Illustrator Profile: Olimpia Zagnoli: "I found my Yellow Brick Road through simplicity"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 12, 2015

Olimpia Zagnoli is a bold, graphic illustrator with a bright, pop art style, who is based in Milan, Italy. In the seven years that she’s been working, Olimpia has created a remarkable body of work that includes editorial illustration, book covers, children’s books, posters, music videos, and product and fashion design.

Olimpia’s illustrations are an art director’s dream: simple and vibrant, they’re posterlike in their impact, yet layered with thought and nuance. In addition to appearing in a magazines like Vanity Fair, Nautilus, and Adweek, Olimpia does a weekly illustration for a column in The New York Times and appears regularly on covers and inside pages of publications in France, Italy, and other countries. Her work reminds me of the classic 1960s Pushpin Studio stylings of Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast and some of the early work of Barbara Nessim, as well at times of Heinz Edelmann (Yellow Submarine). However, Olimpia’s style is much simpler than those, and the key to her success is the way she works with geometric and other shapes and strips her illustrations down their bare essence. The result is artwork that is stylish, beautiful, and very smart.

“I was born on a leap day and for this reason, when I was a child, I thought I was magic,” says Olimpia. That sense of magic extends to her brilliant work on children’s books. Her reimagination of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has drawn huge acclaim and rave reviews for its imaginative graphic minimalism and smart visual storytelling. Her latest book, Mister Horizontal and Miss Vertical, created with Noémie Revah, is a brilliantly spare but charming geometric exercise that brings to mind Ann and Paul Rand’s classic Little 1.

Olimpia has also branched out into fashion design, creating a series of patterns for tops and sweaters. And with her father, Miro Zagnoli (a noted photographer in his own right) has launched a product-based shop dedicated to “objects with an erotic taste.”

My dad is a photographer and my mom is a painter, I’ve always been around their work and they used to take me to exhibition, weird performances and museums. Being surrounded by their friends I had the chance to meet people who did what they loved as a job and this has always been an inspiration for me. 

Mom and dad split up when I was 17. I have a younger sister who’s now studying costume design in London and one grandma called Clotilde who’s a seamstress and lives in Mantova. I live with my boyfriend in a small apartment in the center of Milan and I have a studio close by. My boyfriend is a musician in the body of a lawyer or vice versa. I go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays with my mom and have lunch with my dad in our favorite trattoria “Il brutto anatroccolo” (The Ugly Ducking) quite often. 

I attended an illustration course at Istituto Europeo di Design of Milan for three years but I often think of my kindergarten in Reggio Emilia as my artistic imprinting. There I had the chance to experiment with various materials from copper to clay, we had cooking classes and we used our fantasy in a very productive way. I don’t recall having such a pure and instinctive artistic experience afterwards. 

I have a studio 10 minutes away from home. It’s an old building with a beautiful courtyard and a wisteria climbing up to the roof. The studio used to be the one of an engineer who basically left it like it was in the 70s. When me and three friends moved in we had to get rid of piles of technical drawings and old magazines. We kept one drafting table, three Olivetti closets and some beautiful lamps from that time. I used to work from home for so long that is now refreshing to have a place to walk to in the morning, have lunch with friends everyday, and at least three times the amount of stationery I would have at home!

I sketch by hand and then I usually work with Adobe Illustrator. Sometimes I do collage, too.

I remember visiting Steven Guarnaccia in his studio at Parsons one of the first times I was in New York. I was at the beginning of my career and I was both excited and disoriented. Meeting a person who was not only an illustrator I admired, but also a professional figure and could also speak my language was like finding a colorful oasis in the middle of the smog. He took a look at my portfolio, gave me feedback on my works and arranged a meeting with Max Bode, who at the time was working at The New Yorker. The New Yorker for me was the Hollywood of illustrators and I could never thank Steven enough for making this happen. He’s also a very nice person and dresses fabulously.

Pablo Picasso, the Eames and the Ramones.

Bruno Munari. He’s genius and dedication. This kind man with a tie represents everything that matters to me. Born an artist, he later became a graphic designer, an art director, an industrial designer, a sculptor, an illustrator, a video maker, a writer, a professor and a pedagogue. His vision was distinct, cutting-edge and it changed my way of looking at things.

I find it hard to manage the business part. Paying bills for the studio, sending invoices, talking to my accountant, signing contracts, going to the post office…I hate that part and I’m not really good at it. I had to make lots of mistakes before I was able to understand a few things.

