Nina Chakrabarti on collecting stuff, favourite records and Indian graphic design

Nina Chakrabarti studied illustration at Central Saint Martin’s College and The Royal College of Art in London. She uses line drawing to explore her love of the decorative arts, inspired by her past in Calcutta, India, where she grew up, and the exuberance of London, where she now lives and works.

She is the author of the bestselling My Wonderful World of Fashion, My Even More Wonderful World of Fashion, and Hello Nature. Her new book, My Collection of Collections (out 21 August), displays her distinctive illustrations in colour for the first time, in a hardback 'keepsake' book for children which explores the nostalgic subject of collecting.

Nina drew on some of her own collections for the project, including her huge collection of vinyls and records which she has been amassing since the age of 13. She has just won the Professional prize in the AOI's World Illustration Awards, in the Books category. We caught up with Nina to ask her about her career and why she loves collecting so much.

You've got a new book coming out. Can you tell us more about it?

It's a sticker book for children on the topic of collections. It talks about different types of collections, some bound in reality, others more ephemeral or imaginative. It invites the reader to complete and personalise the pages so that each spread becomes its own unique collection curated by the reader.

What is it about collections that you love so much?

I've always been fascinated with collections, whether it's stamped, pots in a museum or someone's collection of wrestling memorabilia or stones from their favourite beaches. I like drawing collections as it's a way of exploring my inner collector without having to acquire the physical objects themselves.

Are there any collections in particular that have surprised you?

Yes, there was a man I came across who collected his own belly fluff in little glass jars!

You're an avid collector of vinyl and records. How did the obsession begin?

I love music and as a young child was given records as presents. So that's how my record collection started. I left all my records in India when we came to the UK, but it wasn't long before I started a collection over here. The first single I bought was Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I hadn't even heard it! I just knew it had been banned, so wanted to hear what all the fuss was about. I still have it somewhere.

If you could only keep three records – what would they be and why?

Very tough question when you own over a thousand records! I whittled it down to these three after much deliberation. First up, Ananda Shanker by Ananda Shanker. I bought this record when I went back to the city where I grew up, Calcutta (now Kolkata) in my twenties. It was released in 1970, the year I was born and I bought it at a time when I was getting interested in Indian music and my roots.

A street-seller saw I was interested in vinyl records and took me down a dusty corridor to his 'Aladdin's Cave' shop, stacked high with amazing records from the 1930s onwards. I was in heaven, but as I had very little money, I had to be extremely selective with my choices. This record was one of the ones I bought that day, and I would never part with it, as it has the memory of being back in Calcutta for the fist time since we left.

The second choice is Please Stay, a single by The Cryin' Shames. I was living temporarily with my then-boyfriend in his flat, looking for a place to live when he left this out for me. It was his way of asking me to not bother to look for anywhere else to live, but to stay with him. I did, and a few years later, we got married.

And, last but not least, Get into the Groove by Madonna. This had a huge effect on me. It's hard to remember now since she's been around forever but when she burst onto the scene, she was such a breath of fresh, insouciant air.

It reminds me of bouncing out of the cinema after watching Desperately Seeking Susan, wanting to be as brash and confident as the character Madonna plays in that film. Plus, it's an amazing pop song and so infectious and joyous, it never fails to get me dancing.

You moved from India to London as a teenager. Is it true you came to the UK a beloved stamp collection and not much else?

Yes, the two books I brought over with me were my stamp album and an ABBA annual (I was a huge fan!). We actually moved to Reading, a town near London, to live with friends but I moved to London later on, to go to art college.

India clearly has an influence on your work. Can you further describe your style?

My interest in hand-drawn type definitely comes from growing up in India and seeing it everywhere. I'd watch men dangling from scaffolding painstakingly painting cinema posters onto billboards or painting shop signage.

A lot of the cars and lorries on the roads would be plastered with the most fantastic drawings and typography. As well as the signage and colourful iconography, I used to collect stamps whilst living in India and I think it was an early introduction to graphic design, seeing how art and text could fit together on these tiny, perfectly designed pieces of paper.

I love line drawing, usually in black ink but recently I've been playing with colour too. I write my own text and enjoy hand-drawn typography. My style is fluid. Sometimes it's simple, other times ornate. It can be decorative, taking me days to complete, or a drawing consisting of two or three black lines.

"Experiment, but always stay true to your own vision and style."

As a freelancer, what has worked best for you in getting your name out there and winning work?

It's a very different world to the one I started out in, but I think what still works best is getting out and meeting people. My career started with friends giving me work, which sometimes led on to other commissions. I also used to drag my portfolio around the agencies and it was always interesting to meet art directors and designers who would give me sage, much-needed advice.

What pearls of wisdom can you share with graduates who are hoping to make a career of illustration?

Experiment, but always stay true to your own vision and style.

What's next for you?

I would love to do a book on India or perhaps one about food. And perhaps some travelling! Next on my list is Mexico City. It sounds like a fascinating place.

To find out more about Nina Chakrabarti, visit her website at Her book, My Collection of Collections is published by Laurence King and is available from 21 August. Details here.

Photography by Ivan Jones