V&A Dundee

Festive Design Market: Marie-Alice Harel

On the run up to our Festive Design Market, we talk to some of the exhibitors about their work, their inspirations and process. Hear from Marie-Alice Harel as she tells us more about the stories and inspirations found in her beautifully illustrated books.

Every project comes with specific constraints when it comes to design. Sometimes I have a specific idea in mind, and it's not too hard to find the right colours, materials and printing techniques. Other times, for instance new edition of my book Hortari, the idea has to evolve with and bounce off constraints. Sometimes you can't find the right shade of paper, or the foil you want can only go on paper, not on book cloth. I can lose my mind a little in the process, but it forces me to find solutions, and the compromise can be even more exciting than the initial plan.

My knowledge in self-publishing and product design has been growing a lot since I started. My first projects were simple. I keep looking for new suppliers, while learning how to combine different techniques together. So each new book or project feels fresh and exciting as I keep trying new things.

The narrative of each story depends a lot on the project, it's very different every time. For my first book Omoiyari, I developed the idea and theme first, while doing research for an exhibition. It all came from the question “Where do stories come from?” I imagined a remote village in Japan where stories could have a physical presence - animals, plants or even people that could interact with us. This is inspired by traditional Japanese folklore and beliefs (Kami), but also from the idea that stories have a life of their own. For instance you could say that a story is born when it is told for the first time, and dies when it gets lost or forgotten. I created the illustrations based on those ideas and a combination of visual references.

Omoiyari
Omoiyari
Omoiyari
  • Omoiyari

  • Omoiyari

  • Omoiyari

For Hortari, I wanted to explore a theme, the idea that we're all looking for something, and that those quests shape us. This time I was inspired by travellers and explorers from the 18th and 19th centuries. I wrote and illustrated the book in one month using the Inktober challenge to give myself momentum. I wrote one story in one day, then illustrated it the next day. I kept going like that through October, and ended up with 15 stories and illustrations. It was intense but the ticking clock forced me to be present and responsive, instead of staring at a blank page all day or looking for an elusive perfect idea.

In contrast, my book Bird People has no text, each image and combination of images is a seed, an offer to the reader to imagine their own stories.

Bird People
Bird People
Bird People
Bird People
  • Bird People

  • Bird People

  • Bird People

  • Bird People

My upcoming book started with a simple drawing in my sketchbook. The character inspired me to write a story (this one is a poem in rhymes) and now I'm going to flesh out the world with illustrations. So you see, at least for me, it's a very dynamic process. You start somewhere, anywhere, and as you pull that thread, the nebulous ideas and inspirations that are circulating in your mind at that time, slowly try to fit into this new puzzle shape, until it solidifies into something coherent. You never really know where you're going to end up. And that's why it's fun.

Each project and story comes with a specific inspiration or, more often, a combination of inspirations. That can come from very different things. Sometimes I want to explore a color, or learn how to draw horses. It can be a place, for instance my upcoming book is set in Venice. Whatever I'm obsessed with is valid. Inspiration can also come from a wish to explore feelings. For Hortari I wanted to travel all around the world. For Omoiyari I wanted to feel safe in a little remote corner of Japan.

A piece of paper with colour swatches.
A piece of paper with colour swatches.
A illustration of a creature at a desk writing.
  • The process creating 'Horati'

  • The process creating 'Horati'

  • The process creating 'Horati'

Most of the time I only recognize and fully understand the themes of a given story after it is completed. And somehow this creation is also an imprint of who I was at that time. Now that I've written a few stories, I can discern some core elements that sort of connect them all. Things that are important to me and that transpire (I hope) in everything I do. Respect for animals and their environment, compassion towards the other, the different, the stranger. Towards oneself as well. A sense of curiosity, an interest in small, quiet things... I can see myself growing as a human with my work, actually. So I'm certainly a strong influence in all I do.

Looking to the future, I'm hoping to have time for a new artist book, as well as smaller projects here and there. I also want to give myself time and space to play, to draw for fun with no strings attached. I used to do that all the time when art was a hobby for me, before I stopped working in research. But now that it's my 'job' (it's so much more than a job), there is less time and more pressure. Fun is very hard work... And so is time management!

Have a look at my books Omoiyari and Bird People, keep an eye out of the new edition of Hortari, and follow me on Instagram to keep in touch with my work in progress.

I was feeling burned out after two years of very intense work (surprisingly, the pandemic didn't help). This October I tried to slow down and rest as much as possible. A little project I gave myself was to create a set of labels, beautifully made with hot foiling, for stationery lovers and their organizational needs. They should be ready in time for the Festive Design Market at V&A Dundee.

Marie-Alice will be at our Festive Design Market all weekend, so pop in and say hi.

Festive Design Market is in collaboration with Tea Green Events.