Astrid Stavro spent years designing magazines and brands from an office on a warm island in the Mediterranean. How does a person who once studied journalism get into design? And how can design help us better understand content?Episode Transcript
Astrid Stavro is an Italian graphic designer. Born in Trieste, she grew up in Madrid. After a brief career in journalism, she studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and The Royal College of Art in London. In 2005, she founded Studio Astrid Stavro, which specialized in typography and editorial design. She has since co-founded and is creative director at Atlas, a branding and design consultancy based in Mallorca, New York, and London, and, most recently, become a partner in the London office of Pentagram. The episode’s transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. (April 2021)
Astrid Stavro: My father is a printer and a publisher, which means that I grew up in a printing house. He was a workaholic. He worked all the time, and during holidays we were there in the publishing house, which specialized in publishing children’s books. And the great thing is that during holidays, the summer ones, we travelled all across Europe and visited many of the illustrators whose books my father printed and published. We travelled in a VW camper van and kind of slept at campsites or in the middle of forests. We called it pisello because it was green—pisello means green pea in Italian. And I don’t know how many years it was, but it was probably around ten years travelling all across Europe in this VW camper van. We visited Etienne Delessert’s studio in Switzerland; he’s a fantastic, amazing illustrator. One of the characters he drew was Yok-Yok, and I was obsessed with Yok-Yok. I remember walking into his studio and seeing him draw Yok-Yok on a piece of paper. And I think that is probably the most magical moment in my entire life. To actually see something come to life, something that you dream about come to life in front of your eyes, it’s almost like a mystical kind of experience. That was definitely … I think it was almost inevitable for me to become a graphic designer.
Paddy Harrington: When did it become clear that it was going to become your profession and that you were going to survive by designing?
AS: It’s a bit of a long story. I wanted to be a journalist and change the world through writing. But at that time my mother married a journalist who used to work for El País, which is the largest newspaper in Spain. He was an editorialist, a columnist, and also formed part of the board of El País. And I started to figure out how newspapers work from the inside and how it would be quite complicated to change the world as I intended to. At the board meetings, for example, if there was news about whatever, the King of Spain would call the board and say, “Do not publish this.” That was really off-putting. I thought, Oh my God, if the King of Spain calls, do they listen to him? This is a left-wing liberal newspaper. They’re supposed to print everything! I decided to not study journalism. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing baseball columns and columns about soccer to make a living. So, I studied literature, which means I’m a late graphic designer. One summer in Deià, which is a beautiful small town the northwestern part of Mallorca, one of my best friends collected every single issue of Interview Magazine, at the time designed by Tibor Kalman. And I remember one spread in particular that had lemons in it. I thought, Oh my God.
I don’t know what it was about that spread. I wish I had a picture; I wish I had that issue. The way in which the page was designed and brought the content to life. I’d never heard of graphic design before; I didn’t know what it was. My friend said, this is a thing called graphic design. And that was it.
PH: So, after that, you attended the Royal College of Art in London, and you worked on a project there called Art of the Grid. It had a pretty big impact on your design career, so can you tell us about that.
AS: Art of the Grid was my graduation project at the Royal College of Art. It’s a series of notepads that recreate grids from publications that changed the history of design. For example, Twen magazine designed by Willy Fleckhaus, Ways of Seeing by Richard Hollis (which was added afterward), The Guardian designed by David Hillman, Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie—I mean, grids are the skeleton of any publication. Any magazine, any book, is designed on a grid. It is something that we do not see but something that designers need. Everything has a grid.
I remember the day on which we received all these grids. They arrived from the printer in cardboard boxes and I almost, like, shat myself in my pants thinking Oh my God! This is the worst piece of shit I’ve done in my entire life. To my surprise, they sold out the next day. And actually, we developed the project as a way of bridging the gap between being a student and finding a job afterward. We thought—I did this with Birgit Pfisterer—Let’s do something that will keep us busy after we graduate. So, after finishing college, I was kind of self-employed already because I had a product that I could sell.
I moved to Barcelona and I went to see Fernando Amat, who was the owner of Vinçon, which is a very old design shop in Barcelona. I walked in with a few remaining notepads and he said, “I love this, I want more, I want to sell it.” So, he put me in touch with manufacturers that printed many more. Then Fernando was happy because he had the grids, and I was super happy because I had a bit of extra cash money. Then I went to see another person in a Barcelona bookshop called La Centrale to see if they wanted to sell the notepads. And they said, “This is really nice. Do you have a portfolio that we can look at?” I said yes, I showed them the portfolio, and they asked, “Do you want to redesign our identity?” And like, yeah, sure! They became my first client, which allowed me to open my studio. They gave me a fixed income every month; I could hire other designers. That was the beginning of Astrid Stavro Studio.
I wish the days were thirty-six hours long, or forty-eight or seventy-two—that would be great. There are so many things I want to do.
PH: If you started your studio in Barcelona. How did you end up in Mallorca?
AS: My husband, who had his own studio called Grafica, and I had a son. And we were living in a pedestrian street in the Gothic quarter in Barcelona, before Barcelona became invaded by tourism. Our street in particular was just behind the ports, so it became the aorta of the tourists coming in from the boats—you know, with the follow me signs. It became quite annoying. At that point we thought, Okay, where do we go to live? Outside Barcelona? But then there’s all the traffic to drive into the city. My mother was living in Mallorca. I had spent my childhood in Mallorca since I was ten years old, so it’s kind of like a second home to me. When we were visiting, I said to Pablo, “Pablo, why don’t we look at homes here?” We went to three houses and the third one was love at first sight. We walked into the place and we thought This is it. We didn’t even know where it was on the map: Binissalem, where is that? I thought, I don’t know, who cares. I want to live in this house. And that was it. One month later, without thinking about it, we moved into the house. I don’t think we would have ever done it if we thought about it twice.
PH: So, you’ve arrived in Mallorca and you’ve decided to build a practice. I imagine that in terms of drawing talent, there’s probably a pretty strong upside to inviting people to come work with you. What was the process of building a design studio in this place that’s slightly off the beaten path?
AS: It’s thoroughly off the beaten path. Starting a studio there was easier than we thought because everybody wanted to go there. It has a lot of appeal, especially for northerners, so we got a lot of applications from Sweden, Norway, from Northern Europe; everybody wanted to come to Mallorca. But, at the same time, it’s a very small island, which means that the team gets renovated constantly. A young designer—say, between twenty and twenty-five—that came to the studio would leave after a year. Even if the work you’re doing is great, there’s no personal life, there are no cultural things going on. It can get very depressing for younger people. So, there was a constant renewal of staff, of designers in particular, and that makes it tricky. We wanted to build something more permanent, something where designers will stay for four years or more, which was tricky to find in Mallorca. That’s why we decided to open an office in London. We still have the Mallorca office, there are designers there, and it’s great because from London we commute to Mallorca. “Oh, I have to go to Mallorca, how unfortunate to spend my time from Monday to Friday.” [Laughs]
PH: What role would you say place has in the work itself? Beyond the people you hired. Do you find that it influences the work?
AS: What happened in Mallorca is that, because there are less things to do, you focus more. And the fact that we were on an island created a kind of healthy distance from certain clients that confuse quantity for quality, the kind of client that would come into the studio for eight hours and tell you what to do: put this here, lower the logo, make this bigger, whatever. That was great; we could focus and concentrate better. That’s one of the assets of Mallorca. But I don’t think being in Mallorca makes our work look more tropical, with palm trees, or anything like that. I always say it’s like working in New York or London. It’s absolutely the same thing: the level of stress is high, there’s a lot of work on the table all the time, [there are] hundreds of projects. So, there’s nothing really idyllic about it. The lifestyle is great, the beach is very close. I just can never go to them because I don’t have time.
PH: What is time for you as it relates to creativity?
AS: Time is what I don’t have. I wish the days were thirty-six hours long, or forty-eight or seventy-two—that would be great. There are so many things I want to do and I just … I never have the time to do it. A poet friend of mine once said, “That’s bullshit, because if you wanted to do something, you’d find the time to do it. And saying that you don’t have the time is an excuse, a cheap excuse.” I quite agree. We live in a society where time has become almost an enormous luxury. We can hear people moaning about time, I don’t have time to do this, or I wish I could do that—and it’s so easy to actually stop and do it.
PH: Does it have an impact on the work? Whether you have more or less time?
AS: I think that some of the best projects are the ones that are done faster, funnily enough, and not the ones you have months and months to develop, because the pressure you get from having to deliver something good fast makes your brain go faster. A lack of time is very productive, actually.
PH: The relationship between form and content is central to your work. Can you talk about Vegetables from an Italian Garden, the book you designed for Phaidon?
AS: Vegetables from an Italian Garden is divided into four different seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. We divided it into four different sections, with a color for each. When you design a book, it’s not only about taking the materials and designing it, but also about finding the appropriate and best way to do so, even to suggest to the publishers different ways of working. For example, there are four journals—we call them journals—in the book. They are cut to a shorter size so that finding the recipes is easier and it’s a very tactile experience. And it’s a 3D object, so you need to think about everything. Finding the recipe is easy, and these journals act as kind of an editorial contribution. Form follows content. So, that’s our job.
PH: I bring it up because that particular project has a clarity that I feel is rare in design. Even designers who are trained to design clearly struggle to get to that level of clarity. Do you find, in the process, there are moments where you have to check yourself and ask, “Have I lost that?” When it comes to protecting that simplicity and clarity, do you find it a struggle? Or is it easy?
You have to understand everything and see what you can peel away without ending up with something completely vacuous.
AS: It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle most of the time. I think designing is a constant struggle—well, it’s a process more than a struggle. It can become a struggle, but it takes a lot of patience, a lot of speaking with the client, a lot of listening, and, at times, fighting for the things you believe in. Not just because you think something is right and appropriate. It takes time to explain this to the client. And sometimes the client agrees and says, “You’re right,” and it’s great, it works out, everybody goes home happy, and the checks are signed. But it’s not always like that. I think our job is to keep things simple and to distill a project to its maximum essence. So, it’s kind of an exercise of stripping away, stripping away, and stripping away and leaving it at its … almost naked. It might look minimal, some of the work, but it’s absolutely not an intention. There’s a quote by Bruno Munari that I love: “complicating is easy, simplifying is difficult.” So, what we try to do is to keep things simple. The world is a very messy place, very complicated, very chaotic. It has enough shit and our job is to remove the shit as much as we can. You can only really do this through absolute simplicity; but, again, it’s actually very hard to achieve, simplicity. Because it means that you have to understand everything and see what you can peel away without ending up with something completely vacuous.
PH: What’s next for you? Not so much your next project, but what’s the next frontier for you and your work?
AS: There’s something that I’m very obsessed about: what do we do as graphic designers, asking what is the role of graphic design? Because the world in which we live is disgusting and the political climate is terrible and there are many, many things that need addressing. What is my role? Maybe it’s a midlife crisis or something, but I don’t think that smashing out a new identity or doing this and that … I think I need to help in a different way. How can we engage design to really change the world for the better? And I think that this can sound very utopic and very idealistic, but you need to be an idealist because if not then change would just never happen.
First Things First is produced in partnership with the Association of Registered Graphic Designers. It is hosted by Paddy Harrington and edited by Max Cotter. Frontier’s sponsor music is an edited version of “sketch (rum-portrait)” by Jahzzar from the album Sketches.
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