Being an artist means going toward the unknown: Italian illustrator Emiliano Ponzi

STIR caught up with Italian illustrator Emiliano Ponzi, who created the six famed posters that are a tribute to the 60 years of Salone del Mobile.Milano.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Jun 17, 2022

Our first memory of Salone 2022 may not have been the buzzing pavilions or parties, but a quiet, black-haired woman with her cat purring by her side, seated on a red chair with legs that denote the 60th year of the fair, the calm before the creative storm. Meet the artist who traded his favourite blue to literally paint the town of Milan red with his posters - Emiliano Ponzi, the tenacious, talented and acclaimed Italian illustrator who looks towards the future with his colour pop, crisp graphics, a heady marriage of ideas and images. From the hand of the young and multi-award-winning contemporary graphic designer come six posters encapsulating the 60 years of the Salone del Mobile.Milano, who entrusted him to narrate the story of the most famous design event of the world, its relationship with Milan, its people and its evolution since its inception.

  • An animation of the fifth poster that represents the first decade of 2000, where Ponzi focused on the new Fiera Milan spaces in Rho, designed by Massimiliano Fuksas and inaugurated in 2005 Video: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile.Milano
  • The conceptual and final stages of the fifth campaign illustration | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
    The conceptual and final stages of the fifth campaign illustration Image: Emiliano Ponzi

“We entrusted the creative side of the communication for the 60th edition of the Salone del Mobile.Milano to the masterly touch of Emiliano Ponzi, an internationally renowned illustrator, because we believe that his design-like style and the evocative power of his works, in which a feeling of both elegy and memory can be discerned, were those most suited to celebrating the anniversary of the trade fair. With Emiliano’s interpretation, we wanted to rise above our traditional canons and our institutional language to narrate the story of the fair and its successes as well as the evolving tastes, lifestyles and even the city of Milan that have served not just as a backdrop to, but also as a driver of design in its own right and of the fair itself. The result is a collection of powerfully meaningful illustrations, emotions triggered by memories and feelings and confidence in the future that lies ahead,” shares Maria Porro, President, Salone del Mobile.Milano.

Simple yet essential, Ponzi’s precise creations distinguish themselves through eye-catching compositions, clean lines and a fixed, subtle colour palette, suspending moments of time onto paper and digital canvases. Soused with symbology and representation, a central figure, usually human, often takes charge within his opus, instinctively narrating the imaginative, illustrated world, where concepts and stories hold more weight than artistic finesse. “What I say in my illustrations is more important than how I am saying it,” explains the Milan-based graphic artist who grew up in Ferrara, Italy, not knowing that drawing would become a fulfilling career.

Emiliano Ponzi portrays the working-class city of the 70s in the second poster Video: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile.Milano

Apart from writing and illustrating four books: The Journey of the Penguin (2015) for the Penguin Books publishing house, The Great New York Subway Map (2017) for the MoMA NY, American West (2018), published first as a travel diary on The New Yorker Instagram account and then as a collection book by Corraini, and Chronicle from the Red Zone (2020), published first as a column on the Washington Post and then as a limited edition book by Tapirulan, Ponzi has amassed multiple medals of honour (gold and silver) from the Society of Illustrators New York, the Young Guns Award and the coveted Gold Cube from The Art Directors Club of New York, and more. Some personal and group exhibitions include Collezione Permanente della Farnesina in Rome, Triennale di Milano, Mambo (Museo d’Arte Moderna) in Bologna, and 7 gallery (The New York Times, New York).

STIR speaks to Ponzi about his unmistakable graphic style, and his process of summarising and highlighting the 60 years of Salone, its heritage as well as the expectations from this year’s edition into the illustrated campaign posters for Salone del Mobile, evoking true Milanese essence for viewers.

Emiliano Ponzi took inspiration for the fourth poster from the La Scala Theatre and its relationship with the Salone in the 90s (L); the concept sketch (R) | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Emiliano Ponzi took inspiration for the fourth poster from the La Scala Theatre and its relationship with the Salone in the 90s (L); the concept sketch (R) Image: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile.Milano; Emiliano Ponzi

Jincy Iype: How did the context in which you were born and raised influence your art and perspective? What is your relationship with Milan?

