Thirty-three years old, Milanese, and from an extremely creative family – both her parents are artists, her sister is a costume designer – Olimpia Zagnoli has a great penchant for vibrant colours and bold shapes as well as an irony-filled passion for unusual objects. She is also extraordinarily talented and has a most impressive portfolio – with clients ranging from The New York Times through The New Yorker, La Repubblica, Taschen, Monocle, Vanity Fair, Air France to Yale University – all of which makes her a leading exponent of Italian new wave illustration, which is taking the world by storm.
How did you become an illustrator? Tell us about your journey?
I’ve always drawn on whatever surface was available, from the walls of our house to tram tickets. Deciding to turn this passion into a career was pretty simple; but it putting it into practice took many years of research and specialisation as well as the ability to turn my limitations into distinctive marks.
Your work is a riot of pop colours – reminiscent of the Sixties and Seventies – rounded and exuberant shapes. Was this expressive verve a starting point or an end point? How did you achieve such a personal combination?
When I started working I was much more timid from an expressive point of view and I only used reassuring colours like red, blue and yellow, and a few shades of grey. I was less expansive with my shapes too, my figures were squashed more into a grid and were more filiform. Now I fell freer to create more strident juxtapositions and more ample bodies. I don’t see it as an end point though, I work every day with fresh inspiration that I hope will lead to new horizons.
Music and the other artistic disciplines in general, how do they influence your creative process?
My creative process means having to focus my attention not just on visual thoughts (which assail me on a daily basis), but also on stimuli of various sorts, such as music. Music for me is an extremely interesting field because it is capable of conjuring up an imaginary world without using any images.
Can you tell us how one of your illustrations evolves?
I usually start with a text, a title or a concept and explore the various ways in which I can represent it in my own way by making quick sketches in a notebook that I then work up on the computer and put the finishing touches to.
You’ve made your name in several, very diverse fields: publishing, traditional posters as well as fashion, ceramics and music with covers for various albums, what other areas would you like to explore?
I’d like to work on an open-air installation, in a park or public swimming pool for instance. I like the idea that my works start off in my sketchbook and go on to breathe fresh air outside my studio.
What’s your workspace like? Whereabouts is it? What’s absolutely crucial for you to work well?
I work in a studio in a Milanese building built around a courtyard with a large window looking out onto two magnolias. I don’t need anything in particular for my work, just a table and a kettle for the hundreds of cups of herb tea and barley coffee I drink every day. And a bookcase, of course.
Turning to matters domestic, what’s your house like? Is it like your illustrations?
I rent a house that looks like a seaside home at the moment, with blue and while tiles, no oven and a bunk-like bed. I’ve been looking for somewhere to buy for months, though, so I can personalise it as I like, buy the furniture I dream of and feel as though it’s mine.
This is why I’ve created the @casafutura Instagram account, where I keep all the notes on the houses I go and see to help me remember what I’ve seen.
Is there any particular room you think of as your comfort zone?
Alas no, I live surrounded by thousands of objects: my boyfriend’s guitars, boxes full of things, shoes, books, magazines, an uncomfortable sofa and I never manage to find a peaceful spot.
Is there a domestic object you could never part with, though?
I haven’t got any fetishes or rituals, when I find things I usually forget about them in a day or two. So I’d say not, although I have to say my potato peeler comes in very handy.
Italian illustration is going through a good period, there’s a younger generation that’s very talented and much appreciated outside Italy as well. Do you think there’s a common trait, let’s say “an Italian style” that’s recognised abroad?
I’d say European illustrators in general seem to be rather more ironic and braver in their use of colour than illustrators in the rest of the world and in particular they have a unique way of interpreting all the cultural triggers around them.
What are you working on at the moment?
This week I’m working on a series of illustrations for a well-known motor manufacturer, on a design for a silk scarf for an event, on posters for a film festival and on a packaging series for a line of French fragrances. Next week who knows.
Check out more illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli: www.olimpiazagnoli.com