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Franco Grignani: an ode to the Italian illusionist & master of graphics

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n illusionist of senses and an Italian icon in the graphic design and branding scene, Franco Grignani (1908-1999) has created a body of works filled with unconventional imagination. His rich in optical illusions portfolio, available in all its glory at the official Instagram account of this Italian master, is celebrated until September 15th at the m.a.x. museo in Chiasso with the anthological exhibition “Franco Grignani (1908-1999) – Polisensorialità fra arte, grafica e fotografia.”

With over three hundred works, divided between photographs, paintings, graphic works, design objects and material related to advertising, the exhibition celebrates the multifaceted artist and innovator and literally the precursor of optical-visual art.

Known by everyone through his creations Grignani worked as a graphic designer for brands such as Pirelli, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Fiat, Ermenegildo Zegna. Famed for the creation of the Woolmark logo, a masterpiece in branding which was voted “Best Logo of all Time” by Creative Review Magazine in 2011, in the years of the Italian economic boom Grignani's body of work is a lesson in attention-grabbing simplicity. 

“Who has never seen the Pure Virgin Wool mark? Designed in 1963, it is the work of a designer who with wit and powerful determination shaped the black and white lines to create a unique and recognizable form. An icon that today we associate instinctively with softness” notes the museum of Grignani. 

“The author of this sign-image was Franco Grignani, artist, graphic designer, and photographer. Or, synaesthetically, all three together, because he devoted incessant research to capture the hidden nature of forms, investigating the interactions between perceptual processes in solitude. In this way he used graphic design to spread his art, experimented with photography to capture the endless postures of movement, and used art to fix everything in pictorial cycles aimed at conquering the beauty of seeing.”

Born at Pieve Porto Morone, in the province of Pavia, Franco Grignani (February 4, 1908 – 20 February 1999) was an Italian architect, graphic designer, and artist. Grignani studied architecture in Turin between 1929 and 1933. Early on, he became absorbed in experimentations in photography, and in optic and visual phenomena and gradually he formed Italy's second Futurist and Constructivist movements in unconventional ways.

“To affirm its useful role in visual communication, graphic art must rely on a large number of experiments in order to achieve perfect freedom, facing the daily routine activities” 

Subsequently, his work was more closely associated with Kinetic Art and Op Art. Based on theories of perception, particularly on the Psychology of Form and his knowledge of architecture, he created more than 14000 experimental works. He remains a powerful influence in the world of graphic design.

The Italian master of optical graphic design founded Studio Grignani during the 1930s designing advertising for clients such as Boleti, Fiat, Domus, Dompé pharmaceuticals, Mondadori, Montecatini, and Alfieri & Lacroix for whom he designed numerous campaigns. Three decades later, in the psychedelia-infused 1960s his firm, together with Studio Boggier, were the leading names in Op-Art-Graphics.

Grignani worked as Art Director at Bellezza d'Italia and became art director for Pubblicita in Italia annuals in 1956, where he continued for 26 years. 

A member of the juries of "Typedomus20" and the Warsaw Poster Biennale in 1970, Grignani had more than 49 solo exhibitions from 1958 in various countries including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, the US and Venezuela and he was the winner of the Palma d’Oro for advertising and the gold medal at the Milan Triennale one year later. Multi-awarded and multi-tasker, Grignani received an award at the Warsaw Poster Biennale in 1966 and another at the Venice Biennale in 1972. 

“To affirm its useful role in visual communication, graphic art must rely on a large number of experiments in order to achieve perfect freedom, facing the daily routine activities,” said this firm believer of the significance of graphic art and its impact, both conscious and subconscious, on daily life.

“The drawing of a logo for a designer is the most […] exciting assignment because in that symbol he tries to pour all his graphic sensitivity” Grignani commented on the science and art of the logo. He was entitled to. His Woolmark logo, applied to more than five billion products worldwide, is frequently credited with being a concise and powerful symbol. 

In 1963 the International Wool Secretariat (now Australian Wool Innovation) launched an international competition for a visual design that would represent new standards of quality and help build consumer confidence. There is some doubt as to whether the winning design was by Grignani himself, as he later claimed; he was a member of the jury and could not use his own name, and is thought to have used the pseudonym “Francesco Saroglia”.

