Big hands. Thick limbs. Delicate facial features. Striking eyes and gangly, awkward necks. These are the reoccurring characteristics that define Sergio Membrillas’ distinct illustrated figures. They’re almost like giants, so over-sized that their emphatic arms and legs fill the entire rectangular plain of a composition.
You may have spotted the Spanish illustrator’s characters squeezed into square sections of publications like Wired, the New York Times, and Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and occasionally peeking out from articles in The New Yorker. In one of Membrillas’ most recent illustrations for MIT Technology Review, a man is carrying a box of nuclear waste with oversized fingers, as if he were Atlas holding the celestial spheres; in another commission, a geometric girl enigmatically blows bubble gum. The way both images have been rendered makes them seem as if these 21st-century characters were carved into the columns of a great Art Deco monument.
“I love old stone engravings from the deco years,” Membrillas says, confirming that, in addition to the work of Stefan Kanchev, Barbara Hepworth, Saul Bass, and Paul Rand, he’s also inspired by the stony ornaments that grace 1920s-era doorways and building facades. “I take photos of them wherever I go.” In his hometown of Valencia, there areplenty of powerful deco buildings that catch his eye, but it’s the elaborate carvings adorning New York skyscrapers, or the Soviet examples that he spots in Berlin, Warsaw, and Prague, that the illustrator admires most.
Membrillas shares some of his holiday snaps with us (above), and it’s immediately apparent that the way his own illustrations seem to jump out from the flat surface of the page is informed by how the striking engravings cascade from stone.
“The way deco engravings communicate movement with stone is ingenious,” muses Membrillas. “I love rescuing that technique and applying it to newspaper illustration.”
Although the gangly, joyful, and playful hand that defines Membrillas’ portfolio has always been a staple of his style, an interest in ’20s facades and colorful tones is relatively new. Looking at his newly updated website, you’d think that he’s always worked with sleek, digital colors, but only a year ago his illustrations were a lot darker in hue. They also took on a speckled “vintage” texture, making them appear more like stencils than carvings.
So why the change? As Membrillas is often traveling and on the go, always looking at his surroundings to inform his style, it’s unsurprising that the shift in aesthetic was inspired by a trip to a flea market in Berlin. “I found a stamp that was in awesome condition, and it had beautiful, bold plain colors,” recalls Membrillas. “It seems obvious now, but I suddenly realized: the illustrators back then used to make illustrations with bright colors, and now they look the way they do because of time. I thought, in 20 years time, will people look at the ‘vintage’ textures we’re using and think, why were those guys faking vintage?”
Now, Membrillas uses forms from the past–like deco engravings–to suggest methods for composition, but his colors feel emphatically contemporary. He’s often updating his website though, and regularly shifts his illustrative track ever so slightly. Though there’s always something essentially “Membrillas” about all his images–there’s just something about the bold body shapes and their tumbling, energetic geometry–who knows, perhaps Membrillas will spot a tattered mid-century chair on the street or an archway in a Brutalist building and suddenly its shape will inspire a new aesthetic fixation.