Into the Lively World of Illustrations with Elena Xausa

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Italian-born illustrator and graphic designer, Elena Xausa, has developed an ironic and synthetic style creating unexpected visual links in each of her illustrations. Elena’s valiant use of colors on her cleaned-up doodles, together with the ability to visualize and represent her clients’ ideas, soon made her a sought-after illustrator working for international magazines such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Le Monde, Rolling Stone, Die Zeit and many more- not to mention her works for high-level clients such as Apple, Nike SB, Adidas and Yoox among others.

Cubical Puzzle City for The New York Times, “How to Solve the NYT Crosswords”. Animated by Lorenzo Fonda.

Not only did MiND have the pleasure of having a face-to-face talk with this unique artist, but also we had a chance to step into Elena’s inspirational and lively world of illustrations, watching her at work.

Elena Xausa at MiND Mag in Bassano del Grappa. Photo by Sofia Fernandez Stenstrom.

Can you tell us about your background in Italy?

I was born in Verona and then I lived in Marostica for a while. I studied Product Design at the IUAV University of Venice and it was at that moment when I realized that I wanted to direct myself more towards graphics than towards products’ design. I started working at Aldo Cibic Workshop in a research center in Vicenza, where I made the first applied illustrations. We worked a lot on carpets, furniture decor, and wallpaper. So let’s say that it was more like a decorative illustration. It really helped me to be more confident with my style. Afterwards, I won a residence at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, an art foundation that gives artists an atelier to work for a year in Venice. I accepted the residence because, together with the Tankboys Venetian studio, I had the chance to found an independent publishing house with small editorial productions like fanzines, artists’ books and other things of this kind. Once you have realized that you’re an illustrator and you don’t have to spend 8 hours a day creating layouts because you have your authorship, what would you choose?

"I thought that I should've focused more on what was coming out with the name Elena Xausa"

Elena Xausa & the Tankboys in 2008.

What role does culture play in your artwork?

I must say that working with foreign countries like America, culture plays an important role. Although the visual language is universal, like an “Esperanto of creativity”, when it comes to using a symbol rather than another, you must take the culture of a place into consideration. For example, with the #MeToo movement, the figure of the woman and how she is represented is the center of attention and should be taken into account, especially if you work with American clients who are very conscious about this. We must keep pace with the times on a cultural level but also aesthetically.

“Anything you design has a visual appeal to other things”

Elena Xausa’s big wallpainting on pillars for Nike Sb corner at Tresse store in Milan.

Elena Xausa for for Nike Sb corner at Tresse store in Milan.

How do you usually incorporate the brand’s motto and values into your designs?

I have worked with many brands, and obviously you have to think about what kind of support you need for your designs. Will it go on a catalog, on an advertising, a retail store, a website, a giant led wall? In my working process, I realized that it helps me a lot to try to visualize the strengths of the company. If a company makes craftsmanship then I have to point out the authenticity, the eco-sustainability, the human relationship, the experience, and the traditions. For each of these keywords I try to develop a design that is synthetic.  Sometimes I can’t, but it’s nice to try to synthesize as much as possible and create new and unexpected visual links. In general, creating a design which is the visualization of a certain concept gives a lot of strength to your drawings and you are much less vulnerable.

Elena Xausa at “Today at Apple” in Milan.

"I like to synthesize as much as possible and create new and unexpected visual links"

One of Elena Xausa’s illustrations for Die Zeit about german schools.

What makes an illustration ‘ironic’?

Irony sometimes manages to get something simply by putting together two things that have nothing to do with each other. A clash is created and then represented in the illustration. Usually people recognize these visual patterns but have never crossed them.

If I had to describe my illustrations in three words, I would say that they are: synthetic, ironic and balanced. I’m always very careful with the composition of my illustrations and the balance between the light and dark and the colored. It’s just one of my proofs of concept.

“Irony creates a clash between two things that have nothing to do with each other”

Elena Xausa’s illustration inspired by the question “What are you doing tomorrow Milan?” for the opening of Milan Apple Store.

You work for a wide range of international businesses and editorial clients such as The New York Times. How did they get to know you?

They are the ones who usually contact me. For example, in The New York Times there are about 30-40 art directors, and everyone is looking for illustrators. I personally have never chased people, I know that many illustrators do it. Maybe I did it at the beginning when I was 25 and my sign wasn’t mature and I didn’t have a defined style yet. With The New York Times I did various editorial illustrations, i.e. article and illustration, and then in the last two years I have worked very hard for the crossword’s application launch campaign. Some of those illustrations are also animated by Lorenzo Fonda, who is the person who animates all my drawings. I also partnered with him to create a series of animations for the fashion e-commerce Yoox website and social media.

“The client gave us carte blanche on coming up with ideas, as long as they referred to products they sell”

Elena Xausa for YOOX Notebooks.

Which brands or magazines would you love to draw for?

I would love to work with The New Yorker. I work with them already for the website, but I have never worked for the paper magazine and I think I might like it. Also, I would love to work with the most interesting fashion brands but, especially in this period of my life, I would like to do something for NGOs, to engage politically. When you reach a certain maturity, because you have done plenty of works, you need to tell people what you think.

Elena Xausa’s Daily Shouts column for The New Yorker website.

Elena Xausa’s Daily Shouts column for The New Yorker website.

Lately, you have been working as an illustrator to promote the first Apple Store in Milan using iPad and the help of Milanese’s bustling minds! Tell us more about it.

There were mainly 3 steps. Initially, Apple selected 21 creatives and asked everyone for a contribution. In my case, I made an illustration that was later purchased by Apple, on which they did lots of animations and advertising for the entire Apple Store launch including posters on the subway. In short, it was a very big thing. The second part was at the end of July 2018, I returned to Italy and I did the opening for the Apple Store with a live performance. There was a mess of people, I was a bit scared because I did not expect so many people. I had to draw on this giant video wall. Since it was the first time that an Apple Store in Milan opened, I passed around these iPads with some questions written on them about their “first times”, like: “what was the color of your shirt when you first kissed?”, “Where did you go on your first airplane ride?”, etc. Everyone answered these questions by writing on the iPads and, based on the answers I received, I made a drawing that was the composition of all their answers. Finally, as a third step, I went back there once more to participate in “Today at Apple” -a format where there is a creative or a technician who talks about something. I did a workshop on the synthesis with 30 people. Each of them had an iPad and starting from some visual inputs I proposed, I told them to try and synthesize them.

Elena Xausa’s live performance at the new Apple Store in Milan.

Which illustrators inspired you at the beginning of your career?

Surely my style was influenced by artists who inspired me especially at the beginning like Geoff McFetridge. But then you immediately understand what you like best. It is as if one asks herself, “do I like more realistic drawing or graphic design?”. Then my design took a different path, but the basis was him. I always liked Bob Gill as well because he makes very ironic drawings.

Elena Xausa in Berlin.

Are there any illustrations you are most proud of? Which one of them do you most identify with?

I don’t really know. Perhaps a couple of illustrations taken from a work for Masterchef called “La ricetta di Masterchef“. It’s a long form article and there are ironic illustrations in-between. As I previously said, irony springs from the representation of visual clashes between things that do not have anything to do with each other.

Elena Xausa for “The Masterchef’s Recipe“.

What does your workspace look like?

Well, I have to say that I’ve been working for 10 years and I’ve already changed 10 offices. In any case, in my studio it must not miss a table with a desk lamp, Bluetooth speakers for music and podcasts. I listen to lots of podcasts about politics, science, curiosities. In fact, I would like to move the bar on these topics and make some illustrations out of them.

Anyway, I returned to my parents’ home in Marostica from September to March, and there I have the real studio, the studio I would like to take with me to my  next destination. There I have my entire archive of graphic books, which unfortunately at the moment I have to leave here because I’m still in the process of moving. Then there’s my archive of works, all the magazines I’ve published my work on, etc … I have a table where I have a computer and a table where I work on by hand. Sometimes when I have an idea, I still like to draw it on a piece of paper because it’s more relaxing. On the walls I’ve hung my illustrations, lots of serigraphs, handmade things for events, it’s all very Xausa-centered because I keep producing.

One of Elena Xausa’s funny GIFS for The New York Times.

“The nice thing about this job is that wherever you go, you take it with you”

After letting us get carried away by Elena’s lively world of illustrations, we suggest you stay tuned because our artist has new captivating projects in mind. This time, illustrations won’t be the protagonist…Elena is letting herself be guided by the creative power of papier-mâché. Now and then it’s nice to imagine a small sculpture coming to life starting from a drawing. A special thanks to Elena Xausa from MiND Mag for all the wonderful things shared with us!

By: Lisa Zanon