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At Mucca Design, books are everywhere. Hardbound and paperback titles in Italian and English designed for their biggest client, Rizzoli, fill floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The offices of the partners—creative director and president Matteo Bologna and managing partner and senior strategist Roberta Ronsivalle—are filled with books. There’s a studio research library with art history texts, antique type specimen books and books about subjects like fashion, architecture and textiles. In the conference room, handsome gift books are displayed alongside arrangements of shopping bags and packages that demonstrate Mucca's artistry in branding.

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All the work whets your appetite. When it’s not about literature, it’s mostly about food, eating and cooking, or about the elegance of high-touch luxury brands. It’s work for clients who prize the finer things in life and want beautiful design and typography to express their brand attributes to savvy customers.

Matteo Bologna and Roberta Ronsivalle, born and raised in Milan and Rome respectively, met ten years ago through mutual friends. Matteo (you’re immediately on a first-name basis) is the funny one. When you ask both of them, “How do you get new clients,” he answers “bribes.” Roberta, the business-like one, answers, “Through the Web site and by referrals.” Then adds, in her elegant accent, “No matter what, it’s the personal relationship that counts.” It’s hard to imagine not wanting Matteo and Roberta as personal friends, sitting down and talking over a cappuccino, not to mention seeing their vision on your business card.

Together, they’ve built a $2 million firm where a dozen young employees work together in 3,500-square-feet of prime SoHo loft-office space. There are outposts in San Francisco and Boston where longtime senior art directors Christine Celic Strohl and Andrea Brown work remotely and cultivate local clients. The firm is named Mucca (“cow” in Italian) after a black-and-white spotted Dalmatian that Matteo once owned, because, he says, “It was the only word I could come up with when the lawyer asked, ‘So what is the name of the company?’” It’s a busy firm. At any given time, the branding division is engaged in two or three comprehensive identity and packaging projects, and the book division is working on up to 40 titles.

Both partners got to this point not on the straightest of paths, but certainly on interesting ones. At age nineteen, Matteo began illustrating Italian magazines. He’d attended a liceo artistico in Milan, a high school for art study. In Italy, he explains, there are technical, linguistic, scientific and artistic high schools. “In theory I was supposed to study to be an architect, but I was drawing twenty hours a week. In Milano I opened a studio with two partners. After a while, instead of murdering each other, we split up and in 1994 I moved to New York with my then-wife, the Dalmatian and two bags.”

Americans who crave la dolce vita might wonder why give it up for New York. “The graphic design business in Italy sucks,” Matteo claims. “The schools are not that good, the clients are bad, and besides it is kind of insular. In Italy it doesn’t matter if you’re good or not, only if you know someone. Are they related to you and will the price be cheap? I got business because lots of my mother’s friends were in advertising and packaging."

So, wait, back up. So how did he get so good that he’s now a multiple-award-winner, sought-after speaker, and on the board of both the Type Directors Club and AIGA/NY? “I learned by buying art directors annuals, TDC annuals and CA annuals,” he says. “They were my textbooks. Charles Spencer Anderson and Duffy Design were gods, and I also worshiped the work of Louise Fili, Paula Scher and the Michaels (Vanderbyl, Mabry, Cronin) of San Francisco.”

When a client brings you into their organization as a partner, not a supplier, that’s when it gets exciting.” —Roberta Ronsivalle
 

He also learned by doing, and reportedly was the first designer in Milan with a computer, a Mac IIx with 4MB of RAM and a 13-inch monitor. “It was the end of the ’80s and by default I became the guy with the computer, and magazine art directors asked me to do stuff,” he recalls. “Every job was trial-and-error, and of course there were no printers or service bureaus.” He says that to get his first computer-generated job printed, an illustration for a business magazine, he shot a photo of the screen and delivered a 35mm slide to the client, who loved it. And, he claims, the little English he knew upon arrival in the US was learned by reading pull-down menus. “‘Quit’ was one of the first words I knew.” His first big design project was for Apple computer in Italy. “I could squeeze Garamond to 80 percent to make it look like the Apple logo. I thought it was the coolest thing, and the brochure was a great success.”

In New York, he suddenly started meeting all the designers he’d only read about in magazines. “When I met Louise Fili, it was like meeting Paul McCartney. The whole design community was very welcoming. After working on museum design at Ralph Appelbaum Associates and freelancing for four years, my first big break was for Balthazar Restaurant. I submitted the Balthazar identity to the Type Directors Club, and it was one of the judges’ choices that year. With that and my continuing connections to the Italian Mafia, I got my start.”

He and Roberta make a good team. She has a master’s degree in political science from La Sapienza, the largest and oldest university in Rome, and studied strategic branding and interactive marketing at NYU. Before joining Mucca six years ago, she opened and managed the North American office of NAVA, a high-end, Milan-based printing, product design and publishing company. She’s in charge of Mucca’s business development and strategic branding, and under her leadership, the firm conducts in-depth analyses, engages in naming projects, and can make small clients look (and get) big, so that claims like, “The new identity has stimulated the client’s expansion from a local boutique to a global brand” are provable facts. Although the client list includes, in addition to Rizzoli and various restaurant groups, Adobe Systems, Kartell, Victoria’s Secret, Harper Collins and Target, no one would confuse Mucca with the branding unit of a multinational ad agency. The work is quirkier and more personal, and the love that’s put into it shows in every detail. Along with studio manager Holly Burns, Roberta makes sure proposals are structured properly and that clients, even elusive restaurateurs, remember to send progress payments on time.

When I met Louise Fili, it was like meeting Paul McCartney. The whole design community was very welcoming." —Matteo Bologna
 

One project that demonstrates Mucca’s breadth of capabilities is the identity for Brooklyn Fare, a specialty grocery store and eatery that Roberta characterizes as a Brooklyn institution with two Michelin stars that offers a level of personal service that even the best large chains can't match. “We did demographic research in order to reach the young professionals who live and work in the area,” she explains. “Out of this grew an all-type identity based on copy lines like, ‘It’s a small not a tall’ on coffee cups and ‘We like to get carried away with food’ on takeout bags. This conversational brand positions Brooklyn Fare as the authentic local alternative to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.” Matteo designed a proprietary typeface, which is one of the services that the firm offers its clients; the copy was written by art director Andrea Brown, whom Roberta calls “the best copywriter around.”

Brown, Mucca’s longest-standing employee—ten years—recently moved to Boston, where she continues to lead many branding projects and hone her skills as a copywriter. She and Christine Celic Strohl, who’s been working from San Francisco, prove that once a strong working relationship is established, occasional plane trips and lots of Skype meetings can make working remotely a successful alternative. “It can be fairly seamless,” Strohl says. “Matteo and I worked so well together we knew we could continue it from across the country.”

On a typical New York afternoon in the studio, Giona Lodigiani, who earned his degree in advertising art direction from Accademia di Comunicazione in Milan—you hear almost as much Italian as English at Mucca—was exploring imagery for a fiction series for the Italian publisher bur, six complete ideations, each more compelling than the last. At the next workstation, Melissa Chang, who recently earned her BFA at the School of Visual Arts, was finessing the details of a gift packaging project for Victoria's Secret. Hana Nakamura, who oversees many book projects, was designing a regional American cookbook that, as is usual for this firm, features elegant typography and luscious color photography. Erica Heitman-Ford, previously at Workman Publishing, was putting the finishing touches on a pro-bono project, packaging for a line of dried fruits and nuts, sales of which benefit women in Afghanistan. Daniel Choe, a graduate of California College of the Arts in San Francisco, who heads the interactive team, was updating a fashion client's site, helping to give a big Web presence to a local entrepreneur.

As the firm continues to mature and grow, the hope is that its talents and expertise can be applied to ever-larger companies and brands. “We give clients personalities based on deep research and attention to detail,” says Strohl, “and sometimes that’s missing with giant companies.” But not always. Mucca recently worked with Target on a program that included 1,500 packages for everything from bedding to kitchen tools to garden supplies. “We are continuing to look for companies with that kind of passion for design, who understand the value of design and want to integrate it as one of the key elements in their business strategy,” says Matteo. And Roberta adds, “When a client brings you into their organization as a partner, not a supplier, that’s when it gets exciting.” ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.
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