Sat smoking on her sofa, Malika Favre looks completely at home. The French illustrator’s east London flat, which doubles as her studio, is stylish in an unaffected way with pictures all over the walls, both her own and some by her cross-Channel contemporaries: a gorgeous drawing of Tate Modern by Thibaud Herem and a Jean Jullien beach scene above her bed.
But all this – London, art, huge campaigns and big-name magazine commissions – was never part of her plan growing up; instead after leaving school Malika went to study quantum physics as the first step to becoming an engineer.
“I drew all the time as a kid but I never considered it a job,” she says. “We had very little money so me and my brother grew up thinking, ‘ok, we are going to be rich’ and that’s why I went into science I think. It was a viable job where art wasn’t.”
“If the proportions were not right in my drawings my mother would tell you they’re not right, even though I was six. So there was a lot of crying.”
- Malika Favre
Malika describes her upbringing in the Parisian suburbs as eccentric – her mum was a hippy and a keen painter (“She did lots of unicorns”) and her dad, whom she calls “an anarchist, but a non-violent one” worked with troubled kids and then went back to university to study theology.
“There were not many taboos. We could pretty much do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted,” she remembers. “They never went to a school meeting, didn’t care if I got good grades or bad grades. It was all up to me.”
They were strict vegetarians and there was no TV in the house, although the family went to the cinema every week. “I couldn’t read yet but they always took us to subtitled films and they would murmur what they were saying to us. It must have annoyed everyone else,” she laughs.
Her mum’s arty side meant that she made most of Malika’s clothes and she also encouraged her early love of drawing… in a way. “I think she was very harsh. If the proportions are not right she will tell you they’re not right, even though you’re six. So there was a lot of crying.” But her mum still has all her childhood drawings, which show a fertile creative imagination at work – a phase of bathtubs, then bathtubs in trees, then washing lines, and then girls, hundreds of drawings of girls.
Drawing remained a hobby though until Malika realised, just four months into her quantum physics studies, that she’d made a mistake. But even then she didn’t have plans to be an illustrator, instead she went to art school to study graphic design and advertising – “I still wanted to make money!"
She also loved the course, and its combination of conceptual thinking and creative skills. A visiting Farnham lecturer encouraged her to come to the UK to study her BA and the move appealed on two levels. “I didn’t feel ready to work, I felt very out of sync with the industry. And I had this Harry Potter fantasy – I wanted to dress up and have the little hat.”
As an intense year at Farnham drew to a close she spotted Airside in Le Book and was immediately drawn to the work they were doing which spanned illustration, graphic design and advertising. “I didn’t consider myself an illustrator then, more of a sofa bed,” she says. During her three month internship at Airside she fell in love with the industry and fell in love with London. She remembers working really hard to impress her colleagues, so much so that when she left, Richard Hogg wrote in her goodbye card: “Thanks you for making me look like crap for three months.” The card came with a present, her very own Wacom tablet, which is still the one she uses today.
“Coming to the UK I had this Harry Potter fantasy – I wanted to dress up and have the little hat.”
- Malika Favre
A year or so later she bumped into Richard in the street who said he was leaving Airside and Malika immediately asked if she could have his job. This led to a “five-minute interview in the pub” and she stayed at the agency for five years, a period that was both very happy and incredibly formative. “The whole philosophy of what I do now came from Airside. They were simplifying things and I really learned to pare things down.”
During this time she also worked on some freelance commissions for the likes of Wallpaper* magazine and personal work such as the Alpha Pin-Ups, an alphabet of cavorting lesbian lovers. “It reached the point where I felt I had enough of my own voice to put my name on things,” Malika explains. “I wanted to do my own thing and I couldn’t do enough of it at Airside.”
And so the circuitous route to freelance illustration was finally complete. From posters for the BAFTA film awards and book covers for Penguin, to editorial illustrations for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, Malika’s style is a beguiling mix of sex and structure. The latter she thinks comes from her graphic design background, the former from her “filthy French mind.”
“There is a lot of bad sex art, mainly drawn by men, and I have always approached it with bit of cheekiness and fun. What I do is not snobby, I love taking universal themes and turning them into images that are beautiful. There is nothing more universal than sex.”
Malika manages to imbue even seemingly innocent imagery – a girl parting a blind for example– with a sort of knowing sensuality but she admits it can cause some confusion. “It’s funny because a lot of people think I look like the girls that I draw but I spend most of the day with my hair going crazy, I eat my nails and I can’t keep lipstick on for more than an hour.”
“There is a lot of bad sex art, mainly drawn by men, and I have always approached it with bit of cheekiness and fun."
- Malika Favre
Her love of structure and rules by which she composes her images makes sense when you consider her erstwhile engineering ambitions.
“I am a very logical person and I like things to be there for a reason. I believe that out of structure comes freedom. Setting rules makes it more interesting and it triggers something when people look at the images. That’s what I love to do in my work, when people have a reaction to it and don’t see all the work that’s gone into it.”
This, um, coming together of sex and structure is best exemplified in the Kama Sutra Alphabet Malika made for Penguin, a series of mindbogglingly virtuosic couplings that manages to be both stylish and tremendously smutty.
From the start she was adamant it had to work as a font rather than a collection of illustrations. “The only way to do it was to have a rigid typeface behind it, a frame and a structure that allowed me to draw freely within that,” she explains. “A lot of the positions came from those structures, having to make it work. I ended up with the most crazy positions because of those letters.”
The opportunities to combine work for an eclectic and interesting group of clients with personal projects means Malika loves being a freelancer, but she admits there are pressures that come with it too.
“I am lucky that people give me a lot of creative freedom but it’s very exhausting. I just took a three month sabbatical because I felt I really needed it. The industry really milks you. Very few clients – and these are the great ones – have a vision for what you could do rather than what you have already done. You can very quickly become a one-trick pony.”
And as her profile has risen, she’s had to content with other people ripping off her style too. “I get really angry and I go all French on them,” she laughs. “If it’s students it’s ok, it’s part of the evolution, but if it’s someone who got in touch with you and decided you were too expensive that’s when it’s really annoying. But when people rip you off they are always one step behind, they rip off something that has been done and done and done. They can never rip off what you’re gong to do next, so it pushes you to do something new.”
“The industry really milks you. Very few clients – and these are the great ones – have a vision for what you could do rather than what you have already done. You can very quickly become a one-trick pony.”
- Malika Favre
The three month-break allowed Malika to think about the future, to reflect on what kind of image-maker she wants to be.
“The line between being an illustrator and an artist has been blurred a lot,” she says. “In the past we were commissioned to style things up but I think the role of contemporary illustration has changed – we get to bring the ideas, and our vision, which gives us a lot of freedom.
“I have never thought about what I am going to next but now is the time I need to have a more strategic approach. No-one else but you can take your style on a different path.”