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By Kathryn Weinstein
Illustrations by Natalya Balnova

Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 40, Issue 1, Spring 2015)

Natalya Balnova is an illustrator, graphic designer and artist. In this interview Professor Balnova—from Queens College, CUNY—shares a little bit about her life, passions and projects. This semester, Professor Balnova is teaching Book Design & Production and Color and Design 2.

KW: Tell us a little bit about your background?
NB: I grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia. My original background was in fine art, then I switched to a design major. I graduated from the Academy of Industrial Art and Design, St. Petersburg, Russia, after studying design and printmaking. Later, I received my second BFA in design at Parsons School of Design in New York, and last year I graduated from the MFA Illustration program from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

KW: Why did you decide to pursue a BFA in Communication Design at the Academy of Industrial Art and Design in St. Petersburg?
NB: It was an amazing and fun place to be, known for it’s experimental spirit, very challenging with inspiring, creative people. Students from different departments interacted with each other, making shows, performances, exchanging ideas. It was an ideal environment for artistic and intellectual growth. I wanted to be a part of this world.

Left: Book covers by Natalya Balnova. Right: The Catastrophist book cover by Balnova.

KW: Why did you decide to pursue another BFA in Communication Design at Parsons New School of Design?
NB: Studying at Parsons became a logical step after moving to the US. I wanted to continue my education in order to expand my knowledge in design, get some practical skills in computer technology, and meet people from my professional field.

KW: Do you think there is a difference in the way design is taught in Russia versus United States?
NB: I am not sure how different it is now since I moved to the US many years ago, but at that time the main difference was in the intensity of the program, structure of the classes, and the overall program set up. It felt way more intensive in New York and was shorter and more complex. In St. Petersburg we had a certain curriculum for each semester with a focus on a particular field and with one teacher for each topic of design. In addition to graphic design classes we took painting and drawing on a regular basis during the whole program. We also had printmaking classes for five years, each semester was dedicated to a certain printmaking technique.

At Parsons we could choose classes and teachers and had to complete various assignments in a very condensed period of time with a focus on conceptual thinking and experimentation. On a top of that, the attendance was very strict, and it felt like an army. Also, New York’s diverse cultural mix of people brings a wide array of artistic aesthetics and visions from around the world, which added a lot to the program.

KW: How did you become involved with designing books and book covers?
NB: A year after graduation from Parsons, I luckily got into the publishing industry and have been working in this field ever since. I had several internships prior to that, including an internship at Pentagram and at Interview magazine. My friend and classmate from Parsons School of Design was working in an independent publishing house and they needed an intern, so it started from an internship and three months later led to a designer position.

It was great, since working in book publishing was my dream work. I always wanted to work with books or poster design or create design products that connect to the music industry or theaters. So working in the publishing house was within my sphere of interests. Since it was a relatively small publishing house we had a chance to see all stages of book publishing, from meeting with authors and the approval of the manuscript to the color proof in the printing factory. We worked very closely with the editors, authors and marketing department. Publishing has a special flair, which I really like.

Left: Holy Cow book cover, illustration by Balnova, art direction by Rodrigo Corral. Right: The Space Between Us book cover by Balnova.

KW: Why did you decide to pursue an MFA in illustration at the School of Visual Arts?
NB: Since my original background was in Fine Art, I always missed this part in my life. While I was working, I started to take continuing education classes at the SVA printshop, which literally became my second home. I met many graduate students from the MFA Illustration department so I had a very good feeling about this program. I have been drawing all my life and illustration feels very natural to me.

Plus I felt certain emotional and professional stagnation and wanted to move forward, to see new people and get new experiences. It was necessary to make this step in life.

KW: What was the inspiration for “Day Job?”
NB: My Day Job book project which I did in my first year of the MFA program was based on biographical facts from the lives of famous artists, writers, poets and musicians and the day jobs that allowed them to maintain their creative careers. I felt very passionate about this subject matter since the dilemma of making a living doing art and not succumbing to the daily routine is quite familiar to any creative person. I wanted to do it as an inspiring and at the same time a very personal book with a sense of drama and hope. The book has a lot of funny, sarcastic, bitter and sad quotes that reflect the emotional tension and sensibility of the characters.

Spreads from The Day Job.

KW: Who have been your biggest influences?
NB: My mother. She was my biggest supporter, a very brave, enthusiastic person and an original thinker. She was a designer, and introduced art and design to me.

KW: What projects are you working on now?
NB: Several book covers for non-fiction titles, a series of illustrations for a novel, and I am working on my personal silkscreened book about alternative visions of sweets and desserts.

KW: What’s on your reading list?
NB: Most recently I was rereading Chekhov and Dostoevsky. I love poetry, so a big portion of my reading list belongs to this form of literature. To name a few poets whose work is very important to me: Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Francis Picabia, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Marina Tsvetaeva, Charles Bukowski. 

In terms of literature on professional design practice, I look forward to reading Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read.

Principles of Jelly Making book by Natalya Balnova.

KW: What was the best exhibit you’ve seen in the last year?
NB: I can give you a list of events and shows that I like to visit. I am very interested in printmaking, so I try to visit exhibitions that relate to printmaking. IPCNY (International Print Center New York) usually has great shows, which gives a lot of inspiration on techniques and ideas. MoMA has great shows on printmaking and drawing. I am looking forward to seeing “The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters” exhibition. The New York print week is always great. It is running in November.I really love alternative book publishing and New York Art Book Fair is a great event to visit. It is coming soon on September 26-28 and will be running at MoMA PS1.

KW: What skills are needed to become successful in the field (either as a designer or as an illustrator)? What advice do you have for students on how to break into the field?
NB: Persistence, hard work, creativity, faith in what you are doing, and love of what your are doing. Find an internship in your creative field as soon as possible, so that you can get to know the industry and get a sense of what you like and what you do not like. Try not to waste your time on jobs that do not relate to your profession, it has to connect somehow, otherwise you just loose your professional skills. Keep in touch with your classmates, because they are your support group and your first network.

You also have to know the industry and be aware of what is new in your creative field. Experiment, self-initiate projects, since a lot of your professional projects might not live up to your expectations. You have to deal with tons of restrictions and it might dull down your passion for design and art in general.

I personally love to work on my own projects to keep an interest in art, where I can experiment and say what I want to say. You have to do something crazy, don’t let boring jobs drain your energy and talents.

KW: What was the most valuable advice you ever received?
NB: Don’t give up and trust your intuition.

Unfaithful Copies of Old Masters, Part I by Natalya Balnova.

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