Prodigy is a word that comes to mind when considering Brooklyn illustrator Melinda Beck’s auspicious introduction to art. It’s not every kid that takes a life drawing course at the prestigious New York Art Students League, at the age of twelve. In second grade, when she had trouble reading and writing, the girl who loved drawing chose art. Since she wasn’t interested in learning an instrument or ballet, her parents enrolled her in a life-drawing course. Beck’s parents and their friends were artists so although she admits that it seems completely bizarre now, “New York in the ’70s—a lot of things seemed normal that were completely abnormal,” she says with a laugh.
By the time she got to the Rhode Island School of Design she had already taken six years of life drawing, oil painting and anatomy. She remembers thinking, “This is school and I get to draw all day. How great is this?”
When it came time to choose a major, it was a toss-up between illustration and design. Her parents urged her to pick design, cautioning that if she chose illustration she’d have poor health insurance and wouldn’t make any money. “Now everyone has cruddy health insurance,” she says.
For Beck, college provided the discovery that the way things look can express feelings. She learned to think creatively. Instead of making things look, as she puts it, “super-freakishly realistic,” she learned technical mastery while pushing the boundaries of creativity. While at RISD she took only one illustration class, a scratchboard class with Chris Van Allsburg. And she met her future husband, illustrator Jordin Isip, in their freshman year.
She graduated in 1989, unfortunately in the middle of the recession. After 30 interviews, she got a job at design firm Cato Gobé (now Desgrippes Gobé). There she was given opportunities to take on important projects. Two years out of school, at the age of 25, she redesigned the corporate identity for Ethan Allen. But she still loved drawing and did scratchboard illustrations when she could. Jordin suggested she put together a book of her scratchboard drawings and he’d shop it around as he went on his rounds. That opened doors to the world of illustration. Beck left the firm when she had reached the point where she was being asked to hire and supervise other designers, realizing that she wanted to do creative work, not administrative.
After she left Cato Gobé, she was offered a freelance job at Alexander Isley Design, working on projects for Cooper Hewitt and the Brooklyn Academy of Art. Freelance quickly turned into full-time, and for two years Beck worked from nine to seven, then she would go home and do illustration until three in the morning.
“The first [commercial] illustration I ever saw was in high school,” Beck recalls. “My parents used to get U&lc magazine. It was a Henrik Drescher drawing of a guy biting himself in the ass. I thought that’s what I want to do for a living. I want people to pay me to draw some angst-ridden person biting himself in the ass. People get paid to do that, and get published? I want to do that.”
One of her first published illustrations was an assignment for the late lamented Wigwag magazine, when she’d been at Cato Gobé for a year. “I was a junior designer, lowest person on the totem pole and Paul Davis is calling me and giving me a feature story to illustrate for Wigwag!”
Comparing the ease with which she produced these illustrations, with two months finding the perfect blue for a corporate client, helped incline her toward illustration. That first year she did three illustration jobs, the other two were for Steven Heller at the New York Times Book Review and Florian Bachleda at the Village Voice. If she had not reached volume, Beck had at least started at the top of the food chain in terms of exposure and prestige.
By 28, Beck decided she wanted to be on her own. “Art is really a solo pursuit,” she says, so she took the plunge and set up shop at home. Another factor pointing her toward illustration was that her drawing was really expressive at the time. “Corporate design is not the place to do teenage angst,” she remembers. Even today, at 39, Beck could easily be mistaken for a teenager if not for the gray streak that defines her dark hair, and the confidence she exudes. “I look a lot younger than I am,” she admits.
Beck lives in a brownstone at the top of a perilously steep set of stairs, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. The home she shares with Jordin, and their two daughters Chloe, four, and Simone, two, is a masterpiece of organization. The walls are lined with white cases full of books, albums, art and collectible toys. Paul Rand, Henry Moore, Saul Steinberg and Ben Shahn are influences, as is the small collection of silhouette books she points out, that inspired a series of illustrations for Bloomberg Wealth Manager, among others. The small living room is full of kids’ art and friends’ paintings. Inside the middle room, is an office/studio she shares with Jordin. Her husband’s downstairs studio—full of paintings and his music collection—is a stark contrast. Their styles are different, but they occasionally collaborate with Melinda as designer and Jordin as illustrator.
Within arm’s reach of her computer is a file cabinet with neatly labeled folders of drawings and lettering to scan, and a rolling cart filled with plastic bags full of scrap metal that she uses to create sculptures which she photographs to use as elements in her illustrations. She is drawn to the style of the 1950s, a period where designers also had strong drawing skills but key to her career is her versatility; she loves to experiment with different media.
She encountered her first Mac in 1985 and it was love at first sight, no more tweezers to place type, no more crumpled press-on type. “All my work is created half on and half off [the computer],” Beck says. “Even though I love it, there are things that the computer just can’t do; there’s a certain kind of dirty quality that you just can’t get on the computer.” She prefers a limited palette, and tones the color down further if there is a lot of texture in the piece.
While she began with scratchboard, after ten years in that medium she moved on to a new style and approach. She now scans objects into her Mac G5 and adds layers of color and collage elements. Sometimes an old book she has picked up will influence a project. “My stuff changes all the time. I cannot do the same thing,” Beck claims. “I couldn’t tell you what my work will look like six years from now.”
Beck likes to take a traditional illustration style and turn it on its head. She’s fond of asking her clients, “Can I do something for you that you’ve never seen before?” Even though she excels at representational drawing, she claims her Achilles’ heel is doing likenesses of people. “I can draw realistically, but I’ve never been able to make a person look like that person it is.”
Her graphic design and illustration clients include Nickelodeon, Target, MTV, Nike, Chronicle Books and publications the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time and The Progressive. And Beck has another, somewhat unusual client base: She has a file of tattoos she designed, mostly for fans of the now defunct band Quicksand (friends of Jordin’s whose album covers she illustrated) who have given her work a whole new canvas.
“I don’t really care what my client does. I couldn’t care if I’m designing toilet paper. What I want is a client that is willing to let me off the leash,” she explains. “That’s the client I love, also a client who is a nice person. A lot of people underestimate personality. If you think it’s the greatest job and the client isn’t pleasant, it will be the most tortuous job. I really look for good people to work with.”
A perfect outlet for a playful, inventive mind and a drawing style that can verge on retro cartoons, Beck does interstitials and drawings for animated shorts for NOGGIN, Nickelodeon’s educational network for the younger set.
“For NOGGIN, our mantra from the beginning was ‘hand of the child, eye of the designer,’ says Matthew Duntemann, executive design director Nickelodeon Parenting and Preschool Group, a long-time client. “Melinda was able to take that mantra and bring it to life. She has been that very important ‘eye’ for us, having created work that has delighted children, while giving a knowing wink to adults. That’s the way we like it. We’ve been able to create a visual system for NOGGIN that allows for a great deal of diversity within that system. She’s brought a really clear voice to this design template, and a unique one too.”
Unlike many illustrators Beck enjoys the business side, and she conducts business with the same attention to detail as her ordered environment; she is strict about meeting deadlines and even worked on an assignment while she was in labor—until her water broke, prompting her client to say that was the best excuse he’d ever heard.
Juggling career and family, Beck seems content to create art and nurture the artists within her daughters, bringing her passions full circle. ca