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Pursuitist Q&A: Illustrator Martha Napier of Marnani Design

Pursuitist Q&A: Illustrator Martha Napier of Marnani Design

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If you’re visiting New York for Fashion Week, chances are you might spy a chic blonde head sitting on the steps outside some of the week’s biggest shows. That’s Martha Napier, illustrator and owner / founder of Marnani Design, a boutique studio in New York City.

We spoke with Napier, a fashion industry veteran with a resume boasting titles like Senior Womenswear Designer for Michael Kors, about her work and what makes her want to keep picking up the brush in an increasingly digital world.

You have such a unique profession – designing and illustrating with paint and paper. What gave you the inspiration to start Marnani? 

I have been an illustrator for about ten years—always illustrating for corporate and private clients while I worked through school, and during my career as a womenswear designer. While I love fashion design, I love how hands-on creative illustrating is.  Now I spend my days painting, and people pay me to do it! It’s truly a dream.

Unlike many other modern illustrators, I prefer to use the computer less, and my hands, and a brush, more. I find in working with what is really a traditional medium (watercolors, gouache, ink, etc.), I can create fresh work that is more authentic to myself as an artist.

When I get on the computer, I tend to overthink things, and my work looks less and less like “me,” and more like someone else’s. When working with watercolor, there is an element out of my control (how the paint dries, how the colors mix, unexpected drips), which all come together to create the final piece. This is exciting to me! These precious and uncontrollable elements, are not found in digital work.

I like rolling with the process, and the mistakes.  After a good day, my hands are usually covered in paint, and that makes me feel accomplished

What is the significance of the Marnani name? 

First of all, just to clear it up, it’s pronounced MAR-NAH-KNEE (emphasis on the “Mar”)! I wanted to use something originating from my name, since my brand is so much about my personal aesthetic and style (whimsical, colorful, joyous, and irreverently feminine).  I decided on Marnani Design—as it’s combination of my full legal name: MARtha NApier NIppert (Mar-Na-Ni)!

You’ve had a varied career in the fashion industry at major names like Michael Kors and Braccialini. How do you use those experiences in your work today? 

It’s simple. To me, fashion and art are one in the same.

People definitely take me more seriously as an illustrator, with my experience in working for these top luxury companies.  I would tell anyone today, who wants to start their own business, to invest in this kind of credibility first—get the experience—you’ll spend less time explaining yourself later.

Some of your most well-known works are your live illustrations of events like fashion week and the Met Ball. What makes a subject “interesting” to you to paint? 


Color! I very rarely illustrate anyone dressed in all black. My work is largely about fun color palettes, and pattern. When I see someone who embodies both of these, I get to work. Live-illustrating for events is something I love doing because it allows be to not only paint from life (always better than photos!), but also, allows me to interact with those in attendance. It’s part documentary, part entertainment.

People will come up to me, and ask me about my process, my background, and I will hold a conversation with them while continuing to capture the scene before me. I find that the pressure to capture a moment quickly, challenges me to get my ideas onto paper, FAST. I have less time to over-analyze, and am forced to make visual decisions immediately. This results in super fresh, whimsical work—a totally different approach than sitting in my studio and working from photographs.

Who (or what) has been your favorite subject or event to cover thus far? Why? 

I recently worked with Barneys New York, and had the pleasure of illustrating their COO, Daniella Vitale, and Executive Vice President, Tom Kalenderian. As anyone could imagine, these are two very fashionable individuals, so I loved being able to capture their personal styles, in front of the flagship store on Madison Avenue.

Like any other project, I had fun with it—we put shoes in the windows, and even dogs shopping inside the store. New York is such a dog city!  In all honesty, my favorite projects are the ones that encourage my full creativity and allow me to employ things like humor and wit.

You’re based in New York City, a hotbed for fashion and luxury. What would you recommend to the Pursuitist reader as your favorite must-visit spots in the city?

Hmm. There are so, SO, many. The great thing about living in New York, is it’s a constant adventure because it’s forever changing. I think what makes New York so interesting is how varied and seemingly different its neighborhoods can be.

For a Sunday brunch, I love a good bike ride down the riverside bike path (my absolute favorite place), to a spot in the West Village. Buvette is a little gem, which never fails to disappoint with fanatically simple yet decadent French bistro fare.

I’m a sucker for some good snail mail, so afterwards, I would probably walk around the corner to one of my most favorite small neighborhood stationery stores, Greenwich Letterpress.  You can never have too many notecards!

For luxury shopping, I love just walking up and down Bleecker. It’s so charming, and has some of my favorite outposts: Cynthia Rowley, Alexis Bittar, Magnolia Bakery, Maje, and Jo Malone.  This sounds strange, but that street is so fantastic in the rain! I may be the only New Yorker who loves the rain here… There’s just something nostalgic and a bit romantic about it. 

Describe your personal style in five words or less. 

Whimsical, Colorful, Feminine, Sparkly and TEXTURED.

Eeek, your house is burning and you can only take what you can carry. What three things come with you? 

A note from my grandmother, (which hangs on my vanity mirror, and reminds me of what’s really important in life); my iPhone (only because it has all of my personal photos on it); my passport (if my house burns down, I am going to cope by traveling to somewhere exotic—Maldives, please!); and probably my very large cat, Toni (even though I’m really a dog person)! Oh, and if there’s still room, a very special bright red designer handbag. No brand name needed, but it’s good—if the cat is lucky, maybe he can go in that.

Describe your creative process – what inspires you, how do you find subjects, and do you spend most of your day on creative or “business” related tasks? 

I find inspiration everywhere. And I don’t mean that in a cliché, obvious kind of way. It’s really true—I will be on the subway, a walk along the Hudson, or at the grocery, and see someone or something that just captivates me, and makes me stop. If I can’t sketch it quickly, I take a photo—I probably have way too many photos of unsuspecting people around New York (my friends tell me that’s a little creepy).

On a day-to-day basis, I spend my time like any other business owner. I run my shop.  While I would love to spend every minute painting, and gathering inspiration, I have to make time to email with clients, send invoices, and working on commissions.

Organization and planning is sometimes counter intuitive to creative types, but I find it’s a discipline I cannot live without. A really good day is getting all of the “business” work finished before lunch, so I can spend the afternoon creating and dreaming up new project ideas.

One of your degrees is in Entrepreneurship, so we know you’re thinking about the next steps for Marnani and your career. What’s coming up for the brand?

I was fortunate enough to study both business and fine art in school—which gave me a great foundation for what I am doing now. As I gain brand awareness for Marnani and grow my network, I would like to continue to grow my business organically.

For now, I have plans on the docket to launch a carefully curated line of prints for sale, a collection of a few exquisite products, and a book—all featuring my illustrations.  I also plan to continue to expand my Live Illustration services for high-end events.  In the meantime, if someone could figure out how to create more hours in the day, I would gladly pay top dollar.

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