Go to the archives

Louise Fili: Quattro Parole Italiane: 12 Note cards and Envelopes

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 01, 2014
Category: Art

The last time I wrote about Louise Fili, you bought so many of her Perfetto Pencils that Amazon sold out and her publisher called me to ask how that happened.

Now she’s produced a box of a dozen note cards and envelopes that are just as distinctive. “Quattro Parole Italiane” is the idea. Four Italian words: ciao (hello), auguri (greetings), grazie (thank you) and prego (with pleasure).

Why are these cards so striking? It’s not the words, which are refreshingly ordinary, but the typography, which is dramatic and different and, at the same time, nostalgic and familiar, taking you back to visits to small towns in Italy or, more likely, period movies like The Conformist. [To buy the “Quattro Parole Italiane” note cards from Amazon, click here.]

Why cards?

Once, when I was in Milan researching a book on Italian art deco, I found myself one stifling afternoon in a magazzino — a warehouse — filled with printers’ proofs of labels and other ephemera from the 1920s. And I found a series of pasticceria papers, all created by hand. They were the most unusual and beautiful graphic work I’d seen in a long time. I brought them back to New York, where they ended up having a great influence on my design voice. Quattro Parole Italiane is a love letter to the anonymous designers who provided me with such unforgettable inspiration.

An Italy lost, an Italy of the imagination — this is Fili territory. In a digital age, her work couldn’t be more analog. And more specific: Her inspiration is an era in Italian design that begins roughly in 1920 and ends with the neonization of signage in Italy around 1960. You get the idea: Louise Fili may live and work in New York, but her head and heart resides in Italy.

But let her explain….

When I was 16, I took my first trip to Italy with my parents, who were both born there; it was their first trip back. I remember taking a flight into Milan, and as we were leaving the airport, the first thing I saw was an ad for Baci Perugina —that was the only type on it. I was immediately fascinated by the billboard, which showed a couple in a passionate embrace. I knew that Baci meant “kisses,” but I didn’t know that it was advertising at all. It didn’t matter; I was smitten. It was a three-way epiphany for me, because that’s when I fell in love with type, food, and Italy all at once.

She started her career as a book designer, and quickly advanced to the top of that field; from 1978 to 1989, she was art director of Pantheon Books, where she designed 2,000 book jackets. When she opened her own studio, she made a sharp turn into restaurant logos and food packaging. You’ve seen her work: Tiffany, Paperless Post, Williams-Sonoma, Sarabeth’s, Tate’s Cookies and many more.

The first office for her design firm was in her home. Now she walks to work, but her office fools visitors — it could almost be an apartment. For Fili, all work spaces are launching pads: “Surrounded by objects that I treasure, I always feel at home, and at the same time I am transported to Europe on a daily basis.”

Fili is prolific. A few years ago, she published a book that made me want to buy a plane ticket: Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best. Then came Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili. Her latest contribution to visual gorgeousness is “Grafica della Strada: The Signs of Italy.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

I’m happy to report that Fili’s work lives not only as an act of imagination but as an exhibition. Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili — an environment that assembles so much of her work that the video makes me feel I’ve tumbled through the looking glass — will be on display from September 8 to the 19th at the Art Directors Club in New York (106 West 29th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues). The opening is Wednesday, September 10th from 6–8:30 PM. I wouldn’t dream of missing it. Can’t be there? Take the tour…..