All designers have their own list of the creative professionals they admire and respect the most. Louise Fili is at the top of my list, as well as the list of so many other professionals. She heads Louise Fili Ltd, a graphic design studio that offers unique and elegant solutions to all things related to food, books, and culture, including brand development for restaurants and specialty food packaging.
Formerly senior designer for Herb Lubalin, Louise Fili was art director of Pantheon Books from 1978 to 1989, where she designed close to 2,000 book jackets. She has received Gold and Silver Medals from the Society of Illustrators and the New York Art Director’s Club, the Premio Grafico from the Bologna Book Fair, and three James Beard award nominations.
Fili has taught and lectured extensively, and her work is in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale. A member of the Art Directors Hall of Fame, she has received the medal for Lifetime Achievement from the AIGA and the Type Directors Club. In 2004, she was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Today she teaches in graduate and undergraduate programs at SVA and at the school’s Masters Workshop in Rome.
This very busy designer was generous enough to take the time to speak to us about some of her influences and inspirations, as well as some advice for young designers.
Looking back, we often see early clues to our future careers. What are your earliest memories of loving type and/or lettering?
My earliest typographic memory was when I was four years old – somehow I got hold of a carving tool, and I took to surreptitiously carving letterforms into the wall above my bed at night. I couldn’t yet put the letters together into words, but I simply loved looking at the alphabet.
When I was 16, I sent away for a pen that I had seen advertised in the back of the New Yorker magazine every week, and I taught myself calligraphy. Soon I would be creating illuminated manuscripts of Bob Dylan lyrics to sell to classmates. My prized possession was a Dover book of illuminated initials that I used on a daily basis.
Who were your most important inﬂuences?
Herb Lubalin taught me the importance of type as an expressive tool. He didn’t have to rely on illustration or photography to convey an idea – the type design was the illustration, and it did all the talking. Herb was also an auteur – he wrote his own copy most of the time, which of course is the best way to get a design to ﬁt! While I was working for Herb, one of my clients was Harris Lewine, the brilliant and brash art director of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Harris’s encyclopedic grasp of design history opened doors for me, and his take-no-prisoners approach to art direction is something that I took with me when I started my job as art director of Pantheon Books.
How did the movement from mechanical production methods to digital affect you and your work?
Changing technology has had an enormous impact on my work, particularly in regards to my passion for photographing European shop signage. For decades I had been documenting signs in Italy and Paris, while I watched, heartbroken, as they continued to disappear. These photos, which started as 35 mm slides, then point and shoot prints, and ﬁnally digital, were always meant for nothing more than my own reference and enjoyment, but as digital technology got better and better, I was ﬁnally able to consider making a book.
Ironically, it was this same technology that was in part responsible for the disappearing signs, to be replaced by clumsily crafted plastic letterforms made from free fonts. I felt a sense of urgency to go back to re-photograph these signs before they were all gone. To date, I’ve done three books: Italy, Paris, and Barcelona, which was just published. Graﬁca della Strada got great press in Italy, to my surprise, and all the reviewers had basically the same observation: We walk by these signs every day without noticing, and it took an American to come here to make us appreciate them!
Any good stories from the trenches?
Some people may not be aware that Herb Lubalin was colorblind. When we used to choose colors together, he would say, “Let’s ﬁnd a nice red” while he was ﬂipping through the green pages of the Pantone book. No wonder his color of choice was Pantone 452 – a totally neutral, indescribable shade that worked perfectly for surprinting and dropouts.
I encounter many students and working designers who are interested in hand lettering. Any suggestions for them?
Look at as much reference as you can gather. Fortunately, there is a lot of it out there.
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Louise Fili designs typefaces too!