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Talking Art & Food with Olimpia Zagnoli

Talking Art & Food with Olimpia Zagnoli

In the summer of 2020, renowned artist Olimpia Zagnoli covered the Eataly Kiosk in Flatiron Plaza with bright, pop art graphics – a vibrant beacon in the heart of Madison Square, celebrating Italian food, art, and design. We sat down with Olimpia to talk about her artistic process, her relationship to New York, and, of course, her favorite Italian foods.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I grew up surrounded by family and friends doing all sorts of jobs, from set designers to painters, seamstresses, architects, and photographers, so I knew I could be an artist too if I wanted – and for some reason that felt more natural to me than going into accounting.

When was the first time you came to New York? What was your first impression of the city?

The first time it must have been 2008. It was the first time that I was physically in the city, but I’ve been there in my mind many times before. I was still sitting on the place when the flight attendant said “Thanks for flying with us, welcome to New York” and I started crying. One of my first memory is the street steam seen from the yellow frame of a cab’s window and the smell of carpeted stairs, pink detergent and hot dogs in the first apartment I stayed in. It doesn’t sound charming, but when that specific combination happens in other cities in the world, I always miss New York.

Olimpia Zagnoli | Photo by Jason Fulford
Photo by Jason Fulford

What has it been like to make art about NYC over the past years? How has your creative relationship to the city evolved?

New York City has been a great source of inspiration for me. From high-end museums to subway platforms, street style and food vendors, everything has the potential of becoming a masterpiece. I like to stay a bit, sketch while I’m there and then come home and process everything I’ve seen. Creating art about New York City is a little bit like creating art about the entire world.  

How does the city and the food inspire your artwork? 

Growing up watching lots of American shows, I’ve always been attracted to details surrounding the world of food in the US. From Solo cups, to colorful slushies, one-dollar pizzas, s’mores, double pops, Coke floats, banana splits, Fruit Loops – everything felt much more adventurous than the food I was used to consuming in my household. If you look at them from a color and shape perspective, there’s a lot I find inspiring for my work.  

Olimpia Zagnoli Eataly Kiosk Flatiron

What was your inspiration for the Eataly Kiosk? 

The idea was to create an overall graphic that could wrap the entire kiosk and bring some color for the people passing by every day. Among the various proposals, I decided to go with a typographic approach exploding the words Pizza, Gelato, Ciao and New York, taking inspiration from both the American and Italian visual vocabulary (for example, the work of Italian artist Alighiero Boetti and American graphic designer and architect Barbara Stauffacher Solomon).  

Did the design come to you immediately or did you experiment with other designs?  

I usually sketch a lot as a way to translate my thoughts onto paper. Then I let it marinate a bit and transfer the idea I like the most on the computer to see the kind of impact colors will have on the final piece. If it doesn’t work, I just start all over from the beginning. In this particular case, I thought of three or four solutions for the kiosk until I came up with the one I felt more genuine for me. 

Many New Yorkers may be familiar with your art from other projects — how do you imagine they will react to seeing your work on the street? 

That I really don’t know. Despite being able to recognize my work or not, I hope people will enjoy this little bomb of color and flavor, and that it will inspire them to spend a little time outside perhaps seeing friends they haven’t seen in a while due to the current situation.  

Olimpia Zagnoli for Eataly

How does your Italian heritage come through in your artwork like the Kiosk? 

Colors and shapes are one of the ways I express myself in my work. A lot of the colors and shapes I use come from visions of nature on the Mediterranean sea, and also from the contrast between that and more urban environments like details of architecture, street signs, shoes in shop windows, statues in museums, tomatoes on the floor at the market.  

What is your own experience of Eataly, as a person living in Milan?

I go to Eataly in New York when I’m invited at somebody’s house for dinner and I want to bring a special something for them. I go to Eataly in Milan when I know I’m going to be home alone and I want to cook something special for myself.  

What is your favorite Italian food? And why do you think Italian food has such universal appeal around the world?

I think Italian food has an appeal around the world because it’s relatively simple but flavorful. It mostly involves just a few ingredients and it’s usually made with a sense of respect towards food which translates as love. This relationship between love and food is what makes me favor my grandma’s Tortelli di Zucca over everything else.

Grazie mille, Olimpia! Learn more about her work here, and be sure to catch her work at the Eataly Kiosk in Flatiron Plaza through 2020.