, I was obviously ecstatic,” she beams. “What made the project even more fun was teaming up with Aux Armes Etc, a set design studio with which I had previously worked at RoAndCo. The brief was very open and the final visual world was the outcome of laid-back brainstorms over a few beers,” she says.
“Being commissioned by a client or brand I’ve looked up to since being a student makes a project very special. For the same reason, when The National, a New York band I’ve been a huge fan of for years, contacted me and asked if I could do a tote bag illustration for their upcoming tour, I thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to me.”
New media and the challenges associated with them continue to inspire Nieminen in her work: “Those are the projects that force me to take my illustration style and process to a new level,” she says. “During the past year, I’ve illustrated for a hand-embroidered carpet and pillow, wine bottle labels and department store collateral. In the upcoming months I also have illustrations coming out in the form of a coffee tin and cup, as well as an animated ad.” It seems for Nieminen, even though her career has already taken her to two of New York’s most established design agencies, that this is just the start of her creative journey.