Picture: Marie-Louise Koen
Marie-Louise Koen and her career journey give meaning to the title, true creative. The self-taught artist with no formal artistic training works as an Interior Designer at a Tribeca based Architectural Studio in New York City and a self-represented Artist and Interior Designer based out of Cape Town.
The South African artist & interior designer is currently showcasing her work at THE YARD in the Silo District at the V&A waterfront. Below we chat about her career, her current exhibition Been Dreaming of the Med and she shares insightful advice for other young creatives.
Can you start us off with a personal introduction to Marie-Louise Koen?
I am a Cape Town-born Artist and Interior Designer. I am self-taught and have no formal artistic training. I actually studied Construction Management at UCT before taking the design route as a career. I kick-started and self-launched my career as an Artist in 2017 where I exhibited my first collection "faces of a woman" as a pop-up on Bree Street in Cape Town- my work has been well received locally and internationally, exhibiting in both New York City and South Africa since.
I have participated in several collaborative shows and had 5 solo exhibitions to date, exhibiting annually, with my most recent body of work “Been Dreaming of the Med” opening this June 2021. Outside of the art scene, I work as an Interior Designer and Marketing coordinator at a Tribeca based Architectural Studio in New York City and as a self-represented Artist and Interior Designer based out of Cape Town. For the past several years I have shared my time between both cities which I am lucky to call home.
What is the first art piece you completed?
This is a tough question because my real answer is “I have no idea”, probably some drawing or painting in playschool because technically that’s art right? In fact, this is something I always tell people when they say “I am not creative or I can’t draw or paint” I simply answer back with “well, when did you stop?”. We all have a first piece of artwork, it’s all subjective. The first significant piece, however, would have to be a painting I did in High school of Nelson Mandela – this was my first ever portrait and formed the basis of my subject matter and style as people know it today.
Tell us about the inspiration behind “Been Dreaming of the Med”?
Been Dreaming of the Med is a series of seascapes along the coast of the Italian Amalfi, with a singular scene from Gozo, Malta, a part of my heritage, it has been created to be a feast for your eyes, a real visual and mental escape in this time of restricted travel.
The collection is inspired by my travels across Italy, it a stark change in inspiration from my usual subject matter in portraiture and female form, this new collection has been an explorative process for me - I just felt drawn to paint beautiful places, probably caused by my nostalgia for travel for being able to freely and safely immerse myself in a different culture, this work allowed me to mentally escape there. These are my first attempts at painting landscapes, as I have always painted female form and portraiture, I needed a change in my creative space and this seemed like the obvious next subject matter to explore.
What would you like your audience to take away from the exhibition about your art and you as an artist?
I created this show to be an escape for people, my goal is for each painting to act as a kind of portal into a seaside scene along the Amalfi. It’s light, it’s easy to absorb and relate to. My aim in this collection and most of my work is to create works that allow the viewer to directly relate to it in some way. My art is not heavy in subject matter and I like to create happy things, places, scenes, artworks that inspire, which spark joy. My work is the most present representation of my life, the only thing I let emotions drive. In this collection, it’s literally my happy place, both the subject matter and the act of painting itself. I hope people can resonate with this positive energy through this body of work.
How do you describe your style as an interior designer and artist? Are they similar or completely different creative sides of you?
I would say one thing which is dominant across all my creative work is colour, my inspiration for colour is often derived from my immediate environment and my bright bold art is often directly related to my interiors work, blurring the lines between both creative fields and using both fields as main forms of creative inspiration to each other.
As far as style goes, I am often playing around with different techniques in my fine art – there is more room for explorative creativity here, however, I think I have quite a distinctive style evident throughout my body of work which lends to an expressionistic and quite stylized style. All my paintings have a lot of movement, a lot of energy.
In terms of defining myself to a style in my interior work, it’s difficult to identify something particular because each job is so different. My job as a designer is not to impose my style on a client but to take my clients taste and style and make it work, make it tasteful, that’s the challenge in this work which I love. I am constantly exploring different styles in interiors whereas my art style is definitely more distinctive.
What has been the most defining moment of your career thus far?
I would have to say working as an Interior Designer for an Architecture firm based in Tribeca, New York City. It’s something I never really thought was possible, with all the requirements imposed to be able to work legally as a South African citizen abroad. It’s a designer's dream to be able to be amongst New York City designers and creatives, constantly surrounded by the best in the world in this field of work. It was a big deal for me and I am very grateful to have this experience under my belt, it’s definitely career-defining.
Do you have any other passions besides art & interior design?
Absolutely, I love to travel. I think without the exposure to different cultures and experiences, different ways of life and all the history which defines our modern world which comes from travel, my art or design would not be half of what it is. My travels have been one of the main sources of inspiration in my work for sure.
Which industry experts inspire you most? South African & International.
I am a big fan of Ghislaine Vinas. She is a South African born New York City-based Interior Designer. Her work is exquisite. Her ability to create contemporary spaces always somewhat themed and always so bold yet elegant is timeless. I also love how she has expanded her design work into other creative fields such as textiles and print works etc – the way she has positioned herself in the industry is something I am in awe of and would love to emulate one day.
As far as the art world goes I am a big fan of Zanele Muholi's work, her composition and striking imagery of portraiture, directly relating and highlighting social issues is genius. Equally a big fan of Candice Brietz, a few years ago I assisted on a few of her projects whilst she was in Cape Town, and her ability to create so rawly and unapologetically, speaking to very relevant and serious social issues is hugely inspiring.
Considering everything you have learnt thus far, what advice would you give to young creatives just starting out?
We are in an industry where all our work is so subjective and unfortunately with that rejection across many fronts is inevitable. It’s easy to think we aren’t good enough or our work isn’t “cool” enough or “we are never going to make it”.
The best advice I can offer is to stay true to your vision and yourself, back yourself when the going gets tough and just keep at it. I think being authentic to what you do is what makes people receive your work positively and the consistency of producing even if people don’t respond the way you may want them to is so important because each work of art, each design project is just one more bit of experience and that is ultimately what will determine your success.
Marie-Louise Koen is showcasing her latest collection Been Dreaming of the Med at THE YARD Silo 4, Silo District V&A waterfront and her print series collections at The ultimate summer pop up shop 2A, V&A waterfront. You can find Marie-Louise Koen on Instagram @mlkartist and for more information her website marielouisekoen.com.