Books. I have never-ending galleries of images on my computer but they don’t seem to work when I’m in desperate need of inspiration. Books give me that peaceful window of time and space where I can just sit there and contemplate and this seem to reactivate a mechanism that brings my brain, eyes and hands back together. If I have time, any kind of museum will have good effects on me. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the Met; it could also be the museum of mushrooms. I also really like Domus magazine’s digital archive. They have all their issues from 1928 until now. It’s not for free, but it’s so worth it especially if you like design, art, architecture and want to know more about the visual history of Italy.

I really enjoyed working for New York City’s MTA Arts & Design. I made this illustration of a young woman from Harlem who woke up one morning and decided to walk to the Statue of Liberty and got there by sunset. They turned it into big glossy posters that will be displayed around the New York subway system soon. It’s been my dream to work for them since the first time I visited New York in 2008.

Land art! I’d love to be asked to design sculptures and installations for a park in a beautiful place. Something that interacts with the surrounding and the people like Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden or Mirò's sculptures at Fondation Maeght in the south of France.

Aviva Michaelov contacted me two years ago asking if I could do one piece for the Sunday Review column “Gray Matter.” I did and then she asked me to make another one and then another one and now we’re here every week. Sometimes I work with her and other times with Alexandra Zsigmond. So far it’s been an incredible exercise for me in terms of concept, rhythm and freedom. It’s an open dialogue between me, Aviva and Alexandra so I also have the chance to try something new sometimes and push the boundaries of my usual style a little bit. The challenge is that as soon as I’m done with one piece, the new one is coming in the mail right after.

Mister Horizontal and Miss Vertical is a very non-traditional children’s book, authored by Noémie Revah. It’s a story about a man who likes to do horizontal things and a woman who likes to do vertical things. He likes to swim in large pools, sleep on long beds and walk for hours in the desert. She likes to travel to space, jump on trees and skyscrapers. The question at the end of the book is what their kid would like. It’s a fun book but it’s also a good point of view on diversity, respect and self affirmation. Given the coordinates, I thought it would be great to illustrate it in a very graphic way, dressing the characters with striped T-shirts and primary colors. Illustrating a children’s book is a big responsibility; I’ve grown up vivisecting the books I had as a kid, observing every little detail and letting myself be absorbed by the different scenarios. I hope kids would love to be taken to Mister Horizontal and Miss Vertical town.

I was contacted by Rockport Publishers to work on a new series called Classics Reimagined. The creative director gave me list of 20 titles to choose from. I saw The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was included and I couldn’t resist. It’s been my dream to illustrate this title because I've always been in love with the story and my name and surname are OZ, so I think it’s a nice match.

I did a lot of research; it took me almost one year to come up with a solution. I was inspired by Bauhaus and the aesthetic of bands like Devo, Kraftwerk and Talking Heads. I did a lot of sketching and color tests in the beginning and then after many attempts, I found my Yellow Brick Road through simplicity. 

One of the first things I do whenever I begin to work is to take a text or a brief, read it once or twice and then dilute it into an atmosphere. This time it was difficult to step away from the idea of the Wizard of Oz I had in my mind and create a new version of it while still paying respect to the original one. I thought simplicity and minimalism was the way to go with such a rich story.

I sketched ideas on my sketchbook, did some color tests and worked with my tablet to translate all of them into my computer. One good thing about this book is I got to work with graphic designer Francesco Ceccarelli from Bunker Studio who helped me visualize the images in context, create a dialogue with the typography and overall has been my coach for the whole time.

Sometimes I get the chance to work with fashion brands, which I consider both a privilege and a great distraction. Last year I did a collaboration with the Italian brand Lazzari; we designed two sweaters to wear for breakfast. Now I’m working with Fendi on a series of illustrations for their horoscope and with Ballantyne on a collection for the next Winter. I also run an online shop with my dad called dedicated to objects with an erotic taste.

I have three agents at the moment: Marlena for the US, Illustrissimo in France, and MoSt in South Eastern Asia. Also, I find social media very helpful. I use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It’s a good way to keep everyone updated and keep track of the work of my colleagues and artists I admire.

It’s not just about the hands; it’s about the brain. You have to work hard and study, treasure your culture and expand it, travel, read, observe the tiniest things and the gigantic ones, and cultivate a voice that’s unique.

See more Olimpia Zagnoli illustrations, new work, and updates
Olimpia Zagnoli Website
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