Illustrator extraordinaire Olimpia Zagnoli lives in Milan, listens to T. Rex, wears a lot of stripes, and drinks copious amounts of Coca Cola. This love of pop bursts from her editorial work, which brightens pages of the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the Guardian, and Monocle on a regular basis.
Zagnoli’s career began as many do, in chasing the dreams promised by a mythologized New York City. She arrived one day with nothing but a suitcase, a list of favorite illustrators that she wanted to meet, and an eye on The New Yorker. Today, Zagnoli tells us how she turned her dream commission into a reality.
“It was 2007, I had just graduated, and I was living with my mom and sister in Milan. I was impatiently looking for jobs so I was contacting every Italian publishing house, magazine, and agency that I admired, but it was really difficult to get hold of anyone. I would spend most of my days on the phone and sending emails, and then I would hardly get any answers or appointments.
“I started looking abroad. All my life I’d been attracted to New York—mostly because of Desperately Seeking Susan and The Ramones—but I had never managed to actually go there. With all the difficulties finding work at home, I decided it was the right time to finally see the city.
“I booked my ticket and I wrote to a few people whose work I loved, asking if I could meet them for a watery coffee to get some advice. One of the people I met was Steven Guarnaccia, a fantastic illustrator and the most elegant man on this planet.
“He welcomed me into his colorful studio at Parsons, took a look at my portfolio and then said, ‘So, who do you want to work with?’ I obviously said, ‘The New Yorker!’”
“Steven picked up his phone, called someone, hung up, and then said, ‘Is today at 4 p.m. a good time for you?’ By 4 p.m. I was sitting in The New Yorker hallway with my gigantic portfolio on my knee, feeling incredibly reckless.
“After the meeting I went back home to my room in Williamsburg and I waited. A few days later I got an email from [contributing artist] Max Bode asking if I could illustrate an article in what then seemed to me a very short time period. I only had that one job to deliver so I took a very long time working on sketches. I thought it would be nice to display them in a particular way—I made a drawing that included all my ideas for the piece, plus my name and the one of the art director, in order to show my respect and gratitude. I never set up sketches like that again! Now my sketches always look like a monkey trying to draw on a bus.
“I was quite nervous about this commission. I’d only seen one physical copy of The New Yorker, and that was just a few weeks before my meeting with them. Before that, The New Yorker for me meant Saul Steinberg. In other words, the bar was high. I was just a young Italian illustrator who had just arrived in a city that I didn’t understand (I still didn’t know if it was an island or not!) and I had this chance to get published in The New Yorker, a publication whose name already suggested some sort of intimacy with a category of people called New Yorkers, of which I didn’t even know one specimen yet. Again, I think some of that recklessness helped me get through the nerves.
“The resulting piece is probably the first illustration that I did where I began to feel like the balance of shape and color was matching my inner vision. It’s a very simple illustration, naturally, but in it I can see my influences from that time very clearly (like Saul Bass, Miroslav Sasek, Jacques Tati). Even the colors had slightly changed from my previous ‘safe’ palette, where I used mostly grays and primary colors. This time I was being a bit more risky, like with the black background and the use of pinks and oranges. I was happy with this piece, which is a sensation I seem to be feeling less and less lately.
“I learnt a lot working with American clients. For example, I discovered that it was okay to get paid for a job (something that was extremely rare for me beforehand). Also, I learned that a commission meant I was doing something important for someone else, it wasn’t just a divertissement for my own pleasure. It had to be treated with respect. Most of the work ethic I know has came from working with clients in the U.S. The culture and romance of my work is from somewhere else, though.”