Since founding Astrid Stavro Studio, and as co-founder of Atlas alongside her partner (in love, business, parenting, and design) Pablo Martín, Astrid Stavro has made a name for herself as one of the best and smartest designers around. Upon meeting her, it’s easy to see why. While her design work is more than capable of speaking for itself, her curious, charming attitude and capacity to break into peals of laughter at a moment’s notice show her (in her words) “soul,” a thing you can’t learn at design school or through a YouTube tutorial.
“I think we’re all going to have to start stripping soon,” is the way she opened her recent talk at Pentagram’s London studio, commenting on the temperature of the packed room, a testament not only to her sharp wit and unflinchingly cheeky humor, but to her popularity—so many people have shown up to hear her speak that many are sitting on the floor.
Stavro was born in Trieste, Italy, but grew up in Madrid, Spain, and spent the long school holidays surrounded by the sounds and smells of huge mechanical printing machines in the pressing plant where her father worked. He produced a number of illustrated children’s books, and as a child she had signed drawings from renowned artists including Sempé. “These were my Legos,” she says, gesturing at an image of metal type blocks.
Despite her childhood love of illustration, as she grew older she found that doing the actual drawing wasn’t really her thing. She transferred her love to words, and went to Boston to study philosophy and literature at Boston University. Still, she says, “My best teachers have been the authors I’ve read.” Reading has had a profound impact on Stavro’s life; she describes it as the closest you can get to imagining what it’s like to be another person.
“As a designer you have to be like an author, too; you have to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
The point that catalyzed her passion for design—and editorial design in particular—was when a friend introduced her to Interview magazine, then designed by AIGA Medalist Tibor Kalman. “It was a pivotal moment in my life, seeing how the design brought the content to life,” she says.
Stavro’s story is a tale of many, many cities. It was in London at Central Saint Martins that she studied graphic design, finding herself under the tutelage of Alan Kitching. There, she “became obsessed with grids,” and made her Art of the Grid notebooks. “I wanted to make the invisible visible,” she says. When she moved back to Madrid, these little squares also acted as the springboard to her career as a designer. She took them to an art book shop, which not only agreed to stock them, but asked her to create a new identity for the store to boot.
At Atlas her work is a varied mix of design for books, magazines, corporate identities, and packaging. Recent projects include a beautiful monochrome pattern for Mast Brother chocolate packaging, editorial and brand designs for Camper, the branding for an Ibiza casino, and the Barcelona Art Museum identity. Whatever the project, for Stavro the design process begins away from the screen.
“I sketch and draw on bits of paper, napkins, or whatever I can find as I’m horrible with sketchbooks and lose them anyway. That’s where ideas happen, not at a computer.”
She’s still as enamored with text as ever, as her designs for books and magazines prove. Perhaps her most celebrated recent editorial project is the redesign of London-based arts and culture magazine Elephant, which uses a variety of experimental approaches to type and layout, but is restrained enough to still feel cohesive. She also writes for Elephant, among other publications. She’s interviewed designers and illustrators including Paula Scher, David Pearson, Frith Kerr, Sonya Dyakova, and Coralie Bickford-Smith, and she’s still very much planning on writing her own novel. “I don’t know how many days old I am, I’m 44 now, but I think I’ve thought of a new novel every day of my life!” she says.
“Before you die they say you have to have a kid, plant a tree, and write a novel. I’ve planted a tree, I’ve had a kid, so the novel is the only pending thing.”
Where she finds all the time for this is baffling. In addition to being a mother, designer, writer, and speaker, she’s the head of a world-renowned agency that’s just announced the opening of a satellite office in New York. How does she do it? “Pffff…” she sighs, pretending to almost blow my audio recorder (well, phone), off the table. “It’s really hard, and the hardest thing is being so passionate about your job—you want to make the very best thing possible, and that’s hard by itself. On top of that you add everything else—kids, family—and it’s total chaos. It’s mayhem, but it would be mayhem without kids. I think that if you’re a designer who really likes what you do, there’s no difference between personal and professional life, it all mixes and mingles. Add kids, and it’s chaos—but a nice kind of chaos.”
But even this level of devotion to design can occasionally flicker. “Whenever I see very peaceful or tranquil jobs I think, ‘Hmm, that would be interesting.’ Sometimes I think I want to be a gardener or a fisherman, or when I’m very angry with a client, a butcher!” she says. “But I don’t think I could do anything else. The great thing about design is it’s not just one discipline: I write, publish, curate, sit on judging panels, do talks, sit on boards of all sorts… I meet a lot of people so it’s an all-encompassing thing.”
So it makes sense that the projects she’s most passionate about are the ones where she has a great relationship with the client. “It’s all about relationships and connections. When you have a great client relationship it means you have trust, you can grow together. It could be a brand identity, a wayfinding system, a logo, a book, or a magazine, but it’s always more about the behind-the-scenes thing that happens where you find the soul of a project.”
So what’s her advice on building strong and dynamic client relationships? “You take them to dinner, buy them flowers, buy presents for their kids: you just buy your way into it!” she jokes. “Seriously though, it happens through time. You need to nurture the relationship like any relationship with your friends, your husband, or your son. It’s a question of watering the plant every day.”
In what might seem like a counterintuitive move for someone who takes the interpersonal aspects of being a designer as seriously as the actual designing, eight years ago Stavro and Martín decided to turn their back on the bustling, narrow streets of their former home in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter and move to the tiny, quiet island of Mallorca.
“Moving to Mallorca was very scary, it’s where people go on holiday or retire. Only nutters go there to work,” she says, delighting in the fact that the couple became “the crazy weird guys, but in a good way” in their new countryside home. They made the decision to move when they started a family, and haven’t looked back. “We travel a lot, so we still very much have that stimuli [of being in a city]. But the nice thing is when you go back to Mallorca you have that distance from everything. I lived in London for nine years and it’s adrenaline all the time; it’s hard to breathe.”
Mallorca is also where Atlas was born four years ago. Before that, Stavro and Martín were sharing a studio space but working separately under Astrid Stavro Studios and Grafica, respectively. “It became really confusing for our clients and for the designers working there. They’d wonder “am I doing this for Atlas, or for Pablo?” Stavro says. “Everything became muddled and that became the beginning of Atlas. We didn’t plan it. I’d say we tried for it to not happen, but with the same office it just became too crazy.”
It’s hard to imagine how intense it must be to work, live, and raise a child with the same person. “It’s suicide!” she laughs. “In the lectures I gave before I founded Atlas I had a slide that said ‘do not marry a graphic designer.’ And look what happened.”
Aside from its venture in NYC, the future of the agency is focused on not growing in terms of staff numbers “or like a Monopoly game,” but in a personal and professional way as designers. When she does take on staff, she jokes that she looks for people who “can get drunk really quickly and seem like nice people.”
She continues, “We work with people, not portfolios, so it’s really not about ‘oh look at how sleek and amazing my work is,’ though of course there’s a minimum quality required. It’s more about the attitude than the proficiency in Photoshop or even in design. What we look for is soul.”
The word “soul” comes up a lot as we talk, so it’s little surprise that it’s that intangible quality and purpose that Stavro says she wants the agency to be known for. “Atlas is about idea-based design. It sounds formulaic, but design with a lot of attention to craft. We really care, we put our soul into it.
“I like to think that one of the things that comes across is this kind of design with soul thing, whether it’s for something corporate or a much smaller project like a photobook, cookbook, magazine, or something else.” We’re pretty sure she needn’t worry.