Louise Fili—the woman and the brand—seems to belong to another time. If you’ve ever dined at The Mermaid Inn in New York and experienced its New England charm, that’s likely due to the silhouetted ladyfish icon and gently lopsided cursive lettering of the designer’s signage and menu. Or perhaps you’ve bought a bag of Tate’s chocolate chip cookies. If you intuited that they might have come from simpler times, thank Fili. She created the quaint, Victorian lettered logo that until recently adorned their packaging.
Fili has cultivated this nostalgic style for years. Her career’s origin story, which she’s fond of sharing, began in the late 1960s. She was 16 years old and loved letters. That love inspired a purchase—an Osmiroid calligraphy pen that Fili found in the ads in the back of The New Yorker. With it, she taught herself the ancient art of calligraphy. She even made a little money, by creating illuminated manuscripts of Bob Dylan lyrics and selling them to her classmates. “That was then that I realized it could be a paying job,” she says.
She attended Skidmore College, left Saratoga Springs for New York, and went to work for her “hero,” Herb Lubalin. She then went on to become art director of Pantheon Books, before starting her own studio in 1989. For all that, she’s recently won a Masters Series Award from the School of Visual Arts, and her 40-year-long career is the subject of a retrospective—Fili’s first—at SVA Gramercy Gallery in New York.
Fili’s done a bit of everything. She designed book jackets for years. She’s dabbled in corporate branding–Tiffany & Co., Hanky Panky, and Paperless Post all bear her logos. But over the years, Fili carved out a niche for herself, designing for food and restaurants. If you’re a New Yorker, some of her work is surely as familiar to you as the Empire State Building’s place in the skyline. The ornamental letters in Pearl Oyster Bar, the scrawl on Tocqueville’s awning, and the logos for some of our regular haunts like Via Corota and Claudette all came from Fili.
This decidedly analog work excuses Fili from some of the constraints that seem to homogenize and streamline graphic design today—i.e. screen resolution, and recognizability on an app icon. Designing menus, not apps, has its perks (more curlicues) and its pitfalls. “I learned right away that restaurants are the number one business most likely to fail, so I had to make sure to get paid before the restaurant closed,” she says. “Over the years I tried to be more selective about the clients, but you never know.”
That may be the case, but Fili’s restaurant work acts as an extraordinary vessel for her love of European street signs. Fili travels to Italy often (her family is Italian) where she finds and saves typography artifacts. “I go to the flea markets, collecting packaging and labels and wrappers, and bring all these things back and surround myself with them,” she says. “Italy has been always been my source of inspiration, both typographic and gastronomic.” For years, Fili has photographed shop signs in Europe. In 2014, she published a book of them: Grafica Della Strada: The Signs of Italy. Graphique de la Rue. The Signs of Paris came next, and her forthcoming book of signs will feature Barcelona.
In that way, Fili is more than a designer—she’s a design preservationist. It’s inevitable that some of the signs she’s so lovingly documented will come down one day, supplanted by a new sign or new a business. But they live on her books. And, in a way, in Fili’s own body of work. In a time when logos and signage continue to simplify in form, Fili’s take—one defined by flourishes and a baroque mood—feels all the more refreshing.