Interview with Louise Fili: graphic art on the road

by Paolo Mattei

“I took my first trip to Italy at the age of sixteen; I went with my parents who were returning for the first time since they had left to come to America. Upon arriving, I was struck by a billboard with a romantic image of a couple in a passionate embrace under an inky night sky, with the single word, Baci. I knew what the word meant, but I had no idea what this ad was for. It didn’t matter. This was the moment when I fell in love at once with food, type, and Italy.”

Louise Fili is a noted American graphic designer. Her story plays out like a romantic movie, opening on a young girl’s dreamy eyes as she stares at the starry sky of a billboard, with a couple kissing and a single word she would find impossible to forget. If that couple and those four letters were not the logo of some very famous chocolates – which have since then been acquired by a major Swiss brand – the whole scene could be a great advertisement for Italy in other countries. Or for “Italian Ways”…

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Louise Fili lives and works in New York, where she founded Louise Fili Ltd, specialized in book design, restaurant logos, and food packaging. The Italian-origin graphic designer – with works included in the collections at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris; the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York – comes back to her parents’ country of origin every year, stopping in Venice and Rome to teach classes for the School of Visual Arts’ master program.

She has recently published “Grafica della Strada. The Signs of Italy”, available through Amazon. The book is a travel log of photographs, a journey among the signs she encountered going from one store to the next, street after street. Fili took visual notes over three decades and now presents her collection of stores, hotels, restaurants and workshops, telling their story through signs painted on ceramics, carved in wood, lit up by neon lights, forged in metal… in an extraordinary repertoire of typographic styles, ranging from classic to Art Nouveau, from traditional to futurist.

We asked the American artist to tell us how this book came to be.

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Antica Gelateria Giolitti, Rome

Your book was born “on the road”: how did you find these signs?
For more than thirty years, I have been traveling in Italy in search of signs; each time I try to choose a city that I’ve not yet been to, so I can continue my pursuit. Once in a new locale, I go up and down every street, alley, and darkened galleria, looking for new typographic gems. More recently, I have discovered Google Street View: regardless of the weather or time of day, I can “drive” around everywhere in search of these new discoveries, or to relocate signs that I had photographed many years ago.

What was your process to shoot new photographs?
For this book, I travelled to Italy four times over the course of one year. The first trip was to Rome, where I stayed for a month as a visiting artist at the American Academy. I would get up every morning at dawn and go out with my tripod and handmade maps of each neighborhood. I would spend the entire day wandering the streets of this beautiful city, unearthing every photogenic sign. At the end of the day, I would return to my apartment to review the photos and to make a plan for the next day. I would fall asleep in front of Google Street View on my computer.

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Burano and Rome

What kind of photographs did you use for the book?
The signs in this book were documented in many forms: as 35mm slides, point-and-shoot prints, and finally, digital files. I took these photos purely for my own enjoyment and inspiration; reproduction was never my goal. But with the arrival of digital photography, for the first time I was able to consider the possibility of a book. This necessitated returning to many cities to reshoot the photos at a higher resolution. For the signs that no longer remained, my staff worked miracles in Photoshop.

A number of the signs you portray are extraordinary pieces created by people who never went near a design school
These sign craftsmen may not have had formal training, but they undoubtedly learned their trade with the help of apprenticeships, manuals, and, most importantly, from observation. By looking at and imitating others in their profession, they created the innovative and unique signage that we all admire today.

This is the “Made in Italy” excellence of shop signs
Given that Italy is the birthplace of typography, it should come as no surprise that it is the source of some of the best signage as well.

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Lucca and Venice

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Rome and Turin

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Bologna and Lucca

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Louise Fili, “Grafica della Strada. The Signs of Italy”, on sale on Amazon

louise fili


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