Emiliano Ponzi: I moved to Milano in 1997 from a smaller city to attend the European Institute of Design. The bustling, metropolitan city was already so different from other Italian ones – there is always something going on. Milano has a strong identity but is also vulnerable, welcoming and opening itself to change and embracing the future. This double perspective took some getting used to but remains to me, the charm and growing beauty of the city, and consequently, its people. 

Compare this to growing up in the 80s and 90s, sans internet, in a city unlike Milan - the experience is quite sheltered, your exposure fairly limited. So once you move out, travel the world, and experience other cultures and lifestyles, you pick and choose your ways of living, which ultimately reflect in your creations. The enthusiasm with which I embraced new experiences and places, from Milan to New York, always tends to come across in my works, or so I would like to believe. I tend to observe, absorb and assimilate everything first, before putting ink to paper (or stylus to tablet!). 

The sixth, final poster reflects on the past and ushers in the future, focusing on the concept of sustainability that outlined Milan Design Week 2022 | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
The sixth, final poster reflects on the past and ushers in the future, focusing on the concept of sustainability that outlined Milan Design Week 2022 Image: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile.Milano

Jincy: What is the story behind this collaboration, and each of your illustrations marking 60 years of the Salone del Mobile? How do these bridge the history, present and future of Milanese culture and creativity? 

Emiliano: I needed to represent and communicate the identity of the city that hosts the Salone del Mobile along with all the foreign visitors taking part in the design fair. In a way, I had to be universal and accessible. I wanted to create images that set a dialogue with different sorts of audiences, precisely the way global design lovers interact with Milan Design Week each year. We decided to represent the six decades of the design festival in a specific way that would be immediately recognisable and stays in your mind. It would also link the times we live in, with times in history – for instance, the tram and the two hippies crossing the street represent the 70s in the second poster. We also decided to put one, or some details of the city, to make clear and significant all the magic that ensues here, as seen in the 80s poster where the Duomo Cathedral can be seen from the terrace. The series can therefore be read like postcards from the past to the future.

Ponzi’s third illustration focused on the 80s swinging Milan (Milano da bere), the city of fashion and design Video: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile.Milano

It was an honour as well as a duty for me to respond to Salone’s call. Narrating this seminal institution and its ties with Milan right now, at this complicated point in history, meant seeing design as an instrument of redemption for an entire sector and for an entire society. I envisaged a challenging journey during which I would have to act as an interpreter for the men and women who have contributed to making Milan an opportunity for cultural exchange. It’s been truly enthralling and exciting.

The conceptual and final stages of the third campaign illustration | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
The conceptual and final stages of the third campaign illustration Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Jincy: What is the biggest challenge while bringing together a tight brief with a free imagination?

Emiliano: We had an open relationship with the Milan Design Week 2022 team and discussed every choice and idea with them, for all of it to make sense individually and comprehensively. The final goal was to create beautiful artworks that imbibe and narrate the story of Salone, Milan and ultimately, us. The biggest challenge was to create these six illustrations that could be read as a series, where the tones, message, as well as temperature for each of them, needed to be coherent and cohesive.

Illustrations and graphics do not necessarily need accompanying text to be comprehended, which can be perceived as a challenge and a blessing. This makes it universal, lunging across geographical, linguistic, social, and cultural barriers. So I like to begin each piece keeping in mind that it needs to be ‘intuitive’ to all its readers. The creative process was stimulating, to say the least. Firstly, I hunted down a common factor that would link all six posters, based on visual style – the number 60 appears and unites all works in the series, interpreted differently in each campaign poster, for “Join the Design Wave”. I also focused on putting people, creators, and visitors, the very essence of the fair, as the central figures.

Poster for Annecy Italian Film Festival 2022 by Emiliano Ponzi | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Poster for Annecy Italian Film Festival 2022 by Emiliano Ponzi Image: Emiliano Ponzi
Poster for Annecy Italian Film Festival 2021 by Emiliano Ponzi | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Poster for Annecy Italian Film Festival 2021 by Emiliano Ponzi Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Jincy: What can you tell us about the six posters and how they represent Salone?

