How Graphic Design Legend Louise Fili Became “The Envy of Every Designer”

From her design studio overlooking bustling midtown Manhattan, graphic designer Louise Fili has spent the better part of the last three decades building a small empire that some have called “the envy of every designer.”

Her influence in New York City is everywhere – from restaurants and subways to nearly every corner bodega in Manhattan. Fili’s timeless graphic design influence has brought an early 20th-century flair to the city that few—if any—could possibly match.

All this comes from a lifetime immersed in three loves–Italy, food, and typography—that she has used to guide and influence her distinctive aesthetic across her entire career. But as the sole owner of a design studio, and a woman, in the pre-internet eighties, she also faced her fair share of challenges as she established her place in the industry.

The story of how she got there is nearly as elegant as the designs she creates.

Louise Fili Graphic Designer Interview

“My earliest creative memory is carving letterforms into the wall above my bed at age 4,” says Fili from her midtown design studio, which she shares with two young creative assistants. “Then, when I was 16, I sent away for a pen advertised in the back of The New Yorker magazine and taught myself calligraphy. Soon I was making illuminated manuscripts of Bob Dylan lyrics for my classmates.”

On her first trip to Italy with her immigrant parents that same year she made the connection between Italy and food, a match that would ultimately provide the initial spark that continues to light her creative fire 5 decades later.

But first, she needed real world experience.

To translate her early 20th century-inspired design sensibilities into a marketable craft, Fili studied at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, traveling to Italy once per year to keep her inspirations fresh.

“At Skidmore College, I set type in hot metal, did calligraphy with reeds from the nearby marshes, and made books using photo silkscreen,” she says. “It was a much more organic approach to learning, but it was unforgettable.”

Her senior project? An Italian cookbook lettered from cover to cover. By hand, of course.

Fresh out of college in 1973, Fili had her first big industry break. She happened to walk into the studio of legendary graphic designer Herb Lubalin, a design icon whose work ranges from the title credits for The Sound Of Music to the typeface Avant Garde. “I literally walked into the studio on a day when someone had just given notice and was hired on the spot.”

Working with Herb, she further refined her ability to sketch type freehand—a skill that has since been replaced by computers and digital design tools. “Herb was notoriously taciturn, but watching him sketch type spoke volumes.”

This period provided some of the most valuable experiences of her career. While she was creative in her own right, working in a functioning studio on commercial projects helped to hone her creative skillset into a marketable product. Good graphic design had its place in business, but at that time had achieved nothing like the level of importance it has today.

After two years of developing her own expressive style under Lubalin, Fili received a phone call from an old colleague. It was good news: the publishers at Random House wanted to focus more on the design of book covers, and were looking for an Art Director to head its Pantheon Books division.

“I asked one question,” says Louise. “Does the office have a southern exposure? He said yes; I took the job.”

Over the next 11 years, the highly-coveted position allowed Fili to design more than 2,000 book covers with full creative freedom. Guided by her passion for elegant typography, she redefined what a book cover could be—as evidenced in her subtle jacket design for the 1984 best seller The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Her cover was a departure from the use of large bold text to ‘shout’ at the viewer—an approach Fili looked down upon. Unsurprisingly, the book—and its cover—became runaway hits.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

By nearly every measure, Fili’s career up to this point had been a success. From working under an established design industry icon to becoming the Art Director for a leading book publisher in New York City, she had accomplished more in her first ten years out of college than most professional designers—both then and now—achieve in an entire career.

And in all that time, those same things that beckoned her to design as a teenager—Italy, great food, and typography—never stopped calling her. The only way she could answer the call full-time was to strike out on her own.

In 1989 she gave two-weeks’ notice at Pantheon Books and established Louise Fili Ltd. to focus on her passion full-time—restaurant identities and food packaging.

