Photography by Franck Bohbot

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Louise Fili: Never Sit and Wait for the Phone to Ring

Photography by Franck Bohbot
Louise Fili: Never Sit and Wait for the Phone to Ring
Published August 21, 2017 by Lee Magill

New York–based graphic artist Louise Fili is as passionate about letters, typefaces, and historic signage as she is about food, Italian culture, and savoring life’s simple pleasures.

The recipient of lifetime achievement awards from AIGA (2014) and the Type Directors Club (2015) – just the pinnacle of an awards mountain – Fili is the consummate designer’s designer. She has created unforgettable corporate signatures (the Tiffany & Co. monogram, the Paperless Post stamp), restaurant identities (Artisanal, Mermaid Inn, Pearl Oyster Bar), and food and wine packaging (Tate’s Bake Shop, Sarabeth’s); published a dozen prestigious design books, many with her husband, Steve Heller; and has so far been commissioned to design two USPS postage stamps, the most recent of which, an ode to skywriting, debuted in January.

The New Jersey–born Italian-American began her career as a senior designer for Herb Lubalin, spent 11 years at Pantheon Books quietly revolutionizing the art of book design, and then flew solo with the launch of her design studio, Louise Fili Ltd., in 1989.

Ninety Nine U joined Fili for lunch at Via Carota in the West Village, whose logo she created for its launch in 2015, to talk about why your studio's name matters, the reason your client’s person in charge must be present at all meetings, and what happens when you serve gelato at your studio presentations.

The following photographs of Louise Fili were taken in her New York City studio.

Europe, and Italy in particular, seems to be an endless source of inspiration to you. When did you first realize you had such an affinity for Italian culture? Was it on a trip?

Yes. My parents were both born there, and they rarely spoke Italian at home except to tell secrets in front of us at the dinner table. My father was always talking about going back, and when I was 16 I went with my parents to my father's hometown in Sicily. But we went all over the mainland, and I had an epiphany. That was the same summer that I sent away for a pen I saw advertised in the back of The New Yorker. It said, "You can learn to write in a beautiful italic hand." So I sent away for that pen, and I taught myself calligraphy. The first thing I remember seeing when I arrived in Milan was this billboard for Baci Perugina, and that's all it said on it. But the type and illustration were so beautiful and so simple, unlike any kind of advertising I'd ever seen before. And that was my three-way epiphany: when I fell in love with food, type, and Italy all at once.

Do you go back a lot?

I do; I'm always finding excuses to go. My husband and I teach in a master's workshop program in Rome every summer. And I'm always working on some kind of book project that takes me there. I just finished revising a guidebook to artisan shops in Florence. This is actually the third time I've revised it, because all the shops keep changing. I never really thought of myself as a writer before, but whatever it took to get me over there and taste-test gelato and interview shopkeepers in Italian. It was really fun. And then I've also been doing these books on signage, because I'm really passionate about that, and have been forever, for as long as I've been interested in graphic design.

Tell me about the signage series.

It started out with 35mm slides, and point-and-shoot snapshots, and finally digital. All these images I was shooting were just for my own reference and enjoyment, and I had them in little binders in my office on a dedicated shelf, arranged by city. When the technology was finally good enough for me to consider using these for reproduction, that’s also when I realized all the signs were starting to disappear. Every summer I would take my students in the Rome program to see all my favorite signs, and there would be one or two missing. Every year it was more and more. So I really wanted to record all of the signage before it was gone forever.

It started with the book on Italian signage, and then I decided to do one on Paris signage, which I thought would be so much easier because it's only one city, but it really wasn’t. Usually I'll take two or three trips to do a whole book, so I have to make maps of the different neighborhoods with all the signs mapped out, and I spend a lot of time on Google Street View, making sure that the signs are still there and looking for others that I didn't know about before. The next book will be Barcelona; that's coming out in September. Barcelona has incredible modernista signage that is all starting to disappear too. I also did a whole chapter on monograms, because a lot of the buildings in one particular neighborhood were all built in the early 1900s, and every owner wanted to have his name on the building.

Even though the first two books did very well, for the Paris book they went back for a reprint, like, one week after it was published, which is pretty unusual. At that same time, I said "Let's do Barcelona next." Every publisher these days is very cautious, so they still hadn't given me the okay by the time I was leaving on my trip, but I just decided I had to go, no matter what. I'm glad I did.

Nearly every logo of yours conveys to the customer that the restaurant or company or product is special and worthy of your attention. I remember the first time I saw the box for Late July crackers at Whole Foods, I was smitten even though I'd never tried one. And I experienced something similar the first time I went to Artisanal and saw that sign. How do you explain that power?

I’ve always told my students that a logo is a typographic portrait. You have to meet the person or the business and speak with them and really understand them, and then translate that into a typographic portrait. And that's more than just setting the word in font and calling it a logo. With my logos, I spend a lot of time just sketching and developing the typography to represent the whole integrity of the brand. Ninety-nine percent of the time it requires hand-lettering, but that's what I love to do. That is an important part of the process: to communicate all the nuances of what we're trying to say. So I'm glad I ended up doing food packaging, because it's something that always interested me.

The before-and-after page on your site is fascinating.

Yeah, it’s really good for potential clients, because when they come to me for a rebrand, they're the first to say "My logo is terrible," but then they are always very nervous about making a change. They're afraid of losing their customer base or that it's going to represent them incorrectly. So when I show them the before and after, they're like, Oh. It's like taking a magic wand and just making everything look better.

Depending on how articulate they are, I usually ask them about 15 or 20 questions about their business. I start with "Have you trademarked this name?" It's a very important question, especially in restaurants. You'd be amazed. The only time I didn't ask that question was when I was working with a very highly regarded restaurateur. I thought it would be insulting for me to ask, but sure enough, we did the logo and then they found out that they couldn't get the name.

Some of the makeovers are really subtle.

Some of them need it more than others. But they're all nervous about it, and that's why I like working with smaller businesses; I like having a more personal relationship with my clients. Like with Sarabeth. I sat down with her and her husband. They had been making their jam for 25 years, and I can understand why she was nervous about it. What I always tell someone is, "You can change a lot, as long as you maintain one or two key elements." In her case, we kept the same jar, because everybody knows her by her jar. But she was using a generic mason jar, so we changed the embossing on the top so instead of saying “Mason” it said “Sarabeth.”

And we kept the type, did the label in the same oval, and kept her name in upper and lowercase, which I felt was important. Then we just refined everything else, and it made a huge difference. Even the paper stock. The first time I looked at it I thought, This paper stock looks so dingy. So I found the brightest, most opaque white paper stock I could, and that alone made a huge difference. What ended up happening in her case is that people would still go and reach for the same jar in the supermarket, and they might not have even noticed there was a change in the design. But they suddenly had a higher regard for the product, and they didn't mind paying $9.99 for it.

What happens if you get negative feedback from a client?

Well, the first question I ask, even before we discuss the trademark thing or even have a meeting is "Who are the decision makers?" They have to be at the meeting. If the big decision maker is too busy to have a meeting with me, then I'm too busy too, and I won't do it. It cannot end well otherwise. There's nothing worse than someone trying to second-guess their boss. I don't want there to be any big surprises when I see them next time and present the logo. And there aren't any as long as we're all there at the first meeting. We all talk about everything that is important to us.

Are there interim stages where they say, "I like this, but is there any chance you could make this blue instead?"

Sometimes, and if they're reasonable questions, that's fine. Very often, they're just nervous about something. And that's when I ask the really important question. I would never ask it at the first meeting, but when things look like they're starting to fall apart, I ask them, "What are you afraid of?" And you would be surprised. With a question like that you would expect people to say, "What are you talking about? How dare you?" Yet they never ask that. They always answer the question, which is so interesting.

That's why I always recommend, whenever any students ask me what I recommend that they do to become a designer: Take a Psych 101 class. Because of course they're nervous. I talk them off the ledge, and then it's usually fine. It's a designer's chance to earn their trust, which is a big step. The other trick I've used only once is, "We're not going to leave this room until we all make a decision." But the thing I do on the other end of the spectrum is whenever I schedule a meeting to show a logo design, I always try to schedule it in the afternoon. I serve gelato first, and then I show the logo. It usually works very well.

Do you find it relaxes them?

It's better than getting them a drink. It makes them happy.

What is your work process like, typically? You mentioned hand lettering but do you also work on computers?

I actually don't. I'm in that other generation that still likes to work the old way. What I do is approach it the same way I did for book jackets, which I did for eleven years at Pantheon. What I would do is get the title of the book, sit down with a tracing pad, and draw a 5.5 x 8.5-inch rectangle, which I could do with my eyes closed, and then just write the title of the book over and over again, just letting it speak to me. Page after page, it would go from something really rough to some thing more defined. I was looking to see how the words would work on the page.

As I got to something more defined, by the last page I realized it was a typeface that didn't exist, and I was going to have to figure out how to do it by hand. In those days, I had a few choices; I could hire a letterer or I could do it myself or I could take an existing face and distort it. Usually I either did it myself or hired a letterer. This was also pre-computer, and the people doing lettering were very specific craftsmen – that's all they did. I would give them very tight sketches, and then go over it with them, and they would do the final artwork.

Now, I have a very small studio. I only have two designers working for me, but I can't hire anyone unless they're good at hand lettering. But I still do my very tight sketches. The way I used to work in book jackets had actually prepared me well, because it's really the same process. When I do logos, as soon as I start sketching I'm automatically making certain decisions. Like if the name of the restaurant is very long, it's obviously going to have to be in a condensed font, because you can't hyphenate the word. Except for once, when I hyphenated Mermaid Inn. Or if it's three words that are different lengths, I would automatically put that in a circle. It’s these things I just know, having done logos for so long.

One of my designers asked me very nicely once, "If you were going to start all over and you were going to school now, do you think you'd become a graphic designer?" I said, “No, I probably wouldn't.” It's not the same. I became a graphic designer because I loved the letterpress studio at school, where I could typeset and bind my own books. I learned hand lettering by going into the marshes to find reeds to make my own pens. That’s very different than learning in Illustrator – although there’s nothing wrong with Illustrator!

What is it like for you to come across a design of yours? Your work is so memorable, but in most ways you are completely anonymous as the creative force behind it.

That's true, but they're only logos [Laughs]. I love walking, and actually this is a good neighborhood for a little logo tour, because we have Via Carota, and we have Pearl Oyster Bar, Mermaid Oyster Bar, and Oat Meals, which is an oatmeal-themed restaurant. We used to have L'Arte del Gelato when they were on Seventh Avenue, but now they're at Chelsea Market. Nothing makes me happier than to just walk around seeing all my logos, as long as they're looking good.

Was there a specific moment when you recognized your talent for graphic design?

Well, I went to school [Skidmore] and majored in art. If you couldn't paint, they would tell you you're “graphically oriented,” and fortunately the one graphic design teacher took me under his wing. And that's when it all came together; that's when I realized, Oh, that's why I've always been interested in lettering and making books and collecting packages and labels. It's all graphic design! Because when I was in high school, they called that commercial art, which was pretty unsexy. Why would anybody be interested in that?

Besides developing a process, what did you learn from designing book covers?

When I started out at Pantheon, there weren't a lot of risks being taken. All the jackets looked the same; everybody seemed to think that type on jackets had to be big and bold. I was on a mission to prove that you didn't have to shout to capture someone’s attention – that a cover could be quiet and beautiful and still make a difference. I think the best-known jacket I did when I was at Pantheon was The Lover.

Margarite Duras was a celebrity in France but was relatively unknown in the U.S. In spite of the very understated jacket I did, the book became a legendary best-seller. It was Pantheon’s first, in 1985, so I think I proved my point. Once I had that one under my belt, salespeople were a lot more likely to just leave me alone. I got the opportunity to experiment with a different period or design or type history on a daily basis. It's really where I came to develop my style. And that experience of being on a mission to prove that you didn't have to shout was kind of the same thing when I started doing food packaging. Why did food packaging have to shout? Why couldn't it just be something really beautiful and sensual that you want to take and bring home to look at? And maybe it would even taste good.

How did you end up starting your own studio?

I thought I'd stay at Pantheon forever, and fortunately I did otherwise. But after I had been there for eleven years, my son was born. I took my three-month leave of absence with every intention of going back, but when I did, the next list of books had come in and none of them were that appealing. And I just thought, I don't want to be here. I had always been doing freelance for other publishers, because in those days art directors were so brutally paid that they all had to freelance to make ends meet, and I had an extra room in my apartment that I was already using as a studio.

I thought, I could do this. I had a nanny, so I would work in my studio with an assistant from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then at 6 o'clock I would close the door and resume my life. That lasted about three years, until I needed more space and my son needed more space. I've always kept my studio in the neighborhood, though. I learned two important lessons right away. One is that you should never depend on any one type of work or any one client, because that can all change very rapidly. Two is that you should never sit and wait for the phone to ring with the perfect job because there is no perfect job.

I feel very strongly that every designer has to have his or her own personal projects. Because it's the only way that you really grow and find your design voice, and that was the case for me. I started with what was closest to my heart, which was Italian art deco, because I had been collecting this material for so many years. My husband and I launched this series of books. It started with Italian Art Deco for Chronicle Books, and then it led to many others: Dutch, French, American streamline deco type, British,  Spanish, German. They did very well, but eventually they drifted into remainder purgatory. And then we did Euro Deco, which was a selection of each of the books except American; that one’s still in hardcover, which is nice.

Why is it crucial not to rely on one kind of work?

Well, this was a time when everyone was moving over to the computer. Suddenly a lot more work was being done in-house. But the biggest difference was that I was used to being an art director [at Pantheon]; I would present the cover designs to the editors and I would get them approved. But now there was a middleman involved. Whenever I was working on any kind of publishing project it was always through an art director, and it didn't work as well.

Everything was changing in publishing, and as much as I loved doing book covers I realized that there was life after publishing. When I started my studio, my idea was to focus on the only three things I'm interested in, which are food, type, and all things Italian. That was 28 years ago.

How did you get into restaurant identities?

Within the first year, I started finding my way into the curious world of restaurants. It couldn't have been more diametrically opposed to book publishing. At the first restaurant I worked for, I had to explain to them why they had to pay both me and the printer. I realized I had to educate the client and make them understand why graphic design is important and how we had to work together, and so it was an interesting experience. But then I started working with one architecture firm in particular. They did really great work, and these architects were the first ones to hear about any new jobs, so they would recommend me early on. There was a lot more synergy.

Tell me about some of the challenges your business has faced.

Well, let's talk about being a woman in the industry. When I started my business, it was the pre-Google era. You couldn't be very creative about the name of your business because people had to find you in the phone book; it had to be some form of your name. I could have called myself Fili Associates or something like that, but that didn't seem right. So I called it Louise Fili Ltd. I knew the name was going to be a liability, because it was very clear this was a woman-owned studio, but I decided I really wanted it. I wanted to send a clear message, and that was: If you have a problem with me being a woman, then I have a problem with you being my client. And I'm sure I’ve lost business that way, but it's too bad. In those days there were very few studios run solely by women. I just decided to ignore it and do what I wanted to do.

Have there been any near disasters, in terms of crazy clients?

Oh yeah. When you have a small business, especially, you have to be very careful about what kind of clients you take on, because an abusive client can just bring down the whole studio. I wouldn't do that to my employees. If I have any kind of inkling that this is not the right client for me, I'll usually tell them, "It sounds like a great project, but I don't think I'm the right designer for you." And if it's the wrong client, you know right away, because they don't want to hear no; they'll just hang on even tighter.

But as long as I can recommend someone else, they're usually fine, and then they're out the door. I also have to be very careful with the kind of people I hire. They have to understand the studio ethic. If they come from a big company, they're much more likely not to. When you're in a small studio, everyone just pitches in without even thinking about it, and that's very important.

Do you have a favorite genre of client these days?

Women. I realized recently that the only restaurant clients I've had who have not bargained with me on my price have been women. And whenever I work with anyone from out of town, they don't negotiate the price either. But in New York it's to be expected. If I said $50, they would still want to bargain.

Are there reasons to be hopeful about the future of craftsmanship?

Definitely. I think there's such a resurgence in hand lettering, for example. So many wonderful people who worked for me have gone off and made a name for themselves. Just like the resurgence in manual typewriters and turntables and everything like that, I think everyone is craving that tactility we lost. So I think craft is very important. I mean, there are people who appreciate it, and there are a lot of people who don't know the difference.

What are some words of wisdom for someone contemplating their own solo business?

What I always tell people is that you have to follow your heart. You have to combine graphic design with something you're passionate about. Design on its own – I don't think it's enough. I wouldn't be the designer I am today if I hadn't done my own projects. If you're just doing work for other people, that’s what it looks like. But if you're doing work that comes from your heart, it's a really different story.

What is next for Louise Fili?

I think it’s designing fonts. For years people used to ask me, “Why don't you do fonts?” I'm designing all this custom type for logos, and number one, I don't want to just give it away. And number two, I'm only designing the letters that I need for the logo; I'm not doing the whole alphabet plus numbers, plus punctuation and everything. But I finally reached a point where I thought it might be interesting to try. We just started two months ago but I think it's a natural progression.

And I still want to keep doing my own books. It’s an enormous amount of work and I lose money on all of them, but I don’t regret having done any of them. When I did the Barcelona book, I worked really hard and I had good weather, so I was able to complete the shooting in two trips, but it was very intense. There was one sign in particular, for a photo studio, that was the most beautiful deco script, and I couldn’t wait to see it in person. I checked ahead, right before I left, on Google Street View, to make sure it was still there and it was.

When I got to Barcelona, I wanted to go there on the first day but it wasn't practical, so I went a couple days later. I literally ran to the spot to see the sign, and I got there and it was gone. All I could see were the traces of it on the facade. I was devastated. I felt like I had missed it by a matter of minutes. The photo studio obviously had closed but it really, really bothered me. The next day, I was interviewed by a journalist from El País, the Spanish newspaper, and two days later the article came out.

I didn’t even remember talking to the interviewer about this, but obviously I was still upset about it. He wrote about my not being able to find the sign, and he gave the name of the photo studio and the address. A week later, when I got back to New York, I got an email from the grandson of the original owner of Fotos Lopez, and he said, "My family and I were very moved when we read the article, and I just want you to know that if you're ever back in Barcelona, we'll remount the sign for you so you can photograph it." I went back as fast as I could. The whole family came out for the event – it was so wonderful. I'm so glad I went back, because I dedicated the book to them.

That’s a great story. Do you think it's just too late for New York?

I have no interest in New York. Every now and then, I think, Well maybe I could do architectural signage and ornament, but it’s not same. When it's in a different language it's always much more interesting.

There's something about seeing things more clearly when you're somewhere else.

Yeah, when it’s new to you. That’s what happened when I did the Italian book. I was very surprised it got an enormous amount of press in Italy, which I wasn't expecting at all. But they all said the same thing: “Gee, we walk past this signage every day, and we've never really appreciated it, and it took an American to come here to make us notice it.” And I’m sure I probably don’t notice things in New York. But I sometimes do. I always take a different route on my walk to work, and in the neighborhood we’re in now – it’s vaguely the Flower District – I do find some interesting typography that can surprise me, often carved into the buildings. But certainly not signage as we know it in Italy and France.

When you do see something extraordinary, it's like another century speaking to you.

And it's always such a miracle that it's still there. Then suddenly, one day it's gone.



More about Lee Magill

Lee Magill is a writer and editor based in New York City who has contributed to Travel + Leisure and Time Out. She previously served as the editor of Time Out New York Kids

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