Louise Fili was 16 the first time she went to Italy. As she and her family were leaving the Milan airport, a young Fili saw a billboard for Baci Perugina chocolate. The sign featured an “art nouveau rendering of a couple in a passionate embrace against an inky night sky, with just the words Baci and Perugina,” she recalls. “I was so taken with it, I just never forgot.” That was the moment Fili fell in love with Italy and its fantastically ornate signage.
Four decades later, the designer has since been to Italy, “Oh I don’t know, too many times to count,” she says. Every trip, Fili inevitably finds herself wandering the winding vias, snapping photos of signs and lettering to bring back as inspiration for her own design work. Over the years, she’s accumulated thousands of photos, most of which are tucked away into albums she stores in her Manhattan studio (which you can get a glimpse of in her recent AIGA Medalist video). As long as Fili’s been shooting, she’s only used the photos for her own reference—until now.
In her new book, La Grafica Della Strada, Fili introduces us to more than 400 of her favorite Italian signs. In many ways, the book is a straightforward look at the artistry behind Italy’s most eccentric signage. But it’s also a reference for an era of design and craftsmanship that has, to some extent, faded away.
Fili organizes the signs into chapters based on their aesthetic style. You’ll find classic gold leaf lettering as well as the modernist, geometric letterforms that made their way onto train stations in the 1920s. There’s a chapter on the electric signs that fit no label, and one dedicated to the art of the street number.
The book is peppered with observations that hint at larger cultural and architectural trends. For instance, Fili writes that the storefronts of Rome tend to be wider, which allowed for more daring, extravagant signage. Or maybe you noticed the lack of fluorescents, which lost favor after the end of World War II.
The signs in Fili’s book, with their intricacies and big personalities, are a sharp contrast to what we see in many American cities. “Whatever emotion the sign maker happens to be feeling at the moment becomes his art,” she says. Fili’s work, too, is full of flourishes and texture, not unlike the signs she loves so much. You can see it in the simple, but beautiful wrought iron lettering for Claudette, a French restaurant in NYC. Her work feels familiar, and lavish, too, but in the subtlest way. And at times, of course, it’s unmistakably Italian.
One of Fili’s favorites from the book, a sign that reads “Pasticceria e Biscotteria,” sits above a former pastry shop in the little town of Lucca. Today, it’s a running shoe store. The practice of repurposing old signs isn’t common practice—not every shoe store owner will honor the sign that came before it. Which is exactly why Fili felt a sense of urgency to document as many as possible. “Some of the really great ones are no longer there,” she says. “There was a real incentive for me to put together a book before they’re all gone.”
La Grafica Della Strada is available on Amazon.