ArtsATL > Art+Design > A conversation with critically acclaimed designer Louise Fili

A conversation with critically acclaimed designer Louise Fili

A collection of Louise Fili's matchbook designs. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Louise Fili is a graphic designer and lettering artist based in New York City. As the principal of Louise Fili Ltd., she has focused her work on brand development for food packaging and restaurants since she founded her studio in 1989. A protégé of Herb Lubalin and former carte blanche art director at Pantheon Books, her letterforms and work have become world-renowned for their detail, elegance and ability to preserve a visual culture of her Italian and Italian-American heritage.

She has achieved critical acclaim with awards from The Society of Illustrators, The New York Art Director’s Club, The Bologna Book Fair and has had multiple The James Beard nominations. The Library of Congress, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale all permanently house much of her work. She and her husband, Steven Heller, have co-authored numerous books on different art styles and graphic design. Fili has also authored books including Elegantissima, Grafica della Strada and Italianissimo. For her accomplishments and contributions to design, Louise was inducted into the Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame, and presented with Lifetime Achievement medals from both the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Type Director’s Club.

ArtsATL was able to catch up with Louise before her Design Conversation at MODA on March 2.

Louise Fili, image by Henry Leutwyler courtesy Louise Fili and MODA.
Louise Fili. (Image by Henry Leutwyler, courtesy of Louise Fili and MODA.)

ArtsATL: Your parents were immigrants from Italy, and your love of heritage is proudly shown in your work and life. When did you first start exploring the style and visual history of communication from that culture?

Louise Fili: When I turned 16, I took my first trip to Italy. It was my parent’s first visit back from the states. That was the same summer I taught myself calligraphy and really became aware of typography. I used to make illuminated manuscripts of Bob Dylan lyrics! I had ONE book on illuminated letters and I copied everything from it.

In those days, nobody called it graphic design, we called it commercial art, so I thought this didn’t have anything to do with a future career. In Italy, I saw the actual illuminated manuscripts, particularly in San Marco and Florence. From the type, to the food, everything in Italy was a major influence on my life.

When I went to college, I ended up doing an independent study in lettering and graphic design. The project was a completely lettered, Italian cookbook using my mother’s recipes. It’s pretty funny looking back that it was all there for me and came naturally.

ArtsATL: Early in your career you worked with Herb Lubalin, one of the most well-known graphic designers/lettering artists in America. You’ve cited that experience as a great foundation for your work and career. How did that mentorship elevate your work?

Fili: Mentorship is everything! When I went there it was my dream to work for him. I never thought I was ready to show him my portfolio, so I showed it to an art director who said I should give to Herb.

He wasn’t a great communicator, in the sense that he didn’t talk very much at all, so I had to do all of the talking, which I was not used to. I asked if he had any job openings and he said, “Well not right now, but I might have a budget for a magazine project in November.” So I had to wait. I asked him if he ever considered doing a collection of rubber stamps (he said no) so I made some and dropped them off. His secretary said he got them and thought they were very nice. With no other response, I thought, “Well NOW what do I do?” Fortunately, he was in his office when I went to get them. He was drawing his type, not saying a word, and without turning his head he asked, “What’s new?” We talked and then I asked, “By the way, you said you might have a job opening about this time?” I was hired.

ArtsATL: Persistence pays off!

Fili: Yes! I got all of my great jobs that way, and that’s how I’ve hired the best people. It always was someone who wasn’t looking for a job, they wandered in with a portfolio, and I hired them! I’ve watched it happen many times before.

ArtsATL: Several well-known designers and artists have started out in your studio, such as Jessica Hische and Spencer Charles. What did you instill in them that you believe led to their success in their own independent careers?

Fili: What I always do with anyone who works with me, is look for their strengths and help them make the most of them. Everyone who works for me is already talented, or I wouldn’t hire them. I always look for a certain skill they have that should be developed further for their needs, and my own. It’s amazing to see how many people have walked out of here and started their own studios that are doing well. I’ve been teaching for over 30 years and that’s a very important part too. Just to work with students and watch them grow is incredible, even more so with my staff. It’s wonderful when they’re here and very, very sad when they leave.

ArtsATL: That sounds like a very close family.

