Illustrator Samy Halim Fuses Art Deco and Memphis Milano In His Striking Portraits

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Many designers have a guiding light driving their artistic practice, a north star fueling their vision. For French illustrator Samy Halim, that guiding principle is to be visually bold and graphic.

Born and raised in Algeria, Halim studied visual arts at the Art School of Algiers until he and his family were forced to move to France to escape the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. “It was a little hard to start everything over,” he says. Unable to continue his studies, Halim did his best to find work, eventually having a breakthrough when he landed a junior graphic designer position at a studio in Paris. 

“When I was a kid, my dream was to become a car designer,” he shares, “but when I was a teenager, that changed. I discovered the world of typography, branding, illustration, and packaging and decided to pursue a career as a graphic designer specializing in packaging. That way, I could have fun by working on all of these at once.”

Since then, Halim has worked mainly in the beverages and spirits graphic design space. He’s designed for the likes of Melati, Lecarre, and Presidente, illustrating elements that his studio translates into packaging.

After getting his footing at the studio for a few years, he began working as an illustrator on the side. In 2011 he was able to open his own studio. Last year, he fulfilled his dream of transitioning out of his 23-year graphic design career and focusing solely on his own illustration practice. “I prefer working on my stuff to client work because I feel free,” he says. “There are no constraints that scare me or make me feel uncomfortable. It’s satisfying to hear a client asking for your style. Like they need your personality, your vision of things. It changes the game. But it’s not the same when a client asks you to mimic a style they like.”

Halim now lives in Libourne, France, where he still cultivates his striking portraiture style that combines the hand-drawn with digital rendering. He has an affinity for retro, color-popping aesthetics above all else, which has led him to his uniquely eye-catching look. But it didn’t come overnight.

“It was a long journey,” he tells me. “I searched for my own style for years, and I came to it in around 2014. It was almost unexpected when I found it. I was trying to get something that looked Art Deco, minimalist, with few lines and colors. I started with flat colors and then started to add some depth to the illustrations. I use a constrained palette of dark blue in almost all of my work. I like to combine something hard and sharp or clean and neat with something more soft with gradients and shades. That is the combination I’m always looking for.”

“I’ve always wanted to be known as an artist with my own style,” Halim tells me, but he’s quick to credit those who came before him who have influenced his work; Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, fashion illustrator George Stavrinos, Jack Hughes, and Patrick Nagel. There are indeed traces of each of these artists in Halim’s work, from the swagger, attitude, and female power his portraits exude, to his particular use of colors, shapes, and textures rooted in Art Deco and Memphis Milano aesthetics. 

“The main influence on my work is Art Deco and Memphis Milano,” he says. “Memphis Milano is a movement of deco that is made of bold, clean colors coming from the 1980s. A lot of furniture and many posters were made in this style. My piece called “Sarah” (see above in the second row of photos on the left) represents the Memphis Milano style well. Bold, flashy colors like blue, red, pink, and yellow. My work is a combination of the 1920s and the 1980s.”

For Halim, it’s all about creating something uniquely eye-catching with his illustrations. “What I am trying to get with my portraits is a look hook,” he says. “Whether it’s the expression, the posture, the style, the construction, I am always seeking something special. Like they are saying, ‘Hey, look at me! I got something to tell you or to show you.’”

“Expressions and poses guide me when I draw something,” he continues. “First, it’s about the pose. It should be interesting, always facing the camera. I think that’s more interesting than a pose looking upward or somewhere else. It’s just better in terms of composition.” When perusing Halim’s portraits, you’re confronted with a hip confidence, with subjects decked out in graphic sunglasses, geometric jewelry, and angular hair configurations. Each gazes back at you with a palpable coolest-person-at-the-cocktail-bar energy. 

Halim has been chasing and achieving this je ne sais quoi from a young age. “One day, my father, who was a good drawer in his own right, said to me, ‘There’s something special you put into the eyes when you draw portraits.’ I wasn’t drawing the way I do now, just academic drawings, but this moment has resonated with me since then.” 

Halim points to the iconic Mona Lisa and The Girl with the Pearl Earring as beacons of the quality he’s always after. “They’re so successful because of their look and attitude. To me, it’s really important to get a connection between my art and the onlooker that creates a kind of relationship and tells a story.”