KittenChops – Chocolate, Coffee and Design

Zaara aka KittenChops

by Rasmus Rasmussen on June 22, 2010

I attended an event aimed at local bloggers in late 2009. I felt kind of awkward there, under-dressed and belonging to a more artsy crowd than most other attendees. So, I was thrilled to find a table with crayons and people adding illustrations to drawings of coffee cups. That’s where I ran into Zaara, who is an illustrator and graphic designer. She runs her own studio — KittenChops.

Originally from Hungary, Zaara now lives and works in Seattle. Her style is very illustrative, organic and, dare I say cute. A style which has put her work on Starbucks coffee as well as the wrappers of Seattle gourmet chocolatiers, Theo Chocolate. More on that below, including a comment from Theo about Zaara’s design work.

AP: Your style is very organic and definitely has a hand-drawn feel. How did your style and look evolve into where it is today?

Originally I trained to be a graphic designer and got a job after graduation. It was amazingly wonderful that this job happened to be Starbucks Creative, where most of the work was very illustration oriented and the studio was full of amazing designers who were also wonderful illustrators and visual artists. It was a very nurturing and free creative environment with kindred spirits. Many friendships from back then still continue to this day.

The “organic” style was part of the brand and our job was to express it. This experience was my foundation. I also have natural inclination to a more feminine style and this got honed during the years with continued practice. Also the nature of the work I have been getting, calls for such an approach (nobody hires me to design a bank logo) so it builds upon itself in a way.

Zaara at her drawing table.

AP: What appeals to you in working with a client’s product or identity? How do you go about researching and interpreting your clients’ needs and then turn it into that first sketch?

I really enjoy being able to visually express what a client has in their heart and mind (the essence of their project/brand/business). They know it, they have it but I am the one who brings it out for them in the shape of a logo or packaging. The best moment is when I feel the creative brief and the work under my hand align completely. That is such a joyful, YES! moment. Then being able to share that experience with the client and have them have the same “Yes, that is it exactly” epiphany is the best.

I very carefully consider the creative brief, their goals etc. Then I do research on their industry or any detail of the brief that seems particularly meaningful. Sketch and brainstorm a lot, the usual creative process in an intuitive way.

AP: After graduating, you worked as an in-house designer for Starbucks and now your run your own studio. How hard was it making that switch and what does it mean to you, to be your own boss?

Leaving my job was not much of a conscious decision. I did not have clients lined up or any serious business plan ready. I was simply really burned out and tired. I am a night owl and the strictly enforced “no matter what you have to be at your desk from 9-5″ became unsustainable for me. I worked a lot of late nights simply because that was when I did my best. Corporate could not allow for any flexibility at the time and I needed a change. I made the jump, I felt like I HAD TO.

Looking back, I marvel at myself. I might not have the guts today to leave the comfort of a steady paycheck — but super glad that it happened that way and KittenChops could be born. Now I can work/wake up/go on vacation any old time I please! Freedom, the feeling of unlimited possibilities is wonderful. I know I can do anything, it is only up to me and I know I do not have any excuses. Learning and practicing full responsibility on a daily basis is not easy but very rewarding when it works.

AP: In a town full of amazing artists and designers, how do you go about getting your work seen and marketing yourself?

I make sure that I receive credit with my work, both on printed pieces and online. I spec this ahead of time in my contract. This has been my main source of promotion so far.

AP: As a case example, you designed the wrappers for Seattle-based Theo Chocolate. How did that project come about, and could you take us through the process of these particular designs?

Theo came about after being referred to a portfolio review interview by a former Starbucks colleague. Then Theo picked me.

The initial objective was to establish two very different brands: Theo, the high end gourmet product line; the super high end 5th avenue of chocolates that would be set apart from competitors by the fact that it is made from scratch in a local factory “the only bean to bar chocolate”, and 3400 Phinney the fun, flavor oriented brand, that would communicate the fun nature of chocolate and make the factory a destination for people to visit.

There are real kitties at work too!

Both brands are organic and fair trade, made with loving care. So I searched for ways to express these things, first in the logos then in their packaging. For the gourmet line a sumi inked logo and oil pastel artwork seemed perfect: it is sophisticated and very expressive of the messy beauty and joy of the chocolate making process, with the end result being a piece of art.

The Phinney brand was illustrated based on the flavor of each bar telling a little story. Cute and whimsical, featuring the flavor of the bar. My favorite one is “Bread and Chocolate” – a chocolate bar which has toasted bread morsels inside. In the illustration I have a baby kitten trying to sneak a lick of the molten chocolate her mom is making (ps: chocolate in real life is not safe for cats). So really light hearted and easy to emotionally respond to, yet expressing what the brand is about and making clear what the particular flavor is. Many times people have told me and written in my online guest book that their first purchase was brought about by the cute kittens.

Debra Music (VP Sales & Marketing) adds:
We wanted to capture the magic and sensuality of chocolate in a new way. Zaara was the perfect partner for us, because she’s not only a brilliant illustrator, she views the world differently herself. She never misses a chance to spread light and her sense of color and her imagination are boundless. Her ability to infuse the inanimate with life, and to blend colors and textures is amazing to me. Our labels have definitely been a source of wonderful feedback – over the years we’ve had multiple emails from folks telling us they had to buy and try our products because of the artwork. I’ve been to many buyers offices and seen one of our labels taped to their cube walls – they’re so beautiful people think twice before crumpling them up and tossing them in the recycling bin. That’s pretty special!

Please take the time to check out the KittenChops website, which has lots of examples of Zaara’s work (her snowboards are stunning!). There is also a blog and a Facebook page for your viewing pleasure.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dan October 29, 2010 at 6:24 am

Hi :)
Big fan of you ! Its really amazing what you do :)


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