Maja Säfström is an architect & illustrator based in Stockholm. Her illustrations are simple and very expressive and her style is memorable – if you saw her work once, you will immediately recognize it time and time again.
Maja is also the published author of two illustration books, both collections of some pretty cool animals facts. When she is not drawing in her studio, Maja spends her time running her shop, where she sells prints, books, greeting cards or tote bags, all printed with her lovely illustrations.
I prefer drawing animal characters more than humans, because it leaves out so many decisions, like sex, age and ethnicity
Hi Maja! I’ve been following your work on Instagram for a few years now, so I’m very excited about doing this interview with you! First of all, I love your animal illustrations! Where did your passion for animals come from?
Haha, I am not sure. Why I draw so many animals? I think it’s because it gives so much freedom. Most of my drawings are a bit ambivalent, in that it’s not really clear “what animal” it is supposed to depict. I prefer drawing animal characters more than humans, because it leaves out so many decisions, like sex, age and ethnicity. It allows me to focus on creating a character with an emotion or expression!
It’s a pretty big leap from your formation as an architect, to doing the creative illustrations we see now. How did you get here?
Oh, it’s all thanks to Instagram, really!
I used to have an architect office, and I never really felt comfortable as an architect. And then, I went back to school and made my thesis work in 2013. It was so much fun and I had an awesome professor who encouraged me to just make abstract drawings for the whole project! It was the best time ever! And during those months, I started my Instagram account and shared my drawings. And from that point on, I got more and more followers and also fantastic job opportunities as an illustrator.
So, when my son was born in 2015, I decided to quit architecture and focus on illustrating!
Tell me a bit about your books. What inspired you to create them and how have they been received by the public?
It actually started with an American book publisher contacting me in 2014, asking me if I wanted to make a whole book on an “animal facts” theme, because I had posted a drawing of an octopus with a lot of fun facts about them. And it just went on from there!
I think it has done really well! It even reached the New York best seller list and I think it’s been (and still is) translated to about 10 different languages so far!
How would you describe the experience of publishing your own books?
Oh, unreal and amazing. Books are actually a lot different than just making illustrations because there is so much infrastructure around books: bookshops, libraries, reviews, book blogs, and all the work that the publishers do spreading the book.
When I make my own prints, I might sell a few hundred. But the book has sold incredibly much more than that. It is so crazy to think that so many people actually have a copy of it at home!
You own your own brick-and-mortar shop in Stockholm. Why did you decide to open a shop, considering the easy option of using online platforms (which I know you use also, because you also have an online shop)?
Well, I do think that having a physical shop is the natural thing to have next to the online shop. I love being able to invite followers here to meet me and to see and touch all the things.
The shop also doubles as my studio and its a place where I can host parties and workshops, so there are a lot of great things combined with having my own space in the city!
How much time and work is it to run such a store?
Would you say it’s been successful, so far?
The shop? Haha, well, good question. I think the shop works exactly as I had planned, most of the sales are definitely from online orders, so that works out great. Hanna, the shop assistant, never has a quiet minute, when it is calm in the shop she takes care of the online orders.
Is your current source of income based on commissioned work, or selling your own products?
I do very very few commissioned work at the moment, I only say “yes” to really special commission requests, because I have to put all my time into the shop and foremost, into making my third book!
So, my two biggest sources of incomes right now are book royalties and sales from the shop!
How do you promote yourself, as an illustrator?
I try to share fun work on my social media. And I try to say “yes” to as many requests as possible when it comes to talking about my books and my work!
What is your favorite thing to draw?
When you create a new illustration, what is your process?
Ah, it’s different, but if it is a motive that I haven’t made before, I usually first make an outline with my pencil then go about with a fine-liner and then finally scan the drawing and make some final adjustments with my Wacom board.
What other tools do you use in your work?
I usually have lots of ideas for the day and usually only have time to finish a third of them
How do you come up with new ideas for what to draw next?
It is often a situation that has really happened in my life that I want to draw. Other times, I just start drawing and things just happen.
What does a day in your life look like?
My son wakes up at 4 and crawls up in our bed and cuddles us and falls back to sleep! Then we wake up at about 7:30 and have breakfast. And then either me or my boyfriend leave him at kindergarten and then I go to my studio/shop.
The day consists of answering a lot of emails, making sure the web shop is OK, planning some new projects, working on the book. I usually have lots of ideas for the day and usually only have time to finish a third of them!!
How would you define success (for yourself, as a self-employed illustrator)?
What a hard question! Actually, I just read about a Japanese (I think) word called “ikigai” and it’s the most perfect description of success that I have found! Here is a picture taken from google:
It basically says “ikigai” is the golden combination where “doing what you love” coincides with being “something the world needs” AND “that you can be paid for doing” AND “that you are good at”. I try every day to get a bit closer to this goal! It’s hard, but such a good role model I think! Success is there in the middle!
Where do you wish to be, five years from now?
Oh, I would love to live somewhere where it is spring all year around.