Step Magazine by Sean Adams
There are some people with an innate quality that can command attention when they enter a room. Recently, when Kali Nikitas was in Los Angeles, I invited her to lunch at Swingers, the hip diner-du-jour. Kali’s entrance brought a room filled with “young hollywood” to a stop. As we ate salads next to Don Cheadle and a group of actors from Grey’s Anatomy, we talked about god, love, money, and design. These are not normally subjects for polite society, but Kali faces the world head-on. She is willing to talk about ideas that most of us keep in the dark far corner of our consciousness. This directness is mirrored in her work with a vision that is exuberant and energetic, complex and contradictory, and always willing to explore uncomfortable terrain. Kali recently joined Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and will chair its communication arts department this fall.
SA: I was at a design conference a few years ago, and one of the speakers talked about her faith and its impact in her work. At the reception, most of the attendees seemed horrified that she discussed this. So, let’s start with a subject in the design world that is the equivalent of an unattended bag in an airport, God. How would you describe faith, and how it affects you and your work?
KN: What a way to start an interview! Some people can handle life easily without fear or anxiety. I’m not one of them and that’s why I need faith. Knowing that I am not in charge of everything gives me great comfort and freedom. Is this where I declare that I am not a fundamentalist or affiliated with a religious organization?
SA: You’ve mentioned that seeing God differently, and in extraordinary terms, saved your life once. How? What happened?
KN: When I was in my 20s and I looked to the future, I didn’t see myself living a productive life. I saw myself in a room with four white walls—not good. The reasons don’t matter. I just knew that I needed to make a change. My mother and brothers had managed to find inner peace, self-love, and self-respect in their lives, and they helped me just by the fact that they defined their faith on an individual basis. So I guess you could say that I grew up with faith but didn’t pay attention to it until I was in my 20s. Have I lost face yet?
SA: No, being a designer is hard. Being a human being is hard. It’s easy to talk about Franklin Gothic. But it’s important to talk about our internal lives. That brings us to love. In design, so much of what we do is made logical and rational; there is little room for love. Does love really matter in design?
KN: Yes. I think love matters in all aspects of life. If I love my work, then I have a chance of bringing passion and soul to my projects and work relationships. Now, this is not always a good thing. Sometimes, I wish that I had less love and more logic.
SA: As designers, we’re trained to be critical and we often look for the negatives. What are your thoughts on design and criticism?
KN: I have become very interested in the process of debate and engaging with new ideas. It is no longer about right or wrong, but rather making an attempt at understanding things better or challenging something in hopes that an idea or project can be used to facilitate new ideas.
A friend once taught me the value of looking at a body of work—not one piece or project, article, or book. Since then, I have tried to avoid making sweeping judgments. Instead, I want to engage in a conversation about progress and the development of one’s career. I find it more forgiving, more productive, and more interesting. In turn, hopefully people will do the same with me and look at the larger picture, not just the individual failures or successes.
SA: Have you always felt this way?
KN: No. I have learned over time that being generous feels better.
SA: I think I first came into contact with you when you were at CalArts. What made you decide to go back and enter the graduate program? Did that change your life for the better or worse?
KN: I went to graduate school to be a better graphic designer. What did that mean? I didn’t know. Undergraduate school sparked a deep need in me to be better. Period. I needed more schooling, an intense environment to grow. Be careful what you ask for. … People made great-looking work at CalArts and that inspired me. But once I got there, I realized that there was much more to the program than simply adding to a formal toolbox. Of course, I have no regrets. It changed my life absolutely, and for the better.
SA: For me, it’s hard to separate you from your work. Like you, personally, your work is wildly energetic, unexpected, exciting, and remarkably focused. Talk to me about your work, and its relationship to you as a person, and the things you do.
KN: Thank you, but this is when I want to say, ‘You’re just saying that to be nice,’ and we both know how great the work is of so many other people. It’s hard for me to think about anyone liking my work (how’s that for humanness?).
I do not see my work as anything other than attempts to strengthen my skills as a thinker and form-maker, and I try to defi ne my practice based on the choices I have made. For instance, what does an educator and an administrator do with the few opportunities they have to create? What would distinguish me from the others who practice this combination?
Listening to lectures by artists who discuss their work and process is immensely helpful to me. For instance, Felix Gonzalez Torres spoke honestly about infusing his everyday life into his work. He invited the listener into his world and stimulated self
The short answer, “No.”
SA: If you had to name some of your heroes, who would they be?
KN: There are many: My mother, who showed my brothers and I both the heaven and hell of life and who died with tremendous grace 15 years ago; my siblings, for reasons they know and I cannot divulge; my husband, Rich (it’s a secret); Bono, because he uses his celebrity in admirable ways; the working men and women who get up every day with the courage and willingness to make an honest living without benefits, little pay, and a lot of hope that they’ll still be able to support their family.
SA: Are these your primary inspirations? What else inspires you?
KN: This is a list that could go on for days. But, what comes to mind today is Holland (not unusual for anyone who knows me). Having just returned from Amsterdam this week, I simply cannot ignore [what I experienced]: the street fashion, architecture, interiors, flower stands, the approach to living, and so on. It’s very inspirational. It truly affects my personal and professional life.
SA: You’ve made a clear commitment to education. Why?
KN: I started teaching because it was going to allow me to practice in a more selective way. Administration grabbed my attention because it was/is an opportunity to design a living and breathing project. Building an entire program that would affect the lives of many is tremendously exciting.
SA: Have you seen any change in the type of students, their goals, or values since you began teaching?
KN: Yes. Education is now so cost prohibitive that students are really concerned about their future. They wonder if they will be able to make a living once they graduate. This has drastically changed the spirit of education. In some cases, and for obvious and understandable reasons, academic development is affected by professional opportunity. However, I am interested in education for the sake of providing skills that can make students citizens of the world, active members of society, people interested in being of service to others, and of course, qualified practitioners. This is why Otis College of Art is going to be a great opportunity. It’s an institution that is growing quickly and believes in the power of advancing society through art and design.
SA: What is the best thing about returning to Los Angeles, in one word?