“As a sole-owner female opening a design studio in the eighties, I faced an immediate challenge: what to call the studio,” she explains. “There was no Internet. People had to find me in the telephone book, so I couldn’t be too creative with the name. I realized that it would be a liability to name the studio after myself, but I wanted to send a clear message: If you have a problem with my being female, then I have a problem with you as a client.

Despite the various setbacks and challenges, she continued to focus on her most important purpose: to create logo designs and brand identities inspired by her love of food, type, and Italy.

Over the following decades, Fili’s early 20th century Italian-inspired design influence spread across the city – in restaurants (The Mermaid Inn, Pearl Oyster Bar, Claudette, and Il Mulino, among others), on kitchen shelves (Tate’s Bake Shop Cookies, Sarabeth’s Pantry, and Gelato Fiasco, among others) and in countless retail stores, hotels, and magazines.

“When we first hired Louise, we were really reluctant to make changes because for 25 years we had the same label and graphics,” says Sarabeth Levine, founder of legendary Manhattan restaurant Sarabeth’s. “[But] it’s really one of the best things I think I did. She made it more elegant and gave the product a look of quality. There are very few people who can do what Louise does. She’s a part of the business family.”

Another reason why Fili continues to stand out from the crowd, despite wave after wave of new design graduates, is her ability to put quality and authenticity before all else—something that has become more difficult to sustain in the age of the Internet and digital design tools. Although she does eventually publish her designs using digital tools, she leaves this stage of the production process to her two younger assistants and focuses instead on creating each and every letter and logo by hand, as she did on the wall above her bed, all those years ago.

Louise Fili Graphic Designer Sketch

“My design process is still the same since I don’t use a computer—although I rely on my skillful staff to bring my sketches to life digitally,” Louise explains. “It always starts with the type treatment. I usually start by sketching the name, over and over again, letting it speak to me. This is the process I used in book jackets, which evolved into how I design logos. I think of a logo as a typographic portrait. It is my job to authentically interpret the brand, which always takes me in new directions.”

In more recent years, Fili has shifted her attention to teaching. At the School of Visual Art (SVA) in New York City, in both the BFA and MFA programs, she passes on her decades of design industry knowledge and mastery. At SVA, she’s also been able to spread her design influence further, in the school’s celebrated subway poster series—an exercise in attention-seeking that proved to be more challenging than some of her previous work.

“When I designed my first subway poster for SVA, I learned that capturing someone’s attention on the NYC subway—legally—is no easy task,” she explains. “The poster must be read from a moving train—there is no room for nuance.”

Staying true to her distinctive style, Fili created her latest Subway poster series as a chocolate bar, in the style of the Object Poster, a style championed by type designer Lucian Bernhard in Germany in the 1920s:

Not surprisingly, a lifetime of creating distinctive and elegant work in an ever-changing industry has resulted in a sizeable number of awards and medals from some of the industry’s most reputable institutions. Fili has received multiple recognitions over the years from the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, James Beard, the AIGA, and the Society of Illustrators. More recently, she received the medal for Lifetime Achievement from the AIGA and the Type Directors Club.

You will encounter Fili’s work—whether in a New York deli, in the stairwell of the subway station, or while enjoying post-work oysters. And when you do, rather than simply appreciating the design itself, appreciate too the principle that her designs have come to represent: staying true to an enduring passion, regardless of the ebb and flow of industry and change.

For Louise Fili, that passion started at four years of age, as she carved type into the wall above her bed.

“Follow your heart,” says Louise. “Find something that you are passionate about and combine that with the design.”

Louise Fili SVA Masters Series 2016

The School of Visual Arts is currently honoring Fili with its 28th annual Masters Series Award and Exhibition. The Masters Series: Louise Fili is the first comprehensive retrospective of the designer’s influential career, and includes her book jacket, branding, food packaging, and restaurant identity work. The exhibition will be on view through 10 December 2016 at the SVA Gramercy Gallery, located at 209 East 23rd Street.

Learn more about the work of Louise Fili at Louise Fili Ltd.

-film and stills by Nicolas Heller