Louise Fili found her design voice as she created close to 2,000 book covers for Pantheon. Now, as she designs food and wine packaging, she takes a similar approach: creating something approachable and beautiful that people want to take home with them.
THIS CONTENT IS ALSO AVAILABLE IN INSPIRE ISSUE 45
When Louise Fili sits down to talk to Inspire in her Manhattan studio, she has an a4 sheet of paper and a selection of pens and pencils at the ready in front of her.
“I don’t work on a computer,” she says. “What excites me most is the sketch stage. When I designed book covers, I would sit down with a tracing pad and draw a 5.5–by–8.5-inch rectangle, which I can do with my eyes closed,” she says, drawing as fluidly and rapidly as she speaks. “I would take the title of a book and write it over and over again, let it speak to me, and it would go from a rough scribble to something much more precise.”
The designer’s charming, unpretentious manner and her evident pleasure in her work belie a 40-year career as one of New York City’s most influential taste-makers. From her early days at Pantheon Books, where the subtle, elegant cover she created for Marguerite Duras’ The Lover became the company’s first best-seller in 30 years, to setting up her eponymous studio in 1989 to focus on restaurant identities and food packaging (and single-handedly creating the vogue for retro-inspired, hand-drawn type), to the series of books on European design she produced with her design journalist husband Steven Heller, Fili’s life and work have always been inextricably linked.
It was at Pantheon in the late 1970s that Fili found her design voice. The Euro-centric book list meant she experimented with different design periods and typefaces every day.
“I was always travelling to Europe and going to flea markets, and at that time, there were no reference books on design history, so I had to make my own archive to draw from.”
Her immersion in design history and constant sketching were the mechanism by which she developed bespoke typefaces. She would then work out how to make them the same way any artisan would, by referring to old alphabets in her collection or hand-lettering whole projects from scratch. Between 1978 and 1989, Fili designed close to 2,000 Pantheon covers in this way.
“It set me on my path for doing logo designs later because, without even realising it, I was treating the title of the book like a logo design.”
Of course, she designs other things as well. In 2012, she was commissioned by the United States Postal Service to design a stamp celebrating Valentine’s Day.
A subway poster she created for the nearby School of Visual Arts, where she has taught for more than 20 years, recently made the journey above ground and now adorns a three-storey-high space on the side of the school’s building on Third Avenue, where Fili walks past it every morning on her way to work.“Last year was interesting,” she says. “The poster was the biggest thing I’ve designed, and the Love Stamp was the smallest.
That was less than an inch tall, and its print run was 250 million.” However, the three pillars of her work have remained the same since she launched herself on the world as an independent designer: “Food, type and all things Italian.”
In Elegantissima, a book she wrote about her work, she says that she has never forgiven her Italian parents for leaving Italy and bringing her up in New Jersey, though they did pass on their love of good food.
“In an Italian-American household, food is religion,” she says. “When I was a kid I thought that everyone’s parents woke up in the morning and started talking about what to make for dinner. But no, it was only in my household. That was the ethic I grew up with, and now I wake up in the morning and start thinking of what to make for dinner.”
But perhaps the most telling observation is Heller’s, which he makes in the foreword to Elegantissima: “Watching her design is like watching her cook: the intense attention to detail is identical.”
Today, Fili works out of an apartment repurposed as a studio on Manhattan’s busy 23rd Street, one of the boundary lines between uptown and downtown. The kitchen shelves are stocked with beautifully packaged food and wine — all Fili’s work — and the boardroom, previously the dining room, contains cabinets of menus, matchbooks and other ephemera she’s designed for restaurants, her collection of vintage European packaging, and examples of her recent work, which often involves reworking established food brands to position them better in the market.
For her to take on a new project, the product needs to be good. “For me, a lot of it is emotional,” she says. “I’ll taste it and then find a way to translate that experience into design, which is challenging, particularly when I do a lot of food packaging and don’t want to repeat myself.”
One of the biggest changes Fili has seen over her career is that packaging design has simply got better.
“Book design was iron-clad when I got there,” she says. “They’d been using the same formula for so long. It was the same for packaging — everything looked so commercial, or like it had to sell in a supermarket. People aren’t stupid, though. There’s a lot of beautiful packaging now that wasn’t there 15 years ago, and while I still don’t do ultra-commercial work, a lot of products I design do sell in supermarkets.”
Her other observation is even more topical: “After the recession hit, people wouldn’t go out and drop a couple of hundred dollars on a meal, but they would go out and pay $15 for a new food product to make them feel good. That’s when I really started enjoying packaging, because you can create something that’s approachable and beautiful, and that people want to take home and own, in the same way you’d do with a book cover.”
Fili’s five tips for designers
1. You can’t just set a word in a font and call it a logo.
2. Don’t even think about designing a book jacket until you read
the book first.
3. Never illustrate the title, whether for a book jacket or a logo.
4. Never use blue when designing for food, except for saltine
crackers and chocolate.
5. Combine design with something you are passionate about.
In Fili's case, it was food and Italy.
TEXT: SAM EICHBLATT PHOTO: MARTIN ADOLFSSON