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Food, Type and All Things Italian
by Ruth Hagopian

The fusion of work and pleasure in a successful career has been cultivated by Louise Fili, whose pursuit of “food, type and all things Italian” allows her to produce distinctive design at a lively pace.

She laughed when recalling her obsessions, collections and growing up with Italian immigrant parents in a home where food was the topic, every day, 24 hours a day. After college, Manhattan’s lure was inevitable, not only as a food mecca, but also with work that encouraged her growth as a senior designer for Herb Lubalin and as art director of Pantheon Books.

Fili saw a sameness in book jacket design during the early Pantheon years resulting from the industry’s fear of taking risks and she decided to seize the opportunity to forge new ground. Ten years later, having produced over 2,000 book jackets, Fili had done her share of exploring innovative typography and illustration and experimenting with the integration of type and imagery.

Her design for The Lover by Marguerite Duras, with its thin red Art Deco type casting shadows over the pale yellow cover was the book that broke all the rules. “Fortunately, no one in the Pantheon sales department had high hopes for it, and left me alone,” she said. “But after it became a bestseller, it sent a powerful message—that a jacket doesn’t have to shout to become a commercial success.”

Fili’s approach to designing a jacket was to sit down with a tracing pad and write the name of the book over and over, going through an entire pad if necessary, until the words were transformed into letterforms. It’s the same process she usesin her work today at Louise Fili Ltd., a firm she started in 1989 that specializes in design for restaurants, books and specialty food packaging.

When The El Paso Chile Company hired her to package a margarita mix and salt for Williams-Sonoma, Fili researched the work of Mexican artists and found José Guadalupe Posada, a nineteenth-century woodcut artist for reference. She gave a sketch to wood engraver James Grashow, who delicately rendered the cactus and limes that complement her hand-drawn lettering on the bottle’s label.

A love of historical typography that led her to unique letterforms has also stimulated her interest in design history. Fili travels to Italy and France on a regular basis to research and collect graphics for her books on European design. Her studio is filled with this ephemera, as well as her photographs of signage, cataloged and labeled by city, that fill her bookcases.

The union of old-world flavor and contemporary styling is evident in a series of products for Bella Cucina specialty foods. “Bella Cucina is a brand we’ve developed over the years in different forms,” Fili said of the variety of bottles, jars and boxes she designed. “We’ve been able to expand the brand and still keep the integrity of the product.” The products are elegant and sensual hand-packaged foods; their flavored oils, preserved lemons, biscotti and marmellatas have paper-wrapped lids tied with twine that express the product’s “artful food” image. “Just as in the case of The Lover, where people told me that they bought the book because of the jacket, many have said the same thing regarding the Bella Cucina packaging.”

Vintage type can also imply care and quality in a product. Fili designed letterforms based on turn-of-the century cracker packaging for Late July’s three kinds of organic crackers. She hired British illustrator Graham Evernden to create imagery reminiscent of chromalitho graphic printing of that era. Sold at health food stores, Late July proved to be a successful new snack product.

Many of Fili’s logos combine her unique typography with images from her preferred illustrators, Anthony Russo, Mark Summers and Melanie Marder Parks. “We’ve worked together for so long, I can give just a few words of direction and we understand each other perfectly,” she said. Russo’s style suited Fili’s concept of The Mermaid Inn, a small offbeat restaurant in the East village. “They wanted the feel of a seafood shack you would just stumble into on Cape Cod,” she said. She supplied Russo with a sketch of a mermaid and then placed the hand-lettering inside the figure. “Containing the type within the image always makes a much stronger logo.” Hagopian
Ruth Hagopian began writing about fine art at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she received her MFA. She was a cofounder of Visual Strategies, a design firm in San Francisco, and writes about art and design.