Fili: VERY close. Without even realizing it, I think I was trying to do something like what Herb had. (Though I will say I communicate better with my staff than with how Herb did!)

ArtsATL: I would assume your studio is stacked with client ephemera.

Fili: Of course! There’s always something good to drink, and always gelato. It’s a lot like home. Whenever I do a client presentation, I always make sure to schedule it in the afternoon and serve gelato first. It works every time. Once I had a client who insisted on coming in the morning and when I served gelato it just didn’t work.

I work out of a refurbished apartment. It has a kitchen, which is an important aspect with everyone in the studio because of the nature of the work. Since I have 2 gelato clients, there is always gelato along with the wine, biscotti, cookies and jams.

ArtsATL: That is a magical business plan.

Fili: I know!

ArtsATL: What encouraged you to found your own studio after your time at Pantheon?

Fili: I was very happy at Pantheon. I loved designing book jackets and had a successful freelance business doing book covers in the evenings. At that time in publishing, all the art directors were so poorly paid that we freelanced for each other. So I had a pretty good deal going on that laid groundwork for opening my studio.

When my son was born, I took a three-month leave-of-absence. I went back and suddenly the work didn’t look interesting anymore. So I left and started Louise Fili Ltd. the next day, working out of our apartment the first 2 years. After 2 years I moved my business to a studio in the neighborhood in walking distance.

I quickly learned you never depend on any one type of work/client, or wait for the phone to ring. One of the first things I did was a book with my husband (Steven Heller) about Italian Art Deco style, that eventually became a series on art deco design. By doing our own books together, I eventually started doing my own projects. They were all mostly related to Italy because of our visits there.

ArtsATL: In an age of design where prowess with digital tools can achieve incredible feats for designers, how much of your work is accomplished by hand?

Fili: Well, it’s made by hand . . . on the computer. Everything we do is hand lettered digitally. I don’t personally work on a computer because I do what I’ve always done: sit down and sketch over and over again. This goes back to the book jackets, when I’d take the title of a book, write it many times and let the form flow. It would go from very amorphous, to something more precise. Without realizing it, this process was preparing me for designing logos and other brand components. It’s exhausting just to describe the process. I literally couldn’t take on more than one at a time. There was just no space to do it.

ArtsATL: When you began your studio, was designing your own type a common thing to do, or was this a relatively new venture for a designer?

Fili: At Pantheon, I worked with a lot of different letterers and retouchers. I would put together a rough sketch first, go over it with them, and they would do the final drawing. The letterers would make the sketches sing! Once that got to the computer, it took awhile to get right, because Adobe Illustrator (in its beginnings) wasn’t what it is now. Anybody can be a letterer, really. You just have to know how to do it properly.

ArtsATL: What drew you to focusing your design work around food?

Fili: Looking back on 28 years, I never could’ve dreamed I’d focus on the stuff. I started in restaurants, which is very different than working in book publishing where I came from. I was dealing with clients who were just shy of gangsterdom! There was a lot of time spent explaining why they had to hire both me and a printer. Once I started networking with an architectural firm, they started to recommend jobs. That was fantastic because they knew about restaurant openings before the newspapers. It was a great way to find clients.

ArtsATL: There’s been an explosion of public obsession over food in the last decade. Has this been good for business? Any downsides to a flood of “food love” in the market?

Fili: It’s been good. There was a hint of interest when I was designing restaurants. That’s why I was able to do as many restaurants as I did because for the first time people were paying attention to detail. Architects were paid to design restaurants, which had not been the case until the 90s. People began to notice the graphics, and because of the computer, menus could be designed for updates on a daily basis. Before the computer, everyone’s menus couldn’t be changed without a lot of hassle. Of course there’s still a communicative struggle because we design the menus in InDesign, or Illustrator and they want them in Word. Where do you begin to explain Word is not a design program?

ArtsATL: How has Louise Fili Ltd. maintained such a high quality of design while remaining relevant?

Fili: I never like to design anything that I wouldn’t want to show. I’ve been fortunate and selective with my clients. If someone comes to me without having opened a restaurant before, I usually don’t take the job. I’m more careful now than when I first started. I like working with chefs because we have a lot in common. Although my ego is usually not the size of theirs, we do have a common level of perception. If they’re willing to accept that, I can usually design what I want!

ArtsATL: Starting your woman-led design studio in 1989 shattered ceilings. What advice do you offer to other women looking to start their own creative businesses/studios?

Fili: It is a lot easier now than when I started. In the pre-Google era, you couldn’t be creative about the way you named your studio. People found you in the phonebook, so I had to do something with my name. I knew that was going to be a liability because this was a woman-owned business. I could’ve been deceptive and called it “Fili and Associates” to make it look bigger, more masculine, but I felt very strongly about this. I wanted to send a clear message that if you have a problem with me being a female, then I have trouble with you being my client! So I called it “Louise Fili Ltd.” I’m sure I’ve lost jobs that way, but I don’t want to work with those people.

Of course, we have to mention Bella Cucina, a local champion of Atlanta! Alisa Barry broke ground as well with a woman-owned company in Atlanta. They were one of my first packaging clients.

ArtsATL: What did you first design for them?

Fili: I think it was preserved lemons. She had been in business for five years, so we upgraded her logo and did a few book projects. That included the preserved lemons, cranberry conserve and some biscotti. It’s a great opportunity to design a product so beautiful. The way they arranged those lemons was so nice it almost doesn’t even need a label.

Alisa was always good about the hand labor involved in packaging, which most of my clients aren’t. Everybody ties on the name tag by hand. For me, it’s all about the tactility that makes it appetizing. In food packaging, it’s great to have that tag, or the paper handkerchief that goes on top of the lid. She had so many beautiful products and so many different kinds of containers that made it interesting. Always a pleasure to work with her.

ArtsATL: You’ve mentioned before that you love traveling alone to absorb all you can about a culture, its art, its food, etc. How crucial do you believe solitude is to the working designer?

Fili: It’s very important. I like time to myself and traveling alone. Of course, I like to travel with family too, but when I go to Italy it’s wonderful that I don’t have to speak English. What I do most is take pictures of signs, and who’d want to be with me when I’m doing that? Certainly not Steven, my husband [laughs]. But as far as work goes, there are times I want to clear my head and think through a new project. I’ll come to the studio on a Sunday when it’s quiet and the light is just right. I’ll sit in the conference room, spread out my books, and just sketch out new ideas. The sketch is the most important and exciting part of the design. Everything is in there. It’s a very personal thing. Sometimes the sketch is more beautiful than the finished product!

ArtsATL: The color palettes, typographic flourishes and glittering gold throughout your work are breathtaking. Other than Italy, do you find yourself drawing inspiration from any other kind of source?

Fili: I alternate between Italy and Paris. As soon as I did my first book on Italian signage, I was already planning the next one about Paris. I thought it would be easier because it was a city rather than a whole country, but it was a lot. Just today we’re sending off a third book in the series to press about Barcelona!

ArtsATL: Congratulations!

Fili: Thank you! I love that city. The architecture is gorgeous and the signage is disappearing! In fact, there was one sign that I’d seen in pictures and I checked on Google street view to see if it was still there, something I do with signs I’m cataloging.

In Barcelona, there was one particular sign for a photo store with beautiful script. Google said it was still there. Full of excitement, I ran to it when I arrived only to find the sign was gone! There were even traces of it in the molding to taunt me and I had this feeling that it had JUST been removed. It was so upsetting. The next day a friend had set up an interview with me and a journalist from El Pais, the biggest newspaper in Spain. I inadvertently mentioned how disappointed I was. A week later I got an email from the grandson of the original photo store owner, and he said his family was so moved by the interview that they invited me back to remount the sign so I could get a picture.  

So I went back! It says so much about Barcelona and the people there. We emailed about what time to meet, and the grandson said the light was best at 5:00 p.m. I dropped by, he popped the sign back in and we took a picture. When we were done he popped it back out with ease. As I asked why they took the sign out in the first place, I remembered my friend who arranged the interview with El Pais guessed that theft was becoming very common for old signage. With the sign being so easy to pop in and out, no wonder they took it down! Afterward, they brought us up inside the store where the family used to live and gave us coffee. That whole story is just really special. Power of the press!

Louise Fili will speak at Museum of Design Atlanta on March 2 at 7 p.m.

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