On the day of my interview with Olimpia Zagnoli—via FaceTime from London—I take a peek at the celebrated 36-year-old illustrator’s Instagram. Her latest story, showcasing her neighbor sunbathing on the balcony below her own, alerts me to the fact that Milan has been in lockdown for one month and three days. Along with her fellow northern Italians, Zagnoli—whose vibrant, delightfully graphic drawings have enlivened everything from covers of The New Yorker to boxes of Barilla spaghetti, Prada accessories, and the walls of Milan’s first Uniqlo store—has endured the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 crisis for longer than the rest of Europe.
Accustomed to using Instagram as a platform to showcase her work and the references behind it, recently Zagnoli has been using it to inform her more-than-one-hundred-thousand followers of the situation in Italy (her early stories gave details of the various government measures being imposed, and encouraged other countries to self-distance as a matter of urgency), and as a visual quarantine diary.
The past few years have been brimming with activity for Zagnoli, who has risen through the ranks of the editorial illustration world, all the while undertaking a varied range of brand collaborations and exhibiting personal projects. It’s a stark contrast to this unprecedented period of quiet isolation. We caught up with her to hear about adjusting to this abrupt change of pace, accepting a lack of productivity in troubling times, and how she hopes to use this moment to reflect and fuel future creativity.
How has quarantine in Milan been for you so far?
I’m pretty used to working from home—I’d done it for quite a long time before I got a studio five years ago. It’s nice to be in a safe space with all my things and books around me. I’ve been cooking and doing other domestic things that sometimes I forget to do or care about, like cleaning! Working inside feels very normal and quiet. And outside—as in outside my window—is quiet as well. All we hear is the sound of ambulances, which is obviously strange. But although lockdown happened very quickly, I already seem to have gotten used to it.
What are some of the personal and professional reflections you’ve had during this time?
I was coming from a pretty hectic moment in my work. I’ve felt quite overwhelmed for the past five years and have started trying to slow down a little bit; to concentrate on personal projects or writing, but it’s always very complicated. I’ll say no to a lot of stuff, but still end up with a full month of work. Even when I go on holiday, I feel a lot of expectation in terms of what I could be doing—like drawing the landscape around me, taking pictures, printing pictures, remembering the moment. I feel like we’re collectively going through a phase where there’s a lot of “FOMO,” especially for creative minds—a fear of missing out on the potential for everything to be turned into something interesting or productive or artistic. When the quarantine started, the first two weeks were all about that for me: “OK I’m going to go through this pile of books, finally; I’m going to do this; I’m going to cook that; I’m going to get rid of all my old clothes. All those things!”
Yes, I think a lot of people have felt pressure to be productive…
Exactly, but then I found it impossible to concentrate on anything at all, so I started observing what was going on outside instead, and realizing that everybody was probably going through the same thing. The simple practice of just looking out my window has been very meditative, and also exciting. Nothing is happening inside but outside there’s always something going on—a bird on the wire, a couple kissing in the window, a car passing by. All those little things that usually we miss because we’re focused on something else. This has been very curative.
So you’ve slowed things down a lot?
Well if you think of the brain as a mechanism, I feel like most of the time it’s either rusty or stuck doing the same thing over and over. Then, sometimes, you feel like the mechanism is moving in a new direction, creating new things, and for me that’s the rarest occasion. I feel like now, after taking time to be calm and process things, I’m getting to a place where I’m more concentrated on what is a priority for me. I’m trying to ignore the things I’m not interested in—whether that’s emails or calls or projects that I wasn’t very sure about. And reading a book, which seems like something you should do in your downtime, has become a very high priority. I understand that it’s crucial for me, not just as a hobby, but as an important source of inspiration. And I hope that all this data that I’m recording at the moment will help me get to a place where creativity will flow—not now, but further down the line.
What books have you been reading?
I’m trying to read a bit of Proust every day. It’s a really good exercise because it requires a lot of attention to detail, and it very much reflects the spirit of the moment. Then I’m reading this architectural classic Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Eisenhower. It’s an analysis of mundane architecture in Las Vegas—all the hotel signs and touristy architecture—and how that can inform what is considered more traditional architecture. I collect so many books that stay on my bookshelves for months, so I’ve been trying to mix it up a little bit—fiction, non-fiction, design.
Have you set yourself a routine?
Not really. I’m not very structured in terms of allocating times for stuff—except maybe food. In normal life, I have a routine because I live with my boyfriend, who has one, but otherwise I’d be lost in terms of scheduling. I usually go to the studio every morning at 10 or 11 a.m. and stay there until 7:30 p.m., then I come back home, cook, and watch a movie or read a book.
You’ve been posting a lot of lovely content on Instagram stories—it seems like social media has been a good tool for reflection and connection in this time.
I don’t know if you remember when you were a teenager people used to have cork boards? I had one where I’d put up concert tickets, pictures of my friends, and I kind of use Instagram stories like that: a place to put random things that are part of your visual mood but aren’t important pieces of art or anything that needs to be respected in a longer lasting way. So I’ve been enjoying having a platform like that—it’s been a fun, silly place to put all these notes that I’ve taken around my apartment and outside my apartment.
And you’ve been doing a participatory Instagram project with Palazzo Grassi in Venice…
Yes, I was supposed to run a workshop over there, based on the color aspect of my work, rather than the figurative or formative aspects. We were all ready to go, and then the quarantine happened so we decided to transform that idea into a little project that can be done in your apartment. The concept is to analyze objects around your home based solely on their colors, then to pair them with another object to see what the combination suggests as a story. So I started with a lemon and a kiwi, for instance. It’s about looking at the things around you and the potential they have [outside of their intended function].
How would you describe the importance of color in your work?
I try to use colors in their more pure forms, and for a reason, and how that can create a specific atmosphere in a piece. Sometimes I’ll do the drawing in half an hour and then spend four hours just picking the colors for the illustration. I try to work on a balance between the shapes and the colors in my work—that’s super important—even if it’s not a literal symmetrical balance.
You did a drawing that people can download and color while in isolation, which I loved.
I did that for my goddaughter initially because in the first week of quarantine she was complaining she didn’t have much to do. So I said, “I’m going to send you a drawing so that you can print it and color it in.” Then afterwards I put it on my website thinking nobody would see it, but instead I got a lot of messages from people who had either downloaded it and colored it in or copied it from the screen. It’s been so sweet, seeing my work taken care of by another person and reinterpreted—a lot of other illustrators have been doing it too, I’ve seen, which is great.
What would your advice be to other creatives during the quarantine?
I feel like there must be some quiet time, and that you do something when you feel inspired to do it, rather than doing it in a hurry. And I think reading is great advice. When I read I feel like I’m the best version of myself because I shut down. I’m not talking or producing or sketching—I’m not putting out anything, I’m just letting things come in at a slower pace. As creatives, the research aspect of our work is so essential, therefore reading anything from a comic book to a dictionary is a practice that can inspire any sort of future project or idea.