51.5074° N, 0.1278° W
'I have two different Londons.'
Gems in this
Astrid Stavro is an internationally renowned graphic designer, highly esteemed lecturer and guest speaker within the global design community. Born in Trieste and raised in Madrid, Astrid speaks five languages and has lived and worked across five continents in the creative industries.
Today she is a Partner at global design studio Pentagram, based in London, with clients including TATE, Camper, Phaidon, The National Portrait Gallery and Port Magazine, among others. Living in London for the second time, Astrid shared with us her story of creative life spanning Italy, the United States, Spain and The Netherlands, the power of design as a universal language, and metaphysical travel in a time of a global pandemic.
On growing up around books
I always say that my best teachers have been the books I read. My father was a book publisher and editor, so as a kid I used to spend months in his printing house in Trieste (Italy) where I was born. The books I read when I was young made a deep impression on me; many were published by my father: Yok-Yok by Étienne Delessert, Badaluk, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati, and Le Petit Nicolas by Jean-Jacques Sempé, among others. I later studied literature in college so there are many books and authors that inspired me.
On life as a student in Boston and London
My first experience was as a student of literature and philosophy at Boston University in America. I was used to reading philosophy books where everything was set in black and white and at the same size; there wasn’t much that visually excited me about them. One day in Deià, Mallorca, a friend showed me a copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, which was designed by Tibor Kalman at the time. It blew my mind, I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I realised that I was equally interested in the design and form of the books, the way in which design could bring the content to life. I think that is the power of visual culture: when you see something like Interview for the first time and it instantly changes your life.
After living in Madrid, I studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, and then the Royal College of Art. There I was, in this city that was considered the epicentre of graphic design and visual communication, in the company of like-minded people who saw the world in the same way as me. There were so many ideas, so much energy. We fed off each other, developing our creative identity. My peers had the biggest impact on me. It was such an exciting time.
On connecting with local culture in London
When I came to London as a student, there was a bubbling and vibrant music subculture, which I was really into. My friends and I spent a lot of time exploring the clubs, as there was just so much happening in the music scene. I wasn’t really too worried about connecting with the ‘design scene’ when I first arrived, but I did pay close attention to what magazines were around, and what exhibitions were happening. I appreciated how the city was the place to be for an aspiring graphic designer.
‘I was in the company of like-minded people who saw the world in the same way as me. There were so many ideas, so much energy. We fed off each other, developing our creative identity.’
On founding your design firm in Barcelona
I moved to Barcelona for ten years when I finished my studies. During this time I co-founded my own studio (Astrid Stavro Studio). I didn’t always plan to start my own firm; it wasn’t something I had at the front-of-mind when I was in college. I felt like I had such strong ideas in my head — not just about design, but about life and philosophy — so maybe I didn’t fit in working for anyone.
On London and Pentagram
I’ve been back living and working in London for the past three years as a partner in Pentagram. Every time I come back here I perceive the city in a slightly different way. Maybe this is because I’m at a different stage of my life.
On your relationship with London
London is so diverse. It’s like the European version of New York. There are just so many cultures and people doing their thing. You can meet a waitress in a restaurant who is also a film director, and runs another career after hours. You can meet anyone.
I have two different Londons. The London of my youth, when I was a student in my 20s, and the London of now with my son. When I was younger I had more time to go out. As a single mother, my time is definitely limited. What both Londons do have in common is that I always lived in Notting Hill in West London. I fell in love with Notting Hill, from the moment I first walked down Portobello Road to the fruit and vegetable market at the end of the road. It reminded me of Spain, with people screaming, ‘Strawberries! Strawberries!’ from the food stalls. I still buy my fruits and vegetables there.
‘I have two different Londons. The London of my youth, when I was a student in my 20s, and the London of now.’
On London as a global destination for creativity
London will always be the mecca of graphic design for me. You see things on the street that stop you in your tracks. But there are places around the world that are coming up as really innovative design hubs, like Australia and New Zealand. I love some of the work coming out of there at the moment. I even think of places like Singapore, and cities in India that are radically progressive in the design work being created, but these places don’t necessarily have the mouthpiece or reputation that London does in terms of projecting this work to the rest of the world yet.
On what ‘visual culture' means to you
Visual culture is everything. It’s all around us — everything we see — and it’s the way we communicate, quite often without even realising. Graphic designers know the grammar of visual culture; they have the tools and training to understand it on a technical level. But I also think there’s a public visual culture, which is everything in daily life, from the earliest cave painters to the signage in the streets and the underground, to everything we buy in supermarkets. Personally speaking, my visual culture is the sum of all my lived experiences to date.
'Graphic design is a language in itself. It is based on this idea that seeing is seeing, so no matter who you are, what language you speak, or what country you come from, there is this common understanding based on a visual language.'
On the universal language of design
Graphic design is a language in itself. It is based on this idea that seeing is seeing, so no matter who you are, what language you speak, or what country you come from, there is this common understanding based on a visual language. That really is a powerful idea, when you think about it.
I always use the example of a travel book called Point It by Dieter Graf. It’s a passport-sized book people can take with them when they visit a foreign country, and don’t speak the language. The photo book is filled with images of anything you might need. If you need to find a toothbrush, you point to the picture of the toothbrush. If you want a chicken or bread, you point to the image of the chicken. It’s genius. I think that is the essence of visual communication.
On advice for time in new cultures
Be open, be like a sponge. People travel but don’t really travel because their mind is some place else. They don’t allow their experience of a place to sink in because they are busy ticking things off their to-do list, then they feel like they didn’t even go to that specific place. It’s about the ‘glasses’ you wear and how you see things.
I’m nomadic, so home is wherever I make it. I don’t identify as Italian or Spanish or British. I’m actually a little jealous of someone who says, ‘I’m British,’ and can own it with full pride. I don’t have that feeling of belonging to one specific place.
On a recent project you are proud of
I previously designed a book for Emily Elyse Miller called Breakfast, which was published by Phaidon. She was very happy with the design of the book, and one day she rang me up and asked if I’d like to design the identity of this new venture, which I’ve just finished — a set of cereal boxes with a company called OffLimits. They are these quirky, colorful boxes with characters representing different personalities on them, one for each flavor cereal. They’re totally bonkers and out there! Maybe they’re not as refined as my usual work in terms of typography and that kind of thing, but they have their own beauty. It’s an ongoing relationship and a very fun project to be involved in.
On how new people and ideas inspire you
I love human beings, I love their stories and complexities. I’ve met so many people on my travels who have inspired me. I think the key is to travel in the right way though. So often with work trips, you fly sixteen hours to get to a city, then you’re in and out in the blink of an eye. You’re exhausted, and you don’t really feel like talking to anyone. You need to be in the right state of mind for engaging with people when you travel. That’s when you really open yourself up to inspiration.
Most often I’m inspired by things outside of the graphic design world. I mean, sure, every now and again I’ll see a work of design or branding that really impresses me, but usually I try to look beyond that. As corny as it sounds, my inspiration usually comes from the heart, from things that move me on that level. It might be a piece of opera, spending time with my son, or going for a walk in the forest.
‘Be curious. See the world like you’re seeing it for the first time. Go out and talk to people. I encourage my students to make calls, to knock on doors.’
On advice you tell your students
Be curious. See the world like you’re seeing it for the first time. Go out and talk to people. I encourage my students to make calls, to knock on doors.
When it came time for me to start applying for jobs, I wasn’t shy about it. I had my folio under my arm and I knocked on people’s doors — well, I emailed them first — then I met with them. I’m a people person, so I never had a problem with talking about my work. There’s always a lot of talking involved.
I remember one of my mentors, Mateo Maté — a sculptor, who I worked with for two years in his graphic design studio in Madrid — said to me, ‘If you know Pablo Picasso is in your city, and you really want to meet him, you go and knock on Pablo Picasso’s door.’ I try to share this attitude with my students, telling them to just get out into the world.
On challenges of Covid
I think COVID-19 has been good and bad. Face-to-face contact with clients, let alone family and friends, has gone missing. We didn’t realise how much we took this for granted until it was taken from us. We have to talk to screens now, which is challenging because I’m really a people person. Obviously physical travel has been restricted so that makes things difficult too.
On a positive of Covid
I think this time has also been very beneficial in its own way. The idea of metaphysical travel is really relevant now. If we search the mind, we can escape to a place of quiet, or we can have unique experiences that way. When you think about the idea of travel, yes, we experience a place physically, but we don’t actually process our experience until after the event, when our mind has time to make sense of it. At the very least, COVID has acted as a filter in our lives, allowing the quiet to come to the surface, which I think needed to happen.
‘The idea of metaphysical travel is really relevant now. If we search the mind we can escape to a place of quiet, or we can have unique experiences that way.’
On favourite places to spend time in London
Hyde Park for walks and cycling; I live just around the corner. Lisboa Patisserie in Golborne Road has great coffee and bolos de nata. The staff uniforms of Lisboa Patisserie are to die for; I’m still trying to get hold of one!
Also in Notting Hill, the best-kept secret is the Italian restaurant Assaggi on the first floor of 39 Chepstow Place. It was also the favorite of former Pentagram partner Alan Fletcher. The food is exquisite. It’s informal and quiet, great for conversations.
The Trellick Tower on Golborne Road is the most fascinating building in West London. In terms of museums, I always love going to the Tate Modern and Sir John Soane’s Museum, a delightful and intriguing little gem in Holborn. Also in Holborn is The Delaunay, a wonderful restaurant where I regularly meet my good friend Michael Wolff.
I always found that the best way to discover a city is by getting lost. I love to walk and wander around. Even in Notting Hill, a place where I have lived more than thirteen years, I discover new things weekly simply by getting lost.
On destinations close to your heart
If I had to make a list of places that are closest to my heart, in chronological order: Madrid, London, Barcelona and Mallorca.
On window seat or aisle
On Madrid in one word
On London in one word