As designers and sign-makers, we are fascinated by the work of those craftsmen (and sometimes women) who preceded us, adorning shopfronts, walls and windows with their finely-crafted specimens of sign-artistry. And we’re not alone in this fascination. Graphic designer Louise Fili, of New York, often photographs old signage in her travels. She recently put together a book full of beautiful images of Italian shopfront signs. Today, she tells us a little about her career as a graphic designer and sign photographer:
I was always fascinated with typography. I remember being four or five years old and carving letterforms into the wall above my bed, even though I didn’t yet have the ability to form them into words. When I was in high school, graphic design was called commercial art, which was a pretty unsexy term. During those years, I sent away for an Osmiroid pen, which I had found advertised in the back of the New Yorker magazine. With that, I taught myself calligraphy, still not understanding that this would have any relation to what I’d be doing later in life. It was only when I got to college that I discovered that all the things I loved – letterforms, calligraphy, and books – were appealing to me because I loved graphic design.
My studio is a walk-in archive of all the restaurant menus, business cards, matchbooks, specialty food packages and wines that I have designed, interspersed with vintage posters and flea market finds from decades of traveling in Italy and France. And at any given time, the freezer is always filled with gelato.
I approach logo design in much the same way that I designed book jackets for so many years. After discussions with the client and extensive research on the subject, I sit down with a tracing pad and I start sketching. I will write the name over and over, letting it speak to me, going from an amorphous jumble of letters to a more precise design. At that point I will most likely have a typeface that does not exist, and it will have to be hand lettered. I will gather specific reference, make a more informed sketch, and off it goes to be transformed on the computer.
Having grown up in an Italian-American household, I was steeped in the culture (and especially the food) even before my first visit to Italy as a teenager.
I don’t know that old signage inspires me directly, but it gives me immense pleasure to find these signs and then, back in New York, look through the photos on a regular basis. It’s not just the typography itself, but the context – the beautiful colors of stucco backgrounds, the painted wooden shutters, and the jasmine or ivy framing the signs – that gives me great delight.
I’m inspired by any of the Italian and French poster designers of the 1930s, and all of the anonymous designers who made the packaging and signage that I love to collect/document.
Recently, I’ve noticed a definite shift towards ‘craft’ in design. I think that the loss of tactility in our tech-driven lives has fostered an interest in craft. Designers crave the use of their hands.
I remember exactly when I first became interested in Italian typography: I was 16 and on my first trip to Italy when I spotted a billboard for Baci Perugina chocolates. In the years that followed, Italian designs would have a profound influence on my aesthetic — and I remained particularly fascinated by the country’s elegant signage. Grafica della Strada: The Signs of Italy documents my obsession with Italian lettering, with photographs I have taken of restaurant, shop, hotel, and street signs from all over the country. The collection spans three decades and countless materials and styles, from classical to futurist and gold leaf to neon.
A few more of Louise’s designs: