Olimpia Zagnoli makes me smile. It’s not a cutesy “Oh, isn’t that sweet” kind of smile, nor is it a “Wow! I’ve just won the lottery” smile. It’s simply a happy smile that comes from finding an artist who mixes visually magnetic colors with a touch of humor and then adds a pinch of nostalgia. Take Olimpia’s logo: thick red eyeglasses, a single cartoon-like spiral of hair, a little smile. At first I think these elements don’t tell me much about Olimpia, but then I stumble across a photo of her on the internet and even though she is wearing black eyeglasses, I shout with instant recognition “That’s her! That’s Olimpia!”
Olimpia’s career took off when she sent an email to the New York Times, “I was in New York, I had my portfolio with me and I didn’t know many other magazines in town.” Since then she has won the Celebrate Originality Award sponsored by Addidas and Vice magazine and done work for the New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Monocle, L’internazionale, Il Sole 24 ore, Io donna and many other publications.
While there are plenty of reasons to admire Olimpia, what really makes her stand out, from this interview to her logo, is her incredibly uncanny ability to know, out of the thousands of colors, shapes and objects of everyday life, which particular details are necessary to make you grin, to make you understand the meaning of a story, to make you wish for just a minute that you too could slip on a pair of red-rimmed eyeglasses and see Olimpia’s world.
The Olimpia-interview Soundtrack: Since Olimpia wants to be a rock star when she gets old, I asked her what cover songs would be on her debut album. Ganzo created Olimpia’s playlist on youtube so you can turn up the speakers on your computer and use them as a musical background.
- Lola – The Kinks
- I wonder – The Ronettes
- Under My Thumb – The Rolling Stones
- Ballrooms of mars – T-Rex
- Today your love, tomorrow the world – The Ramones
- True blue – Madonna
- Blue Moon – Sam Cooke
How would you describe your sense of humor? What makes you laugh?
I don’t know anything about my sense of humor. I think I have one, but it’s too difficult to explain it from the inside. I usually laugh at simple things like kids, people falling in the street or Peanuts.
From Reggio Emilia to Milano to New York. Have the places you have lived influenced your style as an illustrator?
Definitely. The sentimental side of my works comes from my childhood memories which are very much tied to Reggio Emilia, the countryside, and my first love.
Milan is pure everyday life. The fruit shop down the street from my house, the record store, the post office, the shoes, my scooter, ice cream at 4pm, the hairdresser, my boyfriend in his underwear, the tree we see from our window. All of these things and more are tiny pieces of my work too.
New York is fluorescence. It’s orange lipstick, a black cat, pink lemonade, my friends’ smiling faces, mimosas for breakfast, neon lights, 18 miles of books. New York unconsciously encouraged me to dare with colors and boldness.
It seems that in some countries there aren’t very many bright colors used in everyday life. In the U.S. most bedding is in pastel or beige shades, but in Italy bed sheets can be orange and yellow. Do you think Italian style involves a unique relationship with color?
I just came back from a two weeks trip around Sicily. Even though i’m Italian, I was blown away by the mix of unexpected colors and shapes the island has to offer. I don’t think there are a lot of places like that in the world. What I have learned to love about Italy is that you can have all kinds of scenarios and palettes, from tyrolean greens to the reds of prickly pears in the south. Milan to me is some sort of sage green, very discreet and smoky. New York is silver like the aluminium coating of its roofs, dark red like its bricks and fluorescent orange like its cocktails and its sunsets.
Your online store has “I miss New York” posters. Is there something you always take back to Italy from New York? Is there something you always take to New York from Italy?
Sometimes when I travel to New York I bring my pillow with me. I can be really homesick and that helps me have a sort of safe nest I can come back to at night. I also bring lots of OKI, the best medicine ever for headaches and general pain. When I travel back to Italy I fill my bags with floss picks, shoes, books, make up, cinnamon raisin bread, Proactive, new glasses, salt and pepper shakers, vintage sweaters and random stuff I buy at Staples.
A lot of your inspiration comes from American and Italian graphic design of the ‘50s and ‘60s. What attracts you to that aesthetic?
I was lucky to have good books at home when I was little. I’ve grown up, but what I like hasn’t changed that much. What attracts me to the aesthetic of the 50s and the 60s is the apparently effortless balance between shapes, colors and concepts. Also, I really like the fact that the best graphic designers and illustrators of that time were usually quiet men who sat at their desk with tons of paper, ink, and a light always turned on.
Which project of yours has been the most challenging?
I had some trouble working with a kids clothing company here in Milan. I had to draw a cat for them and they kept telling me it looked like a big fat rat. When I finally thought we got the right cat, they told me it wasn’t ”middle-class” enough for them so we had to add a collar with a golden tag on it. Then they told me a black cat meant bad luck so we had to change it. In short, it was a nightmare but we finally found our cat and put it on a lot of nice little t shirts for Italian kids.
You can find more examples of Olimpia’s work on her site.