Louise Fili started work after college as the art director at Pantheon Books, creating beautiful and distinctive book jacket design. She went on to launch Louise Fili Ltd., a graphic design studio which has created some of the most recognizable logos and packaging designs in the last twenty years: the Tiffany monogram, the Good Housekeeping seal, and perhaps most infamously, the Hanky Panky logo. Her work is easily identified by its sophistication and elegance, so it’s no surprise that her first monograph is entitled Elegantissima.
Like the best design books, it tells the story of someone who fell in love with design and made it her life’s work—and it may inspire you to do the same. Some professional disclosure here: I was introduced to Louise Fili through my position as production manager of the Little Bookroom and the New York Review Books Children’s Series, and Elegantissima features several Little Bookroom travel guides.
Image courtesy Louise Fili, LTD.
How did Elegantissima change from when you first began to work on it, to its publication?
I had a bet going with Matteo Bologna of Mucca Design as to who would be the first to produce a monograph. We were having lunch and he said, When are you doing a monograph? And I said, When are you doing a monograph? And so the race was on. The following day I sat down and laid out the whole book—and that was the pdf that I sent around to publishers. The final result was very much the same, except for the addition of case studies, which Princeton Architectural Press suggested.
The introduction mentions your college years, when you taught yourself calligraphy and sold illuminated Bob Dylan manuscripts to your classmates.
It was high school, actually. I recall that the Blonde on Blonde album was the source of most of the lyrics, particularly Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands—a long, very slow song that took up a full side of the album. The pace was a perfect match for the tedious calligraphic process.
Throughout the book, you’re trying new kinds of projects and creating your own. There’s a theme of restlessness, and you say that “Every designer needs to develop personal projects in order to find a unique voice.” Did you know that when you started working on the Italian art deco books for Chronicle—or did you have earlier projects?
At any given time, I’ve always had my own projects percolating. They all tie in with my passions for food and Italy. The Designer’s Guide to Italy was an idea that I had tried to sell to a paper company many years earlier. Many personal projects improve with age!
Elegantissima has this story about working with Herb Lubalin, and working around his color blindness—are there any other stories you could share?
Herb was a recent widower when I started working there, and many of the women used to fuss over him. One day in December he had a very bad cold and was complaining that “you can’t get good chicken soup in this town!” I took that as a command, and went straight home to start cooking. He loved the soup so much he said that we should package it and give it to our clients for Christmas. I designed a label with an Rx that turned into a star of David. And I couldn’t look at another chicken for a long time after. But in retrospect I realized that this was my first package design!
Louise Fili’s earliest package design. Photo Credit: Louise Fili
A more recent package design from Louise Fili, Ltd. Photo Credit: Louise Fili, Ltd.
You emphasize getting to know your clients, meeting with them in person. When did this become a part of your process, and what does it bring to the final design?
It has always been a part of the process. I was used to working closely with editors when I was in publishing, and on starting my studio I carried this over to dealing with clients. A more intimate relationship with a client will result in a deeper understanding of the project, and a better end result.
The Crane & Co. Logo, image courtesy Louise Fili LTD.
There’s a story where you tell Crane and Co. that they can’t leave the room until they reach a decision on their logo, which seems like it could be a scene out of Mad Men. Would you recommend this strategy to other designers?
No! By all means do NOT try this at home.
You can only use that trick once, and only when a client is in a place where he or she needs the extra push. But I do have special techniques for getting my way: When a restaurant client was too cheap to pay extra to duplex his business cards, I said that I would pay the difference ($300). He was humiliated enough to give in. And recently, in order to convince a client to let me redesign a particularly ugly wine label, I told her that if sales would not increase after my new label appeared on the market, I would return the design fee to her. I’m still waiting for an answer on that one.
I saw on Designers and Books that you have given a copy of George Lois’s book Damn Good Advice for People with Talent to everyone on your staff.
I read it even before it came out. Every rule is a gem. Decades later, George’s work, and thinking, are amazingly fresh.
You discovered Maus while working at Pantheon, and recommended it for publication. How did it cross your desk? Were you familiar with Spiegelman’s work in RAW? Are you a fan of other graphic novels?
Art Speigelman was a friend whom I had met through my husband, Steven Heller. I first met Art in Italy when he was shopping around the book, albeit unsuccessfully. I had always admired graphic novels, and I had already designed the covers of two Frans Masereel titles for Pantheon.
What is your favorite item in your collection of vintage Italian signs, objects, tokens, etc.?
The pasticceria papers, which made me want to explore food packaging.
Pasticceria papers and Louise Fili’s L’Arte del Gelato Logo from Elegantissima. Image courtesy Louise Fili, LTD.
The sketches for the L’Arte del Gelato logo are in an old Italian ledger. Do you have any other interesting notebooks?
I use whatever I happen to have around—the back of a shopping list or one of the many composition books I have found in Italy.
How does the taste of a restaurant’s food, or a chocolate, or jam, affect its design, packaging or logo?
When I work with a new client, I get to know them as well as their product in great depth, then I translate what I have absorbed into a design. If it isn’t a good product, I don’t take the job.
With book covers, you talk about how you were set on proving that “special effects trickery” was unnecessary to create great book covers. How did you know that? Are there any uses of special effects that work well?
It’s not to say that all foil stamping is bad. When I started at Pantheon, all book jackets seem to be shouting at the same decibel, and therefore drowned each other out. For the types of books I designed at Pantheon, subtlety was appropriate, and as a result the covers stood out from the more predictable formulas.
Whitman’s Portraits of Twelve Poets stands out among all your other book covers—the wavering hand-type, the names—it’s very different. I was wondering if you could talk about how you came to this design.
I used to design all the covers for Steerforth Press, a small publisher with even smaller budgets. Many times the only way to make the jacket unique was for me to hand letter all the type. That cover was done using a crow quill pen on blotter paper, resulting in a slightly distressed yet literary look.
Hanky Panky Logo. Image credit: Louise Fili, LTD.
There is just something going on between those two k’s in the Hanky Panky logo. Like all of your work, there seems to be a story within the logo, the type itself. So what’s going on with those k’s?
That is exactly what I intended for people to ask: what are those K’s doing? With a name like Hanky Panky, which comes with built-in cute, I wanted the logo to be sophisticated with implied naughtiness.
*Note: I confirmed this with Matteo Bologna, via email, who added: We agreed that the first one among us to publish their monograph, would actually be the loser of the challenge (because we knew that this would mean losing at least two years of our lifetime). I can definitively say that I’M THE WINNER!
First Featured Image by Henry Leutwyler.