Interview with Olimpia Zagnoli

We met with the illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli on the day of her twenty-seventh birthday. She passionately told us her story in her Milanese studio behind a pair of thick red glasses that seem to be drawn on with a marker. 

Olimpia Zagnoli was born in Reggio Emilia, where she started to draw at a very early age. She made drawing her profession after getting her diploma at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan, and started working with the prestigious newspapers of New York. Today she has a very rich portfolio and a drawer overflowing with projects, including a range of fashion ideas, a book and the art direction of a children’s magazine on iPad. 

When did you understand that you had found your way as an illustrator?

I have always drawn. At home, at school, in class. Probably in the beginning I did it unconsciously and with poor results, but what I know is that I never wanted to do anything else. Even though I had no grounding in illustration (I attended a secondary school with an emphasis on humanities), I decided to enrol at the Istituto Europeo di Design where I had the chance to continuously work on different aspects of illustration and to develop a certain familiarity with the medium. However, true freedom and the development of a more personal style came about when I finished my studies and started to interact with the professional world.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Illustrations for The Good Guide To Living Better

What job launched your career?
More than a specific job, it was my experience in New York that unblocked me both mentally and from the professional point of view. There I found a more dynamic and fresher working environment than that in Italy, and without a doubt this was very useful for me. Creatively, too.

How does a freelance illustrator live (or survive)?
It’s not easy, especially at the beginning. You have to be able to create a continual work flow that allows you to cover those moments when there is less work. The important thing is to be determined, to keep at it and to take into account that you have to wait a few years before this happens.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Illustrations for The Guardian, 2010

You are from Reggio Emilia and when you were a child you attended a nursery school with an innovative educational model. Did it contribute to your artistic formation?
Yes, of course. After World War II the parents of Reggio Emilia and the surrounding area worked together to build a nursery school model based on an idea of community, of reciprocal support and of individual independence. This concept was later codified by Loris Malaguzzi. One of the principles, among others, is to help children develop the five senses. They have to be able to do, touch and smell everything, within limits, but with a enormous freedom. We had kitchens where we could prepare meals after gathering the ingredients in the vegetable garden that we could grow. We even made tomato sauce at home! Another very interesting aspect is that all of the Reggio Emilia nursery schools provide an atelier and an atelierista. An atelierista is an artist and educator at the same time. He or she helps the children enter the world of art, in the broad sense of the term. I remember that I worked on canvases with enamels, bodkins, acrylics, temperas and plasticine and it was a very important experience that is still alive in me. 

LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Illustrations for Il Sole 24 Ore - Sunday

And how did your parents, both artists, influence your path?
On the one hand, they influenced me artistically because I was able to see them create from an early age, and on the other, they backed me in my choice to pursue this profession. It was important for me to have their support over the years and to not be afraid of running risks.

What do you feed on the most?
Music is certainly a pretty good source of inspiration. Then there’s cinema (I like ‘60s French cinema very much), and also the animation of the first Disney short films (Silly Symphonies). Science is a wonderful world to explore and is filled with interesting ideas for my illustrations. Furthermore, even though I read at a snail’s pace, literature also provides me with an abundance of ideas.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Illustration for the "Scienze e Tecnologia" section of Internazionale

Who are the great masters of illustration in your opinion?
Calling them just illustrators is reductive, but among the many I would say Saul Steinberg, Sergio Tofano, Paul Rand, Pino Tovaglia, Erberto Carboni, Saul Bass and Guido Scarabottolo.

Speaking of Italy, who today has a really original voice in your opinion?
Among the young people, I like Valerio Vidali very much. He has an imagination that is romantic, dirty and clean all at the same time. Then I like the works of Alessandro Sanna because of their simplicity and impact, those of Philip Giordano because of their fine line and exotic flavour, and those of Matteo Perazzoli because he is a madman. And then many others; Italy is full of outstanding illustrators who are more or less hidden.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Works selected for Bologna Children Bookfair, 2007

And in the U.S.?
I like the illustrators that have something to say and that find interesting solutions for saying it. One of them is Jennifer Daniel, a graphic artist/illustrator/art director who has done a lot of work for the New York Times and a myriad of others clients. Her work is brilliant, with a feminine slant, and never banal. Other illustrators that I like a lot are Chris Silas Neal, Frank Chimero, Tad Carpenter and I’ll stop here or the list will become too long.

One day might your style branch out into other genres, for example into graphic journalism?
I really like the idea of tackling things that I have never done. I don’t set any limits in my work. So why not?
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Selected works for Bologna Children Bookfair, 2007

You illustrated the icons of the iPhone app "The Scoop" for the New York Times. Would you tell us about this experience?
The Scoop is a small portable guide to New York for iPhone. The New York Times commissioned me to design a cover and a series of icons for the various categories. I had never worked on a medium of this kind, and I still didn’t own an iPhone, so I truly couldn’t imagine what the result would turn out to be. But it went really well! This collaboration is ongoing, and the application is certainly successful.

Have you also worked for the record industry?
I only started recently, but it’s something that I enjoy a lot. The new CD by Green Like July, a folk rock group from Alessandria, came out on February 11. I created a cover for it based on the style of old "home sweet home" pictures. The new CD by Ex-Otago, an indie pop group from Genoa, will be released on March 21. I illustrated a mustard-coloured cover for it and an illustrated 7" by Home on Tannen Records should come out soon.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli

After the T-shirts with Le Raclet, how would you like to continue your collaboration with the world of fashion?
For now I have had the chance to work with Le Raclet, Gusella and Bastard on graphics for T-shirts. But I would like to work more and more with fashion. My dream would be to create scarves for some interesting designer. I’m working on it!

You drew on the window of Molteni’s showroom. What changes when you colour such a huge and transparent canvas?
I like to separate illustration from the two-dimensionality of the page and see it applied to other media. My collaboration with Molteni started when they saw my works executed on the windows of a small gallery in Barcelona called Duduà. I had the chance to work with Molteni in their London and Milan showrooms, drawing directly on the windows. I also studied another personal project in depth. It consists of a series of typographical experiments carried out with chalk on sidewalks, which resulted in a photographic book.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Icons for the iPhone app "The Scoop" by the New York Times

And future projects that combine different media?
I have recently been named art director of Timbuktu, the first children’s magazine on iPad. It will be a magazine in English, hence international, soon to become available on iTunes. The magazine has lots of interesting and fun content. It retains the flavour of glossy paper magazines, but has that additional technological pizzazz.

If you were to design the typography of the Lancia TrendVisions website, how would you do it?
What’s interesting about big Italian companies is the possibility of rediscovering the brand’s history, the typography or colours, and the original forms. In Lancia’s case, it would be interesting to dig out all of the bodywork colours of the past and research into what typography was used initially, to then alter it while maintaining a retro flavour.
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
"My life in 23 Yoga poses" for The New York Times Book Review

What illustration festivals are a must to attend for an aspiring illustrator?
If you are interested in children’s illustration, every year in Italy there is the Bologna Children Book Fair and then the various book fairs around the world (London and Frankfurt, for example). Then as for the competitions to take part in, I would recommend American Illustration and Society of Illustrators as far as the United States is concerned.

Future projects?
My future projects include that of finishing the book I am working on, starting to play the piano, going back to being active in self-produced personal projects and, as I said before, trying to work with fashion. And I’m also looking for a house!
LTVs, Olimpia Zagnoli
Cover of the Weekend Section of the Washington Post

Photos ©

18 March 2011

espectacolare laboro!!!

2 May 2012

Marco Stancati

L’avevo incontrata, o meglio avevo notato le sue cose, su Internazionale e il Sole. Una bella espressività pulita nel segno e nel colore. Piaciuta subito, ma senza sapere chi fosse. Ora so che risponde al nome di Olimpia Zagnoli. Una che non butta via niente dei ricordi, delle esperienze, dei riferimenti: dai pezzetti di legno colorato alle carte ritagliate di art attack, dalle tavolozze nobili della pittura(Matisse) ai meno famosi (ma formidabili) nostrani (ci \"leggo\" Tofano, Tadini). Senso e gusti del passato rielaborati alla ricerca di nuovi linguaggi per questo presente così veloce che è subito futuro e, un’istante dopo, passato. Mi piace quello che fa Olimpia, che ha un nome così evocativo. E, ancora di più, quello che farà

19 March 2011