Emiliano:The first poster is essentially a glimpse into a typical Milanese interior in the 60s, replete with an Italian woman and her pet cat, seated on a bright red chair denoting the 60 years of Salone, a motif that will occur across all six posters. The second one is a tribute to the wayfaring symbol of Milan - the city is portrayed as a moving one, represented by the tram and cars, as well as the fervour of the hippie culture, fashion and music, represented by two young people with guitars running to catch the tram. Most of the range of greys and blacks give way to the vermillion of the flowers, symbolic of that period.

Ponzi’s illustration for acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Ponzi’s illustration for acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami Image: Emiliano Ponzi

The third one focuses on the 80s swinging Milan (Milano da bere), as the city of fashion and design, where the working class went out to party after a long day of hustling, where the motif makes a comeback as the straw used by the central figure. The fourth illustration is devoted to the ‘90s, a decade in which the fair, already well-established, continued to grow between the walls of the fairground pavilions. The focus here is La Scala, a temple to opera and one of Milan’s most symbolic places, chosen to echo the wealth of city-based cultural productions promoted by the fair. The ornamentation to the sides of the stage, portrayed in sharp chiaroscuro accompanies the simplified curtain, leaving room for the backdrop, painted with a natural landscape. A spotlight frames a ballerina who, dancing, leaping and hovering, carries us away from the real world into a dreamlike space. Red is the overriding colour here, leaving just a single white space: the light reflected on the ballerina’s tutu.

Ponzi’s many illustrations for New York Times (April 2011) | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Ponzi’s many illustrations for New York Times (April 2011) Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Devoted to the Salone del Mobile of the 2000s, the fifth poster carries its main subject as the event’s new venue, the Rho fairgrounds, all glass and steel, inaugurated in 2005. It is also intended as a tribute to all the exhibitors who showcase their creative abilities every year while respecting the first axiom of design: the blend of looks and functionality. It distils a unique occasion made up not just of business but also of masses of design culture, events, exhibitions and experiences. The composition, built around two vanishing points, focuses on the female figure at the centre, who is looking the viewer in the eye. Then, on a decreasing scale, other people appear right and left, until the crowd coming through the South Gate can be seen. The most complicated was depicting the roof designed by Fuksas, which takes up most of the space, given its iconic status, and which looks almost flat but even more enveloping, with the promise of a precious interior made up of encounters, materials and renewed normality. The sixth and last one carries a message of promise, “the (re)start of the present with eyes firmly on the future,” reflecting on the past and focusing on the concept of sustainability that outlined the fair this year.

Jincy: As an artist, does something seem to be lost in translation between the mind and the presentation?

Emiliano: This is the biggest challenge for any artist working in any field across visual arts – there always seems to be something amiss, something that is not immediately perceivable. So yes, sometimes it so happens that details that seem obvious to me, as their creator, would go amiss when someone else reads the illustration and conjures a story that is off-path – not incorrect, but astray. Everything starts with intuition but there is a long path to turning an idea into a solid product. This is where methods need to be installed, to develop your own style, of art and narration, to develop a story step by step.

Orvieto Cinema Fest (2022) poster by Emiliano Ponzi | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Orvieto Cinema Fest (2022) poster by Emiliano Ponzi Image: Emiliano Ponzi
Another Ponzi illustration for the New Yorker (June, 2019) | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Another Ponzi illustration for the New Yorker (June, 2019) Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Jincy: Some interesting features we observe in the posters include a minimal colour scheme (with a lot of red though you are a fan of blue!), an understated punch, and inclusivity and movement through the expression of everyday human subjects instead of a pompous portrayal... What inspired this? 

Emiliano: You are absolutely right. I do love blue! But for this project, we decided to stick with a minimal colour palette entrenched in the promptly distinguishable colours of Salone - red, black and white. As it was also a branding campaign for Salone 2022, I sought every image to speak its visual language and aesthetic. And so, people were shown in their natural life, as if they were candidly photographed, working, having fun, or just being.

Salone is the Archistar stage but mostly it is made by people working every day to build the best furniture their company can produce. It is made by buyers coming from around the world to see what is new in the market. It is made by us, storytellers narrating through objects, couches, and lamps. – Emiliano Ponzi
The cover of Timeless Emotion Fusilli by Emiliano Ponzi (Barilla Italy) | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
The cover of Timeless Emotion Fusilli by Emiliano Ponzi (Barilla Italy) Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Jincy: Even with the best of technology and creative opportunities, what are some of the struggles that the graphic discipline continues to face? 

Emiliano: Graphic disciplines are quite hyped these days, which wasn't the case while I was growing up. Technology offers many tools to create and ideate whatever we want, so I believe there are no specific limits to our skills. As long as we keep oiling and stimulating our imaginative prowess, we have everything we need to make it possible.

We must also not forget that illustrations, like photography or art, must be identified for their way of emoting and communicating – communication is central. You could be skilled in hand-drawn sketches or digital illustrations, have your own unique style, and use the most basic tones and strokes with the most awesome punchlines, but it is imperative to stay authentic and to let your image speak. Don’t focus on making your image look ‘good’ – it’s a trap! Do not pet your creations. Instead, focus on the message, the hidden or conspicuous details you want readers to discover, as well as the overall composition of the piece. This would help to ensure that your creations do not get homogenised, bracketed into a certain aesthetic or implicative tone.

Illustration for New York Times Book Review (08/15/2021) Sunday Advance by Ponzi (L); NY times book review cover December, 2017 by Ponzi (R) | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Illustration for New York Times Book Review (08/15/2021) Sunday Advance by Ponzi (L); NY times book review cover December, 2017 by Ponzi (R) Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Also, your first draft is never the last. Redoing an image, and spending some time (but not obsessing) on it lets me converse with it, its colours, and its being. This familiarisation also goes a long way, becomes part of your synthesis and newly acquired ideas or techniques, as an ever-evolving creative process.

Jincy: Oftentimes, it's the secret parts of an artist that are revealed through their work...what hidden side of you emerges through your strokes?

Emiliano: My goal is to learn through my work, I have no interest in doing what I have already accomplished, seen, or even remotely ideated.

My idea of being a creative person or an artist means growing up, going toward the unknown in order to expand my visual vocabulary. – Emiliano Ponzi

The capacity of storytelling lies in the ability to extract the most fundamental parts of it to highlight, subdue and showcase. If I am not curious to unwrap these pockets of joy, detail, empathy and intrigue, I would rather not draw.

Illustrated cover for D Magazine by Emiliano Ponzi (October, 2018) | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
Illustrated cover for D Magazine by Emiliano Ponzi (October, 2018) Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Jincy: What, or who would you define as your most powerful inspirations and influences?

Emiliano: These days, we are under this massive onslaught of ultra exposure to photos, images, videos, graphics, bombarded with it left, right and centre. It is also interesting and heartwarming in a way, to share these common sources. I guess what changes is how we tell our stories, more than what story we choose to tell, how we use our vision of the world to express ourselves. Growing up, we struggled to find these avenues of inspiration, to emerge with our taste, style and tone of expression. I carry some artistic references from the elite history of American Illustration or in the history of European painting. I try to combine those with the modern visual language I witness daily. We require references as they form the starting point for our creations, but having said that, I would also contradict myself by saying that you have to step away from them and go far away in the pursuit of finding yourself.

The great NY subway map cover illustrated by Emiliano Ponzi | Interview with illustrator Emiliano Ponzi | STIRworld
The great NY subway map cover illustrated by Emiliano Ponzi Image: Emiliano Ponzi

Hopper's atmospheres, Bauhaus graphics, Hockney, Alex Katz, Kerry James Marshall, Antonio Sant'Elia, Massimo Vignelli, manga, as well as contemporary and old Italian comics also serve as some inspirations.

Jincy: What remains unfulfilled on your wish list as a visual creator - what is one burning story you still crave to tell? Where do you go from here?

Emiliano: I spend all day drawing, but there is excitement and energy in not knowing what comes next. What makes me happy is receiving a call from a client asking me to delve into a project I have never done before. I hope I am walking toward fresh challenges, as I firmly believe my best illustration I am yet to make.

STIR takes you on a Milanese sojourn! Experience Salone del Mobile and all the design districts - 5vie, Brera, Fuorisalone, Isola, Zona Tortona, and Durini - with us. STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2022, Meanwhile in Milan showcases the best exhibits, moods, studios, events, and folks to look out for. We are also excited to announce our very own STIR press booth at Salone del Mobile - Hall 5/7 S.14, Fiera Milano RHO.

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