When I arrive for my meeting with Kitiya Palaskas, she is every bit as vibrant as her work would have you expect; donning a tropical dress, her hair half up, revealing dazzling earrings that frame her face, and a wide, welcoming smile.
There’s no doubt you will have spotted the craft-based designer’s distinct aesthetic; eye-catching colour and fun props – including piñatas – have become synonymous with Palaskas featuring in campaigns for Sportsgirl, Peter Alexander, and Lego.
A printmaking graduate, Palaskas has proved that variety really is the spice of life, carving a unique career for herself as a professional crafter.
“My offerings as an artist are so varied,” she says. “I can teach workshops, I can do a DIY, I can produce a visual graphic image, but I can also produce a 3D prop. I like to be diverse, which I think is not a very conventional career path.”
Palaskas is familiar with the unconventional. Born in New Zealand to a Greek father and Thai mother, her parents having met serendipitously on a bus in Bangkok, she was raised a free spirit in an environment where creativity was ever-present.
Her father is a photographer, graphic designer and educator, and her mother is a crafter who has made everything from their clothes to bed quilts. The family called many places home, living in Papua New Guinea, England, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia.
Reflecting back, she in part attributes her creativity to growing up in an age with less technology.
“The 80s were different, we didn’t have phones, or iPads or anything, so everything was more hands-on,” she says. “Being a kid was a lot more about making stuff with your hands or having to use your imagination instead of just watching a screen, so I think that a lot of people I know from that time – I sound so old,” she laughs, “are naturally more creative because they didn’t get it fed to them on a spoon.”
For Palaskas much of what she loves at 34 goes back to her childhood.
Having completed her high school studies at an American international school in the United Arab Emirates, she says the emphasis was more on traditional academic pathways, and less on the creative arts, and admits to having felt like an outsider with a lack of direction.
After a whirlwind trip to England in pursuit of young love, it would be in Canberra of all places that she would find her “tribe”, and subsequently, herself.
“It sounds really corny,” she smiles, “but it was a really amazing time. In the Emirates I was always an outcast. So it was the first time that I felt that I was apart of a community and I think that really stayed with me.”
After graduating from ANU’s School of Art and Design, she moved to Sydney. Full of inspiration and brimming with creativity, she realised that she had no idea how to monetise her art.
At that time the e-commerce website Etsy was emerging, and so she decided to pursue her interest in fashion and try her luck with an online store.
“I had always been into fashion, so I decided to open an Etsy shop and just sell clothes and accessories that I was making. I was in a few bands and a dance troop, and I’d always make our costumes, so I thought I might as well try it,” Palaskas says.
Her DIY ethos is one she says goes back to her love of punk music in high school, and the culture that went with it, which was all about being proactive, putting on your own gigs, and making your own merch.
“I was so inspired by that I think it’s carried me through and the way I approach my career now,” she says. “I don’t wait around for anyone to give me anything, even though it would be awesome; I just try and make stuff happen for myself.”
It was this initiative that saw her career start to take shape, and really turned a corner after meeting her mentor, a stylist, who saw promise in the young crafter, and gave Palaskas her first major job working on a music video for the band Wolfmother.
“She would say ‘I need this headdress, it needs to match these clothes’, or’ I’m styling this musician we need a really cool jacket with patches on it, can you do it?’ Eventually she said ‘You could make something out of this bespoke crafting for the commercial creative industry; it’s not something that many people are doing’. It was like a light bulb moment. Get to craft for a living? I’d love to do that!”
With handmade typography going through a revival, and a move away from print-based mediums, it didn’t take long for word to spread about Palaskas’ talents, and before she knew it, she had a list of agencies knocking on her door attracted to her vibrant aesthetic.
“I was offering something that wasn’t seen before,” she explains. “I got a lot of corporate clients in the first three years of my career because it was a fresh take and they were looking for a point of difference to make them stand out more. I just kept putting myself out there and kept being asked to do things and it sort of grew organically from there.”
Aside from a goth phase that she admits to in her younger years, it is vibrant colours she has always been drawn to, whether it be plastic toys, brightly coloured walls, or flowers, and that is something the designer says goes back to growing up in Papua New Guinea, “a really beautiful, lush place where colours just pop”.
Her first love was always collage and is what has helped to define the look of her work. She never felt confident with a pencil in her hand, but quickly discovered that she could cut anything out of paper, welcoming the end result that was a bit raw and imperfect.
“My work has that sort of pop feel because of the method that I use to do it, and I’ve realised that it works for me. The colours themselves and the boldness of it is so much more visually appealing to me than looking at a black and white thing,” she says.
Aside from her love of crafting, Melbourne-based Palaskas also runs workshops and has naturally gravitated towards working with young people as a mentor.
Currently undertaking a social work course, she says it will tie in with her craft work, and is in line with her evolving priorities, with integrity right at the forefront.
“I want to be able to go through life doing things that I feel strongly about doing,” she says. “It’s very important to me that I believe in some way in what I’m doing, otherwise it’s just soul-destroying content production.”
It quickly becomes apparent that Palaskas is a determined soul, and her enthusiasm contagious. But it hasn’t come easily, with the road to self-discovery at times bumpy.
It was just last year that the designer decided to take the leap and go freelance once and for all, without a day job as backup, and she says it has taken a fair share of soul searching and reflection.
“I look back and I think ‘I made this happen; I did this’, just from a career that I created out of nothing. That feeling of empowerment that that gives you is like a drug; it’s addictive. Self-worth is a special feeling, and if you can get to a place where you can feel that from something you’ve done, you know you worked hard and it worked, you’re doing it,” Palaskas says.
“What I keep gravitating towards is creating my own future and there’s an excessive drive to prove to myself that I can make my own life. That’s what keeps me going. It’s like a horrible stubborn thing.”
I ask her whether she knows where that trait of being ‘strong-willed’ comes from, as despite not having grown up in a conventional Greek environment, neither speaking the language nor observing the cultural traditions, her passion and commitment to doing things her way, is all too reminiscent of most Greeks I know.
“That makes me feel great!” she laughs.
“A lot of people have a cultural identity that helps ground them in their formative years, but because I’m multicultural and I’ve moved around a lot, I don’t really have a sense of identity like other people do. So it’s hearing things like that, that connects me to my ethnicity. It’s really comforting.”
At just 34 she has already experienced and achieved so much, including a guide to crafting pinatas titled Piñata Party, published by Hardie Grant in 2017.
I get the feeling the trajectory is far from ending here. What’s next on the agenda for Kitiya Palaskas?
“I do get itchy feet because of my childhood. Even now, I’ve been here almost five-and-a-half years and I’m starting to think, do I want to move again? I’d love to find a way to live in America,” she says.
“I’ve got how many years until Trump isn’t president anymore? I’ve got that long to work it out.”
To see more of Kitiya Palaskas’ work, including her book ‘Piñata Party’, visit kitiyapalaskas.com or get social @kitiyapalaskas on Instagram and Facebook.
Are you a maker who wants to share your creations with the world? To get tips catch Kitiya Palaskas at the West Elm store in Chadstone Shopping Centre (1341 Dandenong Rd, Chadstone, VIC) on Saturday 24 February from 10.am. To book, call (03) 8537 9020. Spaces are limited.