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At the Franco Grignani archive

By Mark Sinclair

Last week, Units Tony Brook and I were lucky enough to get the chance to visit the archive of artist and graphic designer, Franco Grignani (1908-99). Thanks to the work of his daughter, Manuela, the Milan-based collection records Grignani’s working life in vivid detail and contains thousands of original works, proofs, sketches and projects he produced over fifty years. Joined by Mario Piazza, founder of 46xy studio and former AIAP president, the opportunity to see so many of Grignani’s visual explorations on paper was a real privilege.

Housed in a basement studio beneath an apartment building in central Milan, the Grignani archive is a large space divided into two main areas: paintings and prints are housed in racks on one side, while countless posters, magazines and books, print ads, sketches, notes and sheets of typography are stored in boxes and plan chests on the other. Access to the studio is from the shaded rear of the building so, thankfully – for both the works and any visitors – the room is largely spared the sun.

Manuela Grignani has diligently looked after her father’s work for years, even ensuring that many of the more ephemeral objects produced during his long career have been saved rather than thrown away. Once we began to leaf through the folders and boxes, two things became apparent – the sheer amount of her father’s work that she has managed to preserve and the exceptional condition that most of it is in.

While Grignani’s standing as a graphic designer is evident in the wealth of work collected in the archive, for many it is his black and white optical artworks (which bled in and out of his design thinking and client work, most famously in his Woolmark logo of 1964) that remain most recognisable.

In recent years, however, his art has been exhibited alongside his graphic design, and last year’s show at the Estorick in London was a reminder of his abilities in both worlds. In the Milan archive, both these strands can be seen together in one place and it’s easy to see how they overlap, influence and inform each other – and how little there is that actually divides them.

And Grignani was prolific in both art and design. For example, we looked through four large boxes of run-outs of print ads that the designer produced for one single client, the Milan printers Alfieri & Lacroix, over a period of 30 years.

Each of the boxes contained around a hundred examples – photographic, illustrative, sometimes type-led work (much of which looked very contemporary, as above, even though it was made in the mid-1960s). Grignani’s vast range of skills and approaches comes through all of this work, be it transmitted via a striking arrangement of an ‘A&L’ across a page, or a simple, playful use of colour.

We examined covers of magazines, even layouts he worked on, and took out several of Grignani's rarely-seen type samples. Manuela also has a good collection of archive photographs of her father at work and in attendance at some of the many exhibitions he had in his lifetime (his first solo show was in London in 1958).

Finally, we pored over the many drawings Grignani made on scrap paper and in his sketchbooks. There are pages and pages of pattern and colour-combination tests – a process of tireless refinement that would often lead to a single iteration highlighted with an asterisk.

While Grignani is revered in Italy and by graphic designers from around the world, we left Milan hopeful that, with Manuela’s help, we might be able to bring his work to yet more people. It was a real pleasure to visit this remarkable collection – and we’re looking forward to returning in the near future.

Manuela Grignani regularly posts images of her father’s work to her Instagram at @manuela.grignani.