by Ellen Shapiro
Everything old is new again. It’s a saying, it’s song lyrics. In the hands of Louise Fili, it’s real. Fili takes the best of what’s old—the most intriguing, the most elegant of vintage typography, signage, and design—and makes it new again. For four decades, she has stayed relevant and in demand by applying what she discovers on her European travels to identities that distinguish many of today’s best restaurants and food and luxury products.
Two thousand book jackets. Two hundred restaurant identities. Too many food and beverage and luxury goods packages to count. She’s a New Yorker, but her work pays tribute to Rome and Florence, Paris and Barcelona, to the culture and art of places she knows intimately. Fili’s world is filled with passion for the delicious, rare and decorative aspects of life, beginning with her earliest memories—many of them of food.
For Fili, the appreciation for good food came young. “My parents were always cooking,” she says, describing the organic garden her Italian-born parents, Ferdinand from Sicily and Filomena from Calabria (rechristened Fred and Phyllis in America), tended in their suburban New Jersey backyard. “It was huge, with every kind of vegetable,” she recalls. “When everybody else was dining on iceberg lettuce, my two sisters and I grew up on arugula, escarole, radicchio, Swiss chard, and what seemed like a hundred different hybrids of tomatoes. We thought everyone’s parents woke up talking about what to make for dinner.”
She was, and is, always cooking, too. Her first New York City apartment was a fifth-floor walk-up in a tenement, but it was chosen for its big kitchen and location in what she calls “the gastronomic neighborhood” of the West Village near Zito’s bakery, Faicco’s pork store, and Raffetto’s pasta. There, while honing her design and typography skills under Herb Lubalin by day, she perfected her Bolognese sauce and tiramisu after hours via Marcella Hazan and Guiliano Bugialli’s cookbooks and classes.
Now, when not traveling or dining in one of her clients’ restaurants, she walks through Union Square Greenmarket almost every day to pick up something fresh for dinner. At home, over, say, grilled fish and broccoli rabe, she and her husband of more than 30 years, author and design educator Steven Heller, eat, plan, talk… perhaps about their next European trip or co-authored book.
See more of Louise’s beautiful work over at PrintMag.com.
Learning also began early for Fili. She didn’t just know her letters (and how to read) by age 5. She was making her own alphabet books on the lined paper her parents brought home from the elementary-school classrooms where they taught. “Letterforms always fascinated me,” she says. At Brentano’s bookstore in the local mall she found her first Dover books on illuminated initials and decorative alphabets. “I learned typography by redrawing every letter,” she says. “I just loved making the letters.” Not content with copying complex letterforms designed by others, she sent away for Speedball lettering books and an Osmiroid pen and taught herself calligraphy. In high school, she was the one who designed and silkscreened the posters for the school plays and dances.
“They called it ‘commercial art’ then,” she says, explaining how she made her art commercial by selling fellow students her coveted illuminated manuscripts of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel lyrics.
Always wanting to be around books, her after-school jobs were at the school and town libraries. Becoming a research librarian in art history was an early, if abandoned, career aspiration. Fili enrolled in the fine art program at Skidmore College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York known for its creative approaches to the humanities and arts. Professor Victor Liguori, who taught one of the few design classes, mentored her and allowed her to take fewer credits in painting and do more independent study projects like designing an all-typographic Italian cookbook. But after seeing the School of Visual Arts catalog—“Oh my god, look at all the classes in typography!”—Fili left Skidmore and did her last semester at SVA. The teachers there included type designer Ed Benguiat, who gave every student a Photo-Lettering catalog that is still among Fili’s prized possessions and sources of inspiration.
“Combine design with something you’re passionate about,” she advises students now. “Find your own voice. It’s the only way to grow as a designer.” Through her example, they learn that design is not about imitating a style, but comes about through deep research, knowledge of craft, perseverance, and that illusive thing called talent.
Learn about typography, web design and other topics at HOW Design University.
Fili’s first lucky break was landing an internship at New York’s Museum of Modern Art under Curator of Design Emilio Ambasz, the Argentine-born architect and planner. He was curating “The Italian Idea,” a show that introduced New Yorkers, including Fili, to Italian furniture and industrial design. Her next assignment was in MoMA’s photography department, where she helped with printing, matting, framing, and hanging—and learned how museum exhibitions come together.
All unpaid internships must end, and at a time when women were asked, “Can you type?” and “Can you take dictation?” Fili got a design job at a small studio where projects included promotions for Glamour magazine and other Condé Nast titles. From there it was onward and upward to the office of B. Martin Pedersen, the publisher of Graphis, then-art director of in-flight magazines and corporate collateral.
After several months of flush-left Times Roman, Fili returned to her first love, books, through a freelance project. She spent nine months with author Midge Mackenzie, producing the illustrated companion to Shoulder to Shoulder, a PBS documentary about the British women’s campaign for voting rights. “Giving birth to that volume taught me a lot of life lessons,” she says, “about feminism, about the suffragette movement, and about how to design a book.” Shoulder to Shoulder was selected for the AIGA “50 Books” exhibition, and Fili’s career was launched.
She was freelancing at Random House when a designer who admired her typographic style suggested that she meet Herb Lubalin. Not entirely convinced that she was “ready,” she nevertheless dropped off her portfolio at Lubalin, Smith, Carnase (LSC), where Lubalin hinted that a new position might be open in a few months. “I had to find a way to keep in touch with him,” she says. So she cleverly asked if he might be interested in an article for U&lc on rubber stamps— one of her collecting passions. U&lc (Upper and Lower Case, the International Journal of Typo-Graphics) was Lubalin’s inventive and influential creation, the tabloid that marketed LSC-designed ITC typefaces via illustrated articles about type-centric topics like quirky alphabets and vintage billboards. “He was,” Fili says, “so I brought over my collection and thus had an excuse to check in every few weeks. When I returned to pick up the rubber stamps, I made my best attempt to start a conversation with famously-taciturn Herb. Had the new position opened up? It had; someone had given notice that day.”
With that, Fili got her second lucky break.
Fili’s first family trip abroad, at age 16, was a grand tour of Italy with stops to visit relatives. “That was the moment I fell in love all at once with Italy, type, and food,” she writes in the introduction to her monograph, Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili. After college, it became a lifelong quest: at least two trips to
Europe every year, on her own or with friends. She soon began taking Italian lessons. (Like many immigrants, her first-generation parents spoke Italian at home only when they didn’t want the children to understand.)
“I was determined to fit in and communicate,” she asserts, “not be a tourist.”
After two years absorbing Lubalin’s signature style and methodologies, Fili became art director at Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint featuring European authors. “I embarked on a mission,” she says, “to bring a different sensibility to book jacket design, which had been mired in foil-stamping and crass typography.” She stayed at Pantheon for 11 years, art directing 50 books at a time and revolutionizing jacket design through sensitive use of handlettering and illustration. “I was exhausted after completing each list, though, and would take a European trip to refuel. Flea markets, stationery stores, and bookshops were my spa.” It’s impossible to imagine Fili refueling on an island, sipping a margarita under a beach umbrella. Unless the island were Sicily, and even there she’d be interviewing shopkeepers in Italian, photographing handmade leather goods and table linens, tasting the food and wines, locating everything on maps, and making lifelong friends.
LOUISE KNOWS HOW TO TAKE INSPIRATION FROM THE PAST AND GIVE IT THE SCENT OF TODAY. SHE DOES IT IN A WAY THAT IS UNIQUELY HER OWN, CARING ABOUT EVERY KERNED LETTER. HER SOLUTIONS ARE EMPATHETIC TO THE READER, ESPECIALLY ON A PRODUCT, WHICH IS THE TRICKIEST PLACE OF ALL TO WORK.
Her current European travels are quests to discover graphic material for her own books—the first was The Civilized Shopper’s Guide to Florence, published by Little Bookroom—and to photograph lettering and signage for more recent titles that include Grafica della Strada: The Signs of Italy and Graphique de la Rue: The Signs of Paris—meticulously researched photographic diaries of the cities’ restaurant, shop, hotel, street, and advertising signs. For the past seven summers she’s also spent two weeks in Rome teaching in the SVA Master’s program, mentoring students and introducing them to local delights. “Today’s inspirations for young designers are on Instagram and Pinterest,” she says, “but nothing matches the thrill of discovery in person—to touch something, to be your own curator, not just observe the way someone else curated it.”
For example, she points out, when you observe the signs carefully, you see that letterforms are sexier in France, graceful and curvy, and they’re more quirky in Italy. She recently returned from Barcelona, where she documented signs painted, carved, tiled, and written in neon on building facades and stenciled on awnings. And soon we’ll be able to see and learn, through Gráfica de las Ramblas, what makes the signs of Catalonia distinctive and idiosyncratic.
Fili met Steven Heller, then art director of The New York Times Book Review, in 1982 after he sent her a fan letter praising her book jackets. They were married a year later. Not including the dozens of books they wrote solo or with other collaborators, Heller and Fili have coauthored more than 20 titles, including but not limited to Typology; Vintage Type and Graphics; Stencil Type; Shadow Type; Scripts; Italian Art Deco; Euro Deco; French Modern; German Modern; and British Modern. Fili sums up their 33-year working relationship like this: “We each do what we’re good at. I don’t tell him how to write and he doesn’t tell me how to design.” (Note: She’s an excellent writer, too.)
Heller’s 1982 fan letter is framed in her office—Louise Fili Ltd., founded in 1989—on East 23rd Street, just one block north of The School of Visual Arts, where he is co-chair of the MFA Design program and she teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs (packaging design and logo design, respectively). New York has been, and is, home base, for both. And for their son, Nicolas Heller, a videographer and film director.
“My mom is my hero,” says Nicolas. “I base my work ethic on hers. Growing up with my parents was like living in a museum with two historians. I was taken to amazing places at a young age, but didn’t really appreciate it until I grew up. Same with food. We’d go to a new restaurant every week and I’d usually get the same boring thing, like a burger and fries. It wasn’t until college that I realized how lucky I was and began to take advantage.” Fili duly notes that she’s designed logos for Nick’s various businesses, starting with a T-shirt company he founded in high school through the intertwined “NH” monogram on his current website.
When Fili had her first Manhattan apartment, the city was gritty, dirtier, and more dangerous, but it was also a place where you could rent a two-bedroom for $200 a month, see five art-house movies every week, and dine out every night on your junior-designer salary of $400 a week. Now decent apartments seem to start at $2 million and a nice lunch for one is easily $40, but it’s also a place where restaurateurs and small-business entrepreneurs know how important design is to their success, and there seems to be no shortage of them willing to invest in an artful branding program that includes everything from signage to matchbooks, shopping bags to labels.
Rebecca Charles, owner of Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village, exemplifies Fili’s grateful clients. “On my restaurant’s 15th anniversary, I decided to present it with a gift I’d always dreamed of,” she says. “A logo by Louise Fili. From the moment Louise walked in, I saw her absorbing everything. What struck me most was her remarkable ability to listen. I outlined what I was trying to achieve, not just the cuisine and atmosphere, but our family history. I felt it was important to keep the spirit of the original logo already familiar to customers. With a respectful nod to our original clumsy image, Louise created something elegant, fresh, and unique.”
“New York is still the city that gives you opportunities like this,” Fili asserts. “And it’s the only place where all the things I’m interested in come together.”
When designers see an image of, say, Bartlett Maine Estate wine or Bella Cucina biscotti, they salivate. Not only do the packages make the wine and biscotti look scrumptious, they incite a case of design envy: “I wish I’d done that.” Fili’s work has brought her numerous accolades, including induction in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 2004 and the 2014 AIGA Medal.
How does she do it? Here’s a hint: While others are planning their trips to Barcelona around where they’ll eat and drink, and perhaps a visit to Sagrada Familia, Fili is planning hers around the signs she’ll photograph for her upcoming book. Every block has been checked out via Google Street View and the routes are notated on detailed maps down to the footstep. There will be eating and drinking, too, but in a disciplined way that could lead to an illustrated guidebook with a handlettered cover. While others get clients based on who happens to send a query email, Fili hand-picks hers. “When I decided I wanted to be a package designer, I went to the Fancy Food Show,” she explains. “I identified brands that didn’t have great graphics and approached the owners.”
Part of having a successful design office is creating work that clients want. Another part is running a business that succeeds. And as many designers have experienced, it’s tough to succeed with new entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, often chronic late- or nonpayers. “This business can be unpredictable,” Fili allows. “I only work with people who understand how important design is. And I sit down with them and really talk.” She likes to hold client meetings at her office, where samples and reference material are close at hand—and the displays of her collections and completed projects are dazzling.
Read more in the dazzling Spring 2016 Issue of HOW Magazine.