Emiliano Grignani is the grandson of Franco Grignani, one of the most versatile and influential Italian designers. Well-known for his advertising, painting and the way he could visualise motion in such a unique way. I interviewed Emiliano to find out more about Franco and his influence on graphic design and the great resource, https://www.francogrignani.info.
First of all, could you give me an introduction to Franco Grignani and his work?
Franco Grignani (1908–1999) was a pioneering figure of mid-20th century Italian design.
His work is a bold and conscious effort to reject Swiss Constructivism, what he referred to as a “typographical straightjacket” in favour of a more artistic, experimental approach to typography, visual forms and the rules of perception. His distinctive graphic language explores speed, technology and modernity using fragmented and distorted type, optical effects, tension, altered geometry and abstract photography.
Some addressed him as ‘the Architect’, others call him a graphic designer, a painter, a photographer, a visual artist, a forerunner of the ‘OpArt’ … all definitions that somehow ‘trap’ him in a limited manner. But even looking back on his work as a whole, it’s impossible to confine Grignani to a specific movement. The truth is, as he himself pointed out, that he never wanted to be part of any ‘flock’:
“I’m scared about being called an artist: this is because I don’t feel like one at all. I simply indicated, or tried to indicate, a new graphic language and what I was able to express is the result only of experiences and errors”.
[from an interview from 1964]
When did you start to collate the work of your grandfather and add the content to the website, (francogrignani.info)?
I was almost thirty years old when my grandpa – ‘Nonno Franco’ – died in 1999, and after my grandma died too in 2003, I suggested creating a digital public database on the web of some of his major works. The Internet became free in Italy in 1999, so it was quite a novelty, and – for many reasons – nothing of my plan was really welcomed but, almost 20 years later, the web itself did it!
In 2020 Google offered from Italy more than 110,000 results for “Franco Grignani”; but, at the same time, the reference to his work on the web began to be really scattered and sometimes not accurate. So, I felt the need to put things in order …
The opportunity was given by the first Covid-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020: I suddenly found myself with a lot of free time and I really had to find a way to build something positive for myself…
I went online on February 4th, 2021, on the occasion of the 113th anniversary of his birth. Since then, dozens of contributors from all around the world have significantly increased its contents (Matt included!): it has been a wonderful experience of international cooperation. It was worth it!
What are your favourite designs produced by Franco Grignani?
I was born in 1971 when Franco began to focus his graphic research almost exclusively on paintings.
The walls of my house were full in particular of what he called ‘periodic’ structures; I was fascinated to the point that at primary school I amused myself in trying to imitate him in my math notebook instead of listening to my teacher…
Later, he began to paint his ‘hyperbolic’ structures, even though I was just a child, I learned his techniques by observing him for hours and hours with his white apron over the unmissable tie while working with tireless passion in his studio and listening carefully to his every single word, and I quickly became able to ‘decrypt’ some of his graphic algorithms.
But, in fact, I somehow missed directly the most ‘heroic’ phase of the 1960s… a historical phase in which I believe he gave the very best of himself, especially in the field of graphic advertising in strict connection with the global evolution of the society of that time. Some ads for Alfieri & Lacroix have really influenced “the sign of our time” (quote from 1973).
Have you got some personal stories about your Franco you would like to share with other designers?
Well, of course, there are many stories I could tell you about, but for me, Franco was most of all my grandpa, and I can’t really consider him without her wife, my grandma Jeanne. Jeanne Grignani, born Michot in Ukraine, was ‘the great woman behind the great man’.
She certainly contributed to enhancing some of her husband’s advertisements and it is known that she was a fundamental driving force behind Franco’s success with the Palma d’Oro in 1959.
She was a fashion figure artist, as well as a poster designer, and created some of the most beautiful Italian fashion posters in the fifties, but she did not like public events, she left home very rarely and preferred Franco to receive the honours for her…
That’s why there are still very few who know her name in 2022.
She was certainly a great dreamer, like Franco anyway, and their house was permanent with the roller shutters partially lowered, immersed in a soft dim light; the concerts she often listened at full volume by Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, reading or writing in Russian or simply rocking herself in her rocking chair, created a particular, timeless atmosphere…
I think the best portrait of that ‘perfect duet’ is from an article from Antonio Boggeri which appeared in 1954 in the Swiss magazine Graphis, issue n° 56; you can read it online @ the International Advertising & Design DataBase.
For anyone with an interest in the work of Italian Designers, have you got any books or websites you recommend?
Talking about the www, unfortunately, Italy has not yet transposed – unlike several countries in Northern Europe and even outside Europe – the value of the open digitization of historical resources according to shared standards, intended as a key tool for the widespread enhancement of its heritage.
I do really believe that there is still a lot to re-discover and the contribution of universities could be fundamental.
In this regard, I consider very interesting the work carried out by the students from the first year of the School of Design of the Polytechnic in Milan (‘Scuola di Design Politecnico di Milano’); since 2014, they have been involved in the editing of a series dedicated to communication designers of the 20th century, most of them Italians; even if most of the texts are in Italian, you can enjoy a lot of visuals @ DesignVerso.