Every Object Has a Story: In Conversation with the Cartorialist

Every Object Has a Story: In Conversation with the Cartorialist

Known to her followers as The Cartorialist, the artist Carly Kuhn discusses her drawings – and the secret lives of objects, from fashion to design to antiques.
Known to her followers as The Cartorialist, the artist Carly Kuhn discusses her drawings – and the secret lives of objects, from fashion to design to antiques.

T he New York City–based dealer Hyde Park Antiques is a world authority on European furniture – as well as a charming counterpart to the artist Carly Kuhn, whose contour drawings of antiques and design objects are both elegant and winsome. Better known to her 192,000 followers on Instagram as The Cartorialist, Kuhn made her name drawing fashionistas during the platform’s earliest days before expanding her repertoire to include subjects like chairs and drinks and animals – some of which she reproduces as wallpaper through her studio, The Cartelier.

Kuhn got a sneak peek of two upcoming auctions at Sotheby’s featuring works hand selected by Bernie and Rachel Karr, the current proprietors of Hyde Park Antiques – the first of which will be held on 31 January. Five objects caught her eye, including a stunning table clock and a pair of gilt candelabras with more than a passing resemblance to Lumiere, the singing maître’d.

Here, she chats with Sotheby’s about her delightful drawings and the meaning that antiques can bring to our lives.

Will Fenstermaker 
Have you always drawn or was it something that came to you later in life?

Carly Kuhn
I grew up in New York City and I felt so stimulated by its culture. I was always doodling and taking the normal high school-required art classes, but I never thought of it as more than a hobby. My earliest memories of my drawings are these pretty ugly sketches of dresses (laughs). I had thoughts of one day being a fashion designer or being on Broadway or SNL – I think a result of growing up in New York City.

I majored in TV, radio and film at the Newhouse School at Syracuse, and with some extra credits during my last semester I took History of Fashion and a fashion illustration course. When I graduated, I moved to California and worked at CAA as an assistant – totally Entourage style – and shortly after joined The Groundlings improv school.

Simultaneously, I start doodling again. I drew for friends’ birthdays on little note cards and slips of paper. As I went from one job to the next, I just continued on drawing.

Then Instagram came along, and I created an account as an outlet, without any intention. Ink on paper had become my medium simply because it was what I had around me, and my subject matter became everything I saw on early Instagram, which was mostly fashion photography and fashion bloggers. I started to shift from drawing weird little characters with a New Yorker influence to drawing people and tagging them – which is something that’s really common today but wasn’t at all back then.

Kuhn’s small drawings of a table clock, rosewood writing table and giltwood mirror. Images courtesy Carly Kuhn, The Cartorialist
“Drawing is a different way of getting up close and looking at these objects with a new perspective.”
- Carly Kuhn

Will Fenstermaker
Right, like, “Why is this stranger tagging me?” It’s exciting to see all of these things come together in your work – media studies leads to Instagram, and your drawings are very playful and humorous. The Cartorialist weaves it all together: your name, cartoons and sartorial. Are you still mostly motivated by fashion today?

Carly Kuhn 
It’s been quite the journey over the last 10 years. As an artist and a creative, your identity is so tied to where you are in your life. I didn’t plan this out – I didn’t go to art school and I didn’t necessarily have any intention of being an artist – but I did end up as a kind of fashion illustrator. At least, that’s how people referred to me. When you start your career on such a public platform, it creates a lot of pressure. Back then, Instagram was still instant – I was posting within an hour of finishing a drawing. If people really liked that drawing of a red dress, does that mean I should just draw another red dress?

For a while I did a lot of Fashion Week stuff and drew from pop culture. But I really wanted to expand as an artist; I didn’t want to feel paralyzed by any one thing. Over time I started to develop my single-line technique, so I used that to expand beyond fashion illustration. Saul Steinberg, who I discovered much later into my career, described himself as “a writer who draws.” I really resonate with that.

KUHN’S LARGE DRAWINGS OF A SECRETAIRE BOOKCASE, PAIR OF CANDELABRAS AND GILTWOOD MIRROR. IMAGES COURTESY CARLY KUHN, THE CARTORIALIST
“There’s a sense of character in these objects that I’m drawn to. I think of it as personifying them through ink on paper.”
- Carly Kuhn

Will Fenstermaker
For the Hyde Park auctions at Sotheby’s, you drew several pieces of antique furniture that are coming up for sale. Is furniture a new subject for you?

Carly Kuhn
It’s definitely a more recent interest. There’s a sense of character in these objects that I’m drawn to. I think of it as personifying them through ink on paper. Recently, I’ve become obsessed with chairs (laughs). There’s one drawing of chairs that I turned into wallpaper through my studio, The Cartelier. That drawing started an obsession that just expanded into other areas, which have been a lot more present in my work.

I love drawing objects. They’re like the beginning of a story – when you research them, you learn about all of these other fascinating objects and people.

Will Fenstermaker
How did you select the five objects you drew for Sotheby’s?

Images courtesy Carly Kuhn, The Cartorialist

Carly Kuhn
You know, it was really just what excited me. That ornamentation on the top of the mirror, for example, is that kind of detail that grabs me, knowing it would translate well on paper. Since I don’t have that education in art history, drawing is a different way of getting up close and looking at these objects with a new perspective. I really like playing with scale for the same reason; I did a couple drawings for Sotheby’s in different sizes. I’ve been doing lots of miniatures lately.

As for the process, I printed out photographs of the objects and taped them around my studio. I drew each one multiple times, in notebooks and on this antique paper that I love. I also like to include the text because, again, it signals this deeper story. It was really open ended; I just wanted to play around because I find it so enjoyable.

What’s so cool about putting the objects to paper is that it gives you this entirely different perspective. Like drawing the candelabras made me think about Beauty and the Beast. Or while drawing the George III secretair cabinet, all I could see was this angry little man (laughs).

Will Fenstermaker
That reminds me of a great show at the Met recently about the influence French decorative arts had on Walt Disney; there’s something very enchanting about how these formal objects gain new and exciting lives when they’re picked up again and reimagined in popular culture. Since this is a furniture auction, I wanted to ask: What about you? What’s your design aesthetic?

Carly Kuhn 
Oh, that’s also something that’s evolved over the years. I’d say it’s very layered. I just moved to Miami after living in Los Angeles for 12 years, and that tropical, Art Deco style is starting to make its way in. I have a number of antiques from my parents’ house in New York City, including the chair I sit at in my studio, and there are some French antique influences mixed in.

It’s funny, my obsession with antique chairs led me to collecting a ton of them. It’s like the old woman who lives in a shoe (laughs)… but with chairs.

Will Fenstermaker
I love that eclecticism, and that’s part of what’s exciting at Sotheby’s too. Once upon a time, collectors might have hewed to specific categories, but increasingly people buy items from different times and from all around the world as a way of expressing the richness of our lives. That’s why it’s so cool to have you collaborating on this auction, because I see that in your work.

Carly Kuhn
It’s true. My drawings and my studio are all an extension of my home; everything lives together and feeds off each other. That’s part of what I want people to see in my work: that drawing and fashion and antiques are ways of telling stories about people. It’s like make-believe – you’re imagining who owned these items and what their lives were like – but there’s also this incredibly beautiful, inspiring history that you get to explore.


Follow Carly Kuhn on Instagram at @thecartorialist or visit her website, cartorialist.com.

The Cartorialist’s Selections from Hyde Park Antiques

Auctions and Exhibitions

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