On Sundays, designer Louise Fili likes to venture into her Manhattan office, pull out her visual diaries—albums of perfume labels, orange wrappers, photographs of street signs, she's been making for decades—and immerse herself in the world of vintage European graphics. "It’s important for me to flip through them every now and then so I can get a jolt of Italy," she says.
Fili, who opened her studio in 1989 after working as the art director of Pantheon Books for more than 10 years, has an unmistakable style informed by classic Italian 20th-century graphic design. Her evocative logos, branding, book jackets, and packaging project sophistication and timelessness thanks to ornamental typography. In the era of Helvetica, Fili shows that there's plenty of room for serifs—and companies like Good Housekeeping, Paperless Post, and Tiffany & Co. have come to call on her expertise for logos. Now, SVA is honoring Fili's career with its Masters Award—which celebrates the greatest visual communicators of our time—and a retrospective on view October 14 to December 10 at its Gramercy Gallery.
"I know it would be a lot easier to set [logos] in Helvetica, but for me it’s really important that they are really personal and my style is very personal, and I couldn't imagine doing it in any other way," she says. "You can’t just set a word in a font and call it a logo. I think of a logo as a typographic portrait."
Fili works intuitively. After speaking with clients about what they want to get out of a new logo or visual identity and setting the conceptual strategy, she often pulls out a sheet of paper and a calligraphy pen and starts writing the company name over and over again.
"This goes to my book jacket days when I used to sit down with a tracing pad and take the title of the book and just let it speak to me," she says. "It would go from this very amorphous type treatment to something much more precise. Then I’d realize that it’s a typeface that doesn’t exist so I’d have to make it. That's what really prepared me for designing logos. I write it over and over to see where the letterforms take me."
One of her most prominent recent projects was a redesign of Good Housekeeping's seal of approval. "One thing I realized doing makeovers is that you can change a lot as long as you maintain one or two main elements," she says. "In this case it was a no-brainer: You keep the oval and star and everything else can change."
The company changed its logo every decade or so, and Fili felt like it had gone downhill from its original 1909 incarnation. The version she updated was stuck in the 1990s with type bursting out of the side of the oval, a gradient outline, and bold-italic letters. Fili brought the type back into the oval, simplified the font, and set it as white against a dark seal. "I wanted it to look timeless," she says.
When the magazine debuted the new design on the Today show, the hosts actually confused the Fili's design with the older one. "I took it as a compliment because I wanted it to look like it had always been there," she says.
Paperless Post was another recent high-profile commission. When the company's owners came to Fili for a makeover, the problem was that the logo was undecipherable and didn't work in small formats, like online. "Their original logo was interesting because no matter how you looked at the image you couldn’t tell what it is," FIli says. After poring over scrapbooks of script fonts with the company's owners, Fili created a custom typeface and blended it with an illustration of a bird and an envelope from Paperless Post's in-house team.
Though her logos speak to the identity of her clients, as a whole they also paint a picture of Fili's creative perspective. "I want the logos to look like they’re designed by the same designer without being too boring," she says.
Recently, Fili has parlayed her love of typography, monograms, and logos into a series of books on European street signs, notecards, and pencils for Princeton Architectural Press (the publisher was eager for its own line of pencils to go with its popular coloring books for adults).
"Every designer has to have their own projects because it’s the only way you can grow and find your own design voice," Fili says. "It’s not always the most profitable thing to do, but it’s important for your design soul. I’m lucky that I have a small studio so I can focus on the stuff I’m passionate about, which is anything that has to do with food, type, or Italy . . . I do it all for love, I don't do it for money."
[All Images (unless otherwise noted): via Louise Fili]