Studio Culture Interview: Tassinari/Vetta

Studio Culture Interview: Tassinari/Vetta

Leonardo Sonnoli's work is remarkable for its graphic precision and visual dexterity. Born in Trieste, Italy, in 1962, he founded CODEsign with Paolo Tassinari and Pierpaolo Vetta in 2002. He is currently a partner in Tassinari/Vetta, where he works on the visual identity of private and public companies.

He specializes in cultural events, book design, signage and exhibitions graphics. His work has been exhibited in numerous exhibitions, and his posters - for which he is widely acknowledged as a modern master - are collected in several public and private collections.

Sonnoli has always combined professional practice with teaching. He lectures at the Faculty of Design and Arts of the IUAV University of Venice and at the ISIA (High Institute of Industrial Arts), Urbino. He lives in Rimini and works at the Tassinari/Vetta studio in Trieste.

Sonnoli is a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale.) He is the body's Italian president.

The interview was conducted via email.

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Tell me about your background?

Leonardo Sonnoli: I started to study graphic design when I was 20. The reason I started late was that in Italy there was only one school teaching graphic design. It was in Isia in Urbino, in the middle of Italy, and difficult to get to. I was really poor, and shared my bedroom with rats, rain and cockroaches. But I wanted to continue to study, so for about two years I studied history of art at my local university in Trieste in the north of Italy. To get money I worked as a bartender, theatre usher and delivering flowers for a shop. Then I sat the exam for Isia in Urbino and was accepted for a four-year course in graphic design. After two years I was called up into the army. But I refused to go, so I did civilian service instead at a place close to Trieste. In this period I knew Paolo Tassinari and Pierpaolo Vetta (both seven years older than me), who were working as graphic designers in Trieste. Their studio was called Tassinari/Vetta and they offered me an internship. Working for them for a few months I learnt more about graphic design than I did during two years at school.

 

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What happened when you finally graduated?

When I finished my studies at the school, I continued to work with Paolo and Pierpaolo. As well as learning from them, I developed an interest in design history and criticism. We also became good friends. After two years I needed another experience so I accepted an offer from the studio of Massimo Dolcini1, a well-known Italian designer, based in Pesaro, in central Italy. His way of thinking about design was different from mine. But he offered me a job as art director of a 10-12-people design studio. For me, this was an opportunity to concentrate only on design matters, and not to get involved in managing the studio and the clients.

How long were you there?

I worked with Massimo Dolcini for 11 years. Over time it became more and more difficult, and in 2002 I was fired, mainly because of the economic crisis at the time. I was immediately asked to join the Tassinari/Vetta office. In 2003 my mentor and closest friend Pierpaolo Vetta died, and I decided to buy a little part of his shareholding. So I became a partner in the Tassinari/Vetta studio.

Independent-minded graphic designers can often benefit from working in large, professional, business-focused studios. It gives them a good grounding for when they want to branch out on their own. Do you think your 11 years with Massimo Dolcini prepared you well for becoming a partner in Tassinari/Vetta?

The fact that I mainly concentrated on design in the Dolcini office helped me grow as a designer and taught me, as an art director, how to manage lots of people working on several projects at the same time. On the other hand I didn't learn much about managing an office. When I became a partner I was probably better known as a designer than Tassinari and Vetta, but not so well prepared for the task of managing a studio.

The studio name is Tassinari/Vetta, but you also use the names CODEsign, COdesign and codeSIGN. Can you explain this?

Tassinari/Vetta are the names of the two founders. The company has never changed its name. When I joined we decided to sign our work with another name (codesign), but from a legal point of view the company doing the work was Tassinari/Vetta.

Have you ever thought about incorporating your own name into the studio name?

I wanted to change the studio's name to indicate my presence in it, but my proposal was not accepted.

Why do you think there was a reluctance to change the name? Was it because any sort of name change is commercially risky? 

I think there were a number of reasons. I proposed different solutions but none were accepted. It was clear that Paolo Tassinari wanted to maintain the status quo even if the studio changed radically. I think this was more emotional than rational. It was not a commercial decision, because often my name is better known than the founders. But I was forced to accept the decision. Because of this I often add my name to the office signature.

 

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How is your studio organized?

Besides Paolo Tassinari and me, we have two people doing organization, archiving and administration, and we have six designers and usually two or three interns.

You don't live near the studio, though,do you?

I live 400 kilometers from the studio, so I'm there more or less two days a week. I'm usually working in a tiny office in Rimini connected with the studio in Trieste via Skype or mobile.

Are there times when it is frustrating to work remotely, or do you like the sense of being one step removed?

It's not easy to manage it. First, to work with the studio mainly through phone calls is different from speaking with people and looking into their eyes. Second, a long drive is very tiring.

Well, I've got to ask you, why don't you live closer to the studio?

I often ask myself this question. The true reason is probably deeply personal and would need psychoanalysis. But more practically, my wife has her own office in Rimini and looking after my two children is easier in Rimini, where we have a good quality of life.

Can you describe your studio - its layout, its furniture, its features?

The office is located in the centre of the city, along a small canal, 200 meters from the waterfront. The building is in neoclassical style, being built in the nineteenth century in the period when Trieste was an Austro-Hungarian city. The apartment is quite large. The main space is devoted to the designers working on several tables arranged as a big island. In the same room there is a glassed-off area hosting the administration department. Another room is used for me and my partner, and also as a meeting room.

There is a kitchen and a space used for archiving and as a workshop.

 

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Did you have any professional help with the interior space?

The office has been designed in collaboration with an architect. The tables, the closets and the doors are made in dark red MDF; tables are made in white Corian. The floor is partly in wood and partly in black slate. Most of the table lamps are the Artemide De Lucchi's Tolomeo.

How important is the physical environment you work in?

Really important. But what I see out of the window is equally important.

Do you own the studio, or rent it?

We have a mortgage, mainly to buy the place and to pay for its restoration.    

Can you define your role within Tassinari/Vetta?

Paolo and I manage the clients, and we take the key design decisions. We decide which designers work on which projects, and who among the assistants gets to follow the work through. Often we work together on one project. For example, I might design the typographic part, and Paolo its applications.

Does your work as a teacher affect the running of the studio?

I try to manage my role as a teacher in Venice and Urbino as part of my studio work. In fact, it forms part of my income. Of course, the lectures and workshops I do around the world (mainly for free, only with travel reimbursement) affect my work in terms of the time I'm able to dedicate to design. On the other hand, it's a way to be stimulated and to learn something new.

Could you tell me about the type of clients you have?

They are publishing houses, public institutions, museums, art galleries, theatre and music festivals.

Could you talk about how you find new clients?

Usually clients knock on the door.

Clients knocking on the door! That's what every designer dreams of. But is it really that simple? Surely you must do some promotional work: do you send new work to magazines? Do you enter design competitions? Do you have a portfolio? How much care and attention do you put into your website?

Yes, it should be a dream, but it can also be a nightmare. Usually clients arrive because they know your work. So, for example, if you work for furniture companies, you are less likely to be asked to do an identity for a museum or to design an exhibition. In a way you get labelled. As regards promotion, I submit work to competitions and sometimes magazines ask me to send them some work. But this is done more as an individual, and not as a studio (even if the name of the studio is always quoted). Of course, competitions and magazines increase your popularity with other designers and not among new clients. We don't have a portfolio and we don't have a website. I have my personal website used mainly to share files with my students.  

 

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Let's talk about employing people. It's often the most difficult aspect of running a studio. You have to constantly look after the welfare of others, and you have to keep them motivated and inspired. How do you go about this?

I think it's important that people see you as a model, as a point of reference. They have to really want to work with you. It's a matter of esteem. Unfortunately I'm not in the office often, but I speak with everyone by phone and not only about work, but about the lectures I give, and the ones that I attend, and about the international designers I know. We also organize exhibitions and lectures in the studio.

What qualities do you look for when employing a designer?

I need people who are very passionate about design, and who are interested in graphic design culture. It's not important whether a designer is talented or not. It's more important that he or she is interested in working together and in learning continuously. Another important thing is the reliability of people, and their ability to organize the work and to have relationships with the clients and suppliers.

OK - this is a big question. Are you saying that you are only interested in employing designers who will comply with your vision?

If by the word ‘vision' you mean having the same ideas of work as relating to history, and designing with the goal of timelessness and appropriateness, then I'd answer yes. Everyone should have their own knowledge, but I'm not interested in developing our work in a fashionable way.

What is your approach to designers who want a sense of personal authorship?

I ask them more to follow my ideas, even if in a free way. I love my work and I like to direct the creativity.

Do you have a profit-sharing policy?

No, usually we don't. We sometimes reward those who have worked harder than usual.

Do you socialize together?

I'm not in the office very often, as I've said. But when I stay there I'll have dinner with some of them. In the summer it's easier, because we go for a drink or have dinner outside.

Do you have formal rules about things like timekeeping and so on?

We usually start at 9.00am. We have a lunch break at 1.00-1.30pm and half the people eat in the studio in our kitchen (especially in the winter). We stop around 7.00pm, but often two or three people remain till late. To keep the kitchen clean we use a dishwasher and throw out the garbage.

How do you maintain the balance between creativity and profitability? 

In the majority of the works the two things are not connected.

Perhaps I need to rephrase the question. Is the studio's work ever compromised by the need to make a profit? By this I mean, do you have projects that don't turn out the way you want them to and result in you doing work that is purely for the money? Or are you saying this never happens?

Any recrimination on bad clients is useless. But to go back to your question, sometimes we understand immediately that some work will not result in a good design, but we accept it for the budget. But also these are works made in the correct way. I mean that they are designed in an anonymous way instead of being badly designed.

What about the opposite scenario - are there times when you do work that is not profitable, but you do it because it is the sort of work you enjoy doing?

Yes, it happens. I include in this kind of work all the lectures/workshops/juries I do abroad. And the time I spend with my students away from the school. Often they come to my home, to visit my library and to discuss things with me. All these activities are completely not profitable in term of money, but are greatly profitable in term of professional and personal development.

How does a young designer go about getting an internship at Tassinari/Vetta?

While teaching I often receive requests for internships from my students and I'm lucky to be able to take on designers who I know. Usually we take three interns a year. Sometimes we receive requests from other schools and from abroad. We look at all the portfolios sent to us, and in some cases we offer internships. Because interns usually come from other cities and other countries, we give them a small fee, around half the salary of a designer. For a few years I paid interns in the equivalent value in books, because an internship is not for profit but to learn more.

If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?

Maybe I'd try to have an experience abroad.

How would you define your studio's culture today?

The studio's culture corresponds mainly to me and my partner's professional culture and knowledge. We have worked in the field of traditional graphic design, often for cultural clients. In my case I think my knowledge of the international scene influences our studio's culture.

 

Interview taken from 'Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio' by Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy