Louise Fili

Louise Fili is an Italian-American graphic designer recognized for her elegant, elaborate and timeless typography work. Influenced by her passions and voice, Fili has designed two thousand book jackets, two hundred restaurant identities, and numerous packages. She proves that design and passion go hand in hand, and the combination of these is what leads to a successful career in design.

Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1951, Louise Fili grew up in an Italian-American household. Her parents, both Italian born, filled their New Jersey home with their culture. This is where Fili’s appreciation for food blossomed. Fili describes her parents as “always cooking” and tending to their backyard garden. As her parents spent hours in the kitchen, Fili would be in her bedroom carving letterforms into her bed and drawing them on the walls. Even at a young age, type and letterforms fascinated her.

Living in New Jersey her whole life so far, sixteen-year-old Louise Fili felt only indignity in the Garden State. Traveling called to her, and in July 1967, she traveled to Italy with her family for the first time. She describes the trip as a “typographic and gastronomic epiphany” and claims that “everything looked, tasted, and sounded better in Italian”. Upon arriving in Milan, Fili saw a billboard featuring an art nouveau rendering of a couple with the words “Baci Perugina”. At this moment, Fili fell in love with Italy, type, and food. It was this love that then created her passion and purpose to design. That same summer she traveled to Italy, Fili sent away for a special calligraphy pen advertised in the back of an issue of The New Yorker. She then began producing her first design works: illuminated manuscripts of Bob Dylan lyrics.

After she graduated high school, Louise Fili enrolled at Skidmore College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York. She enrolled in the fine art program, even though she knew she wanted her education centered more around graphic design. At the time, “graphic design” was not a term used to describe Fili’s study interests. The term more familiar to people was “commercial art”. There were only a few design-oriented classes offered at Skidmore, Professor Victor Liguori taught one of them few classes. He allowed Fili to do more independent study work in design. For her senior project in her independent study, Fili showed her heritage, and passion for food by creating a hand-lettered Italian cookbook.

In 1970, Louise Fili left Skidmore College to begin her life in New York City. She took up a brief semester at the School of Visual Arts. During this time, Fili also took up an internship at the Museum of Modern Art Fresh out of college, Fili spent a short time at a small design studio. She worked on projects that included promotions for Glamour magazine and other Conde Nast titles.

Through freelance work at Alfred A. Knopf, a publishing house in New York City, Fili began her professional experience with books. Her unique, elegant typographic style she used to design illustrated books, caught the eye of designer that suggested she meet legendary typographer and art director, Herb Lubalin. Upon walking into his studio, Fili was recognized and she was hired on the spot. She described the studio as a “typophilie’s dream”. Lubalin gave abundant attention to letterforms, which completely astounded Fili. As she worked with Lubalin, her free-handed sketching improved, and she learned to apply her creativity within the limitations of designing for commercial products.

After two years of working for Lubalin, Fili received a call from an old colleague with a job offer. At Random House, in the Pantheon Books division, the publishers were hunting for a new art director to spearhead more focus on the designers of Pantheon’s book covers. Fili took the job, and immersed herself into book covers, determined to improve Pantheon’s current strategies. She also continued traveling to Italy and France to keep her foreign inspiration fresh. This aided her in catering her designs for Pantheon’s Eurocentric books and authors. The evolution of Pantheon’s book covers began with Fili’s immersion. In an interview, she describes her process as evolving the typical book jacket design “to prove you don’t have to shout to capture one’s attention”.

Fili described her studio at Random House as a “graphics test kitchen”. With her heavy Italian heritage and passion for cooking, she approached each book jacket as an experiment in her kitchen. Fili’s husband, Steve Heller, explains that “watching her design is like watching her cook the intense attention to detail is identical. She often works from recipes; when designing she starts from scratch”. This attention to detail reflects in Fili’s book cover designs and aids in her revolution to tone down the voice of a book cover, but also make it unique and stand out. Her most notable book jacket design was for The Lover by Marguerite Duras. She used a subtle type along with a black and white image. This simple, but elegant and unique design made The Lover a 1984 bestseller.

Louise Fili worked at Random House for eleven years, and designed numerous successful book jackets. However, she desired to focus on her true passions, which had inspired her design aesthetic from the very beginning. In 1989, Fili opened her own studio, Louise Fili Ltd. As an emerging business woman in the eighties, Fili faced many challenges, but insisted her studio be in her name. She claimed, “if you have a problem with me being female, then I have a problem with you as a client”.

Fili’s studio focused mainly in the food and restaurant industry. She re-branded, and designed logos for local restaurants in New York. Fili typically gravitated to smaller businesses as clients. This allowed her increased creative control as well as more intimate relationships with the clients. After uncovering a cache of vintage packing on another inspiring trip to Italy, Fili decided to also explore food packaging. She claims it offered a whole new dimension, expanding her work from just paper and ink.

As Fili still designs today, her legacy continues to inspire. Fili is known for her amazing ability to put quality and authenticity before all else, which has become more difficult in the modern age of technology. Her work took a step back from the 1980’s midcentury modernist style and the strictness it conveyed. With her careful attention to detail, Fili’s designs are empathetic to the viewer, the trickiest to achieve when designing product packaging.

“Combine design with something you’re passionate about. Find your own voice, it’s the only way to grow as a designer”, Fili advises students now. Her successful design career began for her love of not only typography but her love for Italian food and culture. Fili has received medals from the Art Directors Club, and the Society of Illustrators, as well as three James Beard Award nominations. In 2004, she was inducted into the Art Director’s Club hall of fame and received the 2014 AIGA Medal. All her success, rests on her passion, and Louise Fili continues to share that to students at the School of Visual arts and the world to this day.



Elegantissima: The Design & Typography of Louise Fili