“The drawing of a logo for a designer is the most […] exciting assignment because in that symbol he tries to pour all his graphic sensitivity” Franco G

His daughters claimed, after his death, that the entry had been submitted on his behalf by a Mr. Spiriti, an owner of an advertising agency, who had asked him to provide some sample sketches. Shortly afterward, the artist was invited to participate as a juror, and was amazed to see his own drawing among the entries. His daughter stated that he tried voting against it as the winning design because he was embarrassed. His sketchbook of Monday 4 April that year reveals a page of precise sketches for the Woolmark logo, including the winning entry, and this page was exhibited in a show of Franco Grignani's work in 1995 at the Aiap Gallery in Milan.

Gringnani's elegant logo “has helped reinvent the global perception of wool as a natural, contemporary and glamorous fiber” commented Woolmark Company of the flexible and elegant form which is cited as portraying the quality of wool and expressing its softness and purity in a uniquely memorable image.

Grignani’s “crisply rigorous and precise” graphic design adventures, often in black and white, are based on continuous research and experimentation in visual perception and the creative use of graphic, photographic and digital media. A precursor and an innovator alike, Grignani immediately threw himself into the experimentalism of the second wave of Futurism, Geometric Abstractionism and Concrete Art after his studies and in 1968 he entered the sci-fi universe with his highly-acclaimed collaboration with Penguin.

“Following the panic of '68, Penguin's new art director for fiction David Pelham commissioned the Italian designer Franco Grignani to create a set of sixteen covers for an SF mini-series in 1969-70” writes penguinsciencefiction.org. 

“Grignani was a leading figure in the field of experimental photography, with a career stretching back some forty years to his early work with photograms. From this he progressed to a range of techniques based on standard photography which he then projected and distorted using lenses, shards of glass, pieces of broken mirror, or liquids such as oil and water. The images such techniques produce are beautifully represented by Grignani's designs for the SF series, which reinstated the black covers Alan Aldridge had introduced in '66, along with the SF label which the panic tops of '68 had overlooked.”

Grignani's black covers and single-color images “form a kaleidoscope of shimmering dreams and shattered nightmares. They are like a free association of thoughts mapped out in watery reflections that briefly coalesce and then disperse, leaving memories of figures trapped in the fragments of a looking-glass. They hint at other dimensions and warped worlds where space swims and time shudders. Viewed as a set they would not look out of place if framed and hung on the walls of an art gallery. The thought of sixteen black spines lined up on a bookshelf seems somewhat prosaic by comparison.”

Grignani experimented in the fields of photography and photomontage, investigating theories of the psychology of form and in 1952 he created a new corporate identity for Arti Grafiche Alfieri & Lacroix in Milan, to which he added designs for 150 posters. 

His work was exhibited in many contemporary art exhibitions, including Documenta 3 in 1964, alongside Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro, and others.

“From his early work, his activity as an artist was filtered through a continuous osmosis from architecture to photography and from graphic design to painting. He was particularly interested in the theoretical and scientific models of communication and visual perception” writes max. 

“His pictorial work, anticipating optical art, was devoted to multi-sensoriality based on new visual parameters: for example, virtual forms, realized through direct intervention in the image of physical movements such as rotations, torsions, progressions, accelerations, scissions and deformations; or reconstructed through new perspectives from which to observe the image, as in his reflections on deforming mirrors or paints and metals; or by reconstructing the vision at the edge of the visual field, where the gaze enters a state of sub-perception or passive perception.”

“This research into the dynamics of vision, these 'traumas to space', as Gillo Dorfles termed them, were not limited to remaining visual speculations, but underpinned all his artistic output, photographic research and his work as a graphic designer.”

His work is displayed in international museums including MoMa in New York, the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and he authored various essays and taught both in Italy and the U.S.A.

The “Franco Grignani (1908-1999) – Polisensorialità fra arte, grafica e fotografia” must attend exhibition is on until the 15th of September. More Info here

This must-see exhibition deals with the complexity of Franco Grignani’s artistic research also by drawing on unpublished archival materials.

His advertisements were works of visual poetry, a task few can accomplish 

     

Images via m.a.x. museo, Franco Grignani official Instagram account which you must follow ASAP here and Grapheine's extended feature on the illusionist of graphic design, this Italian breacher of the boundaries of physicality and psychology for the sake of art. 

Words by Loukas Karnis