Louise Fili

Louise Fili

Design icon Louise Fili goes to the gym every morning, unless she can find a reason not to.

“If I can’t manage to talk myself out of going to the gym, I’ll go,” she says. “But once I get to the gym I’m always glad I’m there.”

The petite powerhouse doesn’t need a workout. She stands just five feet tall; her stark black hair falls in loose curls that emphasize her distinct Italian features and slender frame. She has eyes that can coerce clients and a reputation for fierceness that understandably intimidates newcomers. So, preparing for a meeting with Fili in her studio on a morning in the fall, I was burdened with much-anticipated anxiety.

A factor in Fili’s longstanding relevance as a designer and typographer—which has stretched over four decades—is her seemingly effortless ability to put a visitor at ease with an espresso or a scoop of gelato, the former offered to her morning clients and the latter saved for afternoon visitors.

Her distinctive style has become a trademark within the industry. Her branding for a jar of jam (Sarabeth’s) or a bag of cookies (Tate’s) can leave people longing for a time they were never a part of. Much like Louise herself, her work exudes a classic comfort synonymous with the charming Italian towns she frequents on her travels. By borrowing from the form of vintage Italian signs and advertisements, Fili maintains an elegant, classic feel that manages to ignite nostalgia in even the most devout modernist.

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In 2011, Fili’s sixties were quickly approaching, causing her to look back on her life’s work.

“I felt like I had to mark the time for myself. I had to do something. Fifty is not a bad decade, but sixty is difficult,” she admits. “You really start wondering, ‘So what have I done, what do I have left?’”

Fili’s personal career assessment landed her with enough work to fill up a book—literally. Her monograph, Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Filiwith its hundreds of images and its case studies laying out the thinking behind particular designs—chronicles the path of this “typophile” from a teenager teaching herself calligraphy in her bedroom to a design icon teaching typography to art students in Rome.

The seasoned designer runs her own studio, Louise Fili Ltd; she specializes in restaurant and food branding, though her expertise includes notable creations such as the Tiffany monogram and the Good Housekeeping seal. Her work embraces the true pleasures of Fili’s world—type, food, and Italy.

One of her specialties—as she notes in a chapter on copyrights—is “redesigning the banal.” And so she has shaped boring copyright blocks into apposite images—say, a whisk, the Eiffel Tower, a wine bottle, a star, a steaming teacup . . . all according to the book’s subject matter.

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A first-generation New Jersey implant, Fili has considered herself a New Yorker since 1973, when she left Skidmore College in her senior year and moved to the city—understanding that the only way to make it in design was to immerse herself in the chaos of what was still a man’s world.

“When I was started out, unfortunately, there were no female role models. I really looked for them, and there were none!” Fili observes. “When I was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame a few years ago, there were maybe 1 percent women on the list.”

Fili was energized by, and propelled forward by, women’s very lack of power. After working several odd design jobs, a 25-year-old Fili landed herself in a senior designer’s chair at the studio of prominent art director and typographer Herb Lubalin. Fili’s position gave her an insider’s look at the creative process of the great mind, effectively altering the rest of her path.

“Even though one of my reasons for joining Lubalin had been to get away from designing books, that turned out to be what I enjoyed most,” she explains in Elegantissima.

A few years later, Fili began working as art director at Pantheon Books, where she strategically changed the way book covers were designed.

“In an era of foil stamping and crass typography, I was on a mission: I believed that special-effect trickery was unnecessary,” she explained  “In a series of stealth moves, I slowly made changes to the status quo.”

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Fili has made a career of gracefully disturbing the norm. The crass typography she protested was replaced with the low-key alternative of Fili’s hand-sketched script lettering. Eleven years and 2,000 book covers later, she took the industry gender imbalance that played against her and used it as a disclaimer for her next career leap.

“When I started my studio [in 1989], you couldn’t get fancy with the name because people had to find you in a phone book. So there was no choice, I had to name it after myself. But I wanted to send a message. ‘If you have a problem with me being female, than I don’t want you as a client.’ Simple as that,” Fili explains.

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Her studio, known just as highly for its work as it is for Louise herself, has intentionally been kept a small operation.

“I started with one assistant, and I’ve had two people working here for over 20 years—it’s never changed,” Fili said. “That’s the dynamic that works for me, and I would never want to get any bigger, because I’d just have to spend more of my time in meetings.”

Her résumé reads like something off a young designer’s wish list, and though Fili’s professional journey started in her early twenties, her story really began when she was a teenager on a family vacation to Italy.

“As I recall, upon arriving in Milan, in the haze of jet lag and oppressive July heat, I was struck by a billboard featuring an art nouveau rendering of a couple in a passionate embrace against an inky night sky, with just the words Baci and Perugina,” Fili explains in Elegantissima.

The attraction to her family’s homeland set in motion Fili’s artistic approach to her work. With every trip to Italy, Fili returned to New York with new inspiration.

“My real focus is food and finding ways to travel to Italy as much as possible,” she declares.  Fili’s work is so saturated by Italian essence that the designer has managed to visit the country about three times a year—admittedly deriving as many reasons as she can to make it happen.

Since she has spent the entirety of her career scouring otherwise overlooked Italian shop signs and advertisements with a self-proclaimed obsession, Fili’s affinity for food and restaurant branding became unavoidable.

The compilation of Fili’s work initially featured in her own Elegantissima has recently been brought to life in an exhibition of the same name. Through January 31 it will be at Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale, New York. For a designer who has chosen a small studio over a large firm and small clients over Fortune 500 corporations, her path provides a unique type of success story.

“I never had any aspirations of being famous or making a lot of money,” Fili says. “I just wanted to do good work. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Images Courtesy of Louise Fili.