Designed by Katharina Brenner

There’s a good chance you’ve admired Franco Grignani’s work, even if you couldn’t put a name to it. His lifetime mission, after all, was to focus the viewer’s eye on the image, rather than on his persona. Now, the exhibition of his work (at m.a.x. museo in Chiasso, Switzerland), is a long overdue occasion to rediscover his work and its relevance to contemporary design.

Born in 1908 in Pieve Porto Morone, a small town not too far from Milan, Grignani came from a traditional, mannered family that instilled a sense of perfectionism in him from an early age. After a short stint studying math, Grignani moved to Turin to become an architecture student and joined the second wave of Futurism. As an artist, his figurative experimentations dedicated to speed and mechanics only lasted about six years (in typical Futurist fashion), with Grignani soon shifting to more abstract subjects, especially through photography.

This was Franco Grignani in a nutshell: a visionary with an outstanding sense of discipline that he managed to transfer onto his production.

Architecture turned him from “poet to constructor,” Grignani’s said, foreshadowing the importance that the methodical use of instruments and tools would play in his art. As abstract as Grignani’s work might appear, his starting point was always a tireless analysis of the real world that he transferred into countless notebooks, translating his obsession for the growing influence of technology on human life into complex mathematical formulas. The results were often designs that appeared kinetic the longer you looked at them, thanks to a meticulous arrangement of lines and shapes that altered the viewers perception. Grignani thought “being an artist was not a profession but an attitude of those who have deep interests associated with their sensibilities,” and his math capabilities and artistic drive were matched only by his exceptional manual skills.

“A good drawing starts with a well sharpened pencil,” he would repeat, years later, while giving drawing lessons to his daughter. This was Franco Grignani in a nutshell: a visionary with an outstanding sense of discipline that he managed to transfer onto his production.

Franco Grignani at work

Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli is among those who were struck by Grignani’s work before even knowing his story. “His vision of shape and color perturbed me—there’s such courage and such a composed rebellion in his work,” she says. “I believe studying Grignani can help [artists] to analyze, break down, and start over those artworks that have become dull, maybe with a nice aesthetic quality, but lacking any content or intuition.”

In 1940, as Italy entered World War II, Franco Grignani was assigned as an officer in charge of an aircraft-sighting course. Teaching others how to quickly spot moving shapes in a short timeframe led him to what would become the definitive essence of his work as an artist and graphic designer: the interdependence between the eye and the mind.  

After the war, Grignani abandoned his architecture practice and, inspired by Milan’s lively new wave of designers, including his long time friend Antonio Boggeri (the forward-looking founder of Studio Boggeri)—became an ante litteram art director.

In 1942 he married Jeanne Michot, a French illustrator, who became a perfect partner in this new profession, even though Grignani never founded a studio. He approached graphic design as yet another experimental laboratory to observe and control optical phenomena that he then translated into numerous advertising campaigns for prestigious clients.

It was the late 1940s when Grignani redesigned the identity of Dompé Farmaceutici, a pharmaceutical company that ended up keeping him on for over 10 years to create advertising campaigns and graphics, as well as the company’s culture magazine Bellezza d’Italia. In his work for Dompé, Grignani applied his whole aesthetic and conceptual arsenal: movement, lateral vision, experimental photography, reiteration, and synthesis. In an ad for the vitamin Cardioritmon, for example, Grignani realizes a pulsing heart through different shades and colors, ironically ignited by a plug. Meanwhile, the ad for an arthritis drugs bears a futurist-like reiteration of jumping athletes over a dynamic brushstroke-like sign. These advertisements were seen as a true revolution compared to other 1950s ads of romanticized work and family life.

Franco Grignani, Pagina pubblicitaria Alfieri & Lacroix, 1959, offset print, 27.5 x 21 cm, AIAP archive

In 1952, Grignani started a 30 year-long partnership with Alfieri & Lacroix, a renowned printing company that allowed him full creative freedom. Grignani’s approach there was total, and he defined its corporate voice. The logo he designed is a monogrammatic synthesis of the letters “A”, “&”, and “L” that resembles the shape of a printing press, and his evocative copywriting for A & L harkens back to his Futurist days.

“What fascinated me with his work was the intimate relationship between graphic design, architecture, and fine art, all blended with consistency: the search itself is the art.”

Even looking back on his work as a whole, it’s impossible to confine Grignani to a specific movement, not least because he made a point to be different from everyone else. “What fascinated me with his work was the intimate relationship between graphic design, architecture, and fine art, all blended with consistency: the search itself is the art,” says French illustrator Malika Favre who first discovered Grignani’s work through an interest for Op Art. Despite certain aesthetic similarities to the movement—the use of black and white, altered surfaces, and contrasting colors–where Op Art artists looked to reach mind-numbing perceptual illusions, many of Grignani’s designs instead used tangible materials to create physical illusions. The resulting organic geometry of Grignani’s work is still of interest for artists today. Robert Beatty mentioned Grignani as an inspiration for his popular cover design for the Tame Impala album Currents. “I was looking at the way process based systems can be used in art and design to emulate the natural world—things such as Turing Patterns and cellular automata,” he says. “The same feeling those techniques give me is present in Grignani’s work and lends to its timelessness.”

Franco Grignani, Woolmark Logo Proposal (Winning proposal), 1963, photographic assembly on cardboard, Private archive, © Matteo Zarbo

A significant case of how Grignani’s work is rooted in tangible matters is probably his most famed work, the Woolmark logo. Many stories circulate around this iconic logo’s authorship, originally attributed to the mysterious Francesco Saroglia and only claimed by Grignani in 1975. The famed logo represents his obsession for finding the right solution, and a life in which work and life were seamlessly merged. “We were the harshest jury to our father’s work,” says Manuela Grignani, the artist’s daughter, recalling one family lunch in which his children critiqued an early drawing of the Woolmark logo.  Afterwards, Grignani started playing with a fork over the white tablecloth and the signs left by the fork’s tines on the fabric finally made his eyes sparkle. Hours later, Grignani had used the imprint to come up with the 3D intertwined rivlets that’s come to represent pure Italian wool. In 2001, 12 years after his death, British magazine Creative Review voted Woolmark’s the best logo of all time. Too late for Grignani to enjoy such achievement, but this is in his fashion after all.

“I have no problem of occult persuasion, I only have my work coming out of a long and deeply felt experimentation and very personal methodologies,” wrote Grignani in 1986. “I have never belonged to flocks of sheep; I have not shared ideas with others and I am behindhand with the projects accumulating in a big folder called “Works for the future.’” Refusing to ride the wave of creative agencies that became rampant in the ’80s , the tenacious visionary stayed true to his value and dedicated the rest of his career to his art.

Franco Grignani in his studio, 1940s