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Design as invention

The art historian Marta Sironi gives an overview of the work of the graphic artist Alfredo de Santis (1941-1998) and of his approach to design as invention.

A personal language

A leading representative of the Roman school of graphic art, Alfredo de Santis (1941-1998) established an entirely personal graphic language, marked by a continuous blending of cinema, painting and drawing, creating graphics with a strong pictorial character. His approach translated design as invention. Despite the importance of his contribution, his sudden and premature death and the structural lack of attention to the history of graphic design have contributed to obscuring the traces of an atypical figure, for whom artistic research and communicative practice constituted a single, indissoluble path. In his own words, everything he produced belonged to «a matrix of ideas, symbols, emotions, even in the case of strictly professional work».

Pittore fustella – Pittore con tappeto,
Pittore a matita – Foto ritratto, 1972
Photo portrait, 1972
Manifesti per mostra Grafica e Serigrafia
Exhibition posters for “Grafica e Serigrafia”, 1971
Manitesti, TUDOR
Tudor, 1972

The search for sources

The presence of a rich private archive, kept in Rome at the residence of his wife Carla Conversi, who was also his work companion from the start and is today a precious and indispensable witness of his work, makes it possible to pay the right tribute to a great interpreter of 20th century visual communication. In addition to the commissioned works, up to the mid-1980s partially summarised by de Santis himself in the monograph Il Percorso di un Segno. Grafica e pittura (The Course of a Sign. Graphics and Painting, 1986), it is possible to reconstruct his entire creative-design process through the archive.

Envelopes with sketches and notes of his works are preserved, as well as numerous notebooks that show the brainstorming of a designer who relied essentially on the expressive freedom of the sign, capable over time of codifying recurring elements – the wheel, the tree, the man, the eye, the hand, the Italian peninsula – capable of expressing issues that have never been surpassed – racism, the Mafia, the environment… topics on which he intervened and which he used to discuss and design in his teaching at the IED in Rome.

The social impact

This attention to the social impact of his creative work can also be found in some pictorial cycles that recount crucial moments of contemporaneity, such as the pictorial series Segni sul muro (Signs on the Wall) from 1990, in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Intervento chirurgico (Surgical Intervention) from 1991 for the Gulf War, as well as the graphic projects on Eastern Europe and Sarajevo, conducted with Gianfranco Torri. Each of de Santis’ notebooks contains a graphic dissertation on topical issues, such as the image study for the April 1992 general election in Italy, which then gave rise to a lyrical black-and-white account of the end of the First Republic.

Life and career

Born in August 1941, he started drawing very early thanks to the availability of paper, even in wartime, given by the profession of his father, a State architect. After studying at the Art Academy in Rome with Turcato, Consagra and Mafai, his stay in Milan in Folco Lucarini’s studio was fundamental, where he came into contact with the forge of Italian graphics, in the Milan capital of publishing and expanding industry. This is the moment when he begins to understand design as a creative invention, an alternative to immobilism.

In 1964, he decided to return to Rome and bring the laws and needs of a new graphic language to the purely artistic humus of the capital. The Ferro di Cavallo bookshop in Rome (like the Milano Libri in Milan) was the meeting place for young artists and intellectuals who, even before painting, shared a great love for cinema, from the neo-realism they had grown up with to Antonioni’s films.

Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alfredo de Santis produced a number of editorial design projects: Alfazoo published in 1968 by Rosellina Archinto’s Emme edizioni, and game-books for Bompiani (Io gioco tu giochi noi giochiamo and Basta un foglio di carta, 1971-72). Since 1971, he has created numerous graphics for RAI film cycles: “Cinema anni 60”, “La Commedia all’Italiana”, “Teleconfronto” (1983-86), “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto”.

Moreover, his wide-ranging film culture and propensity for the moving image determine the code of his graphic language. In 1982, he designed the identifying image of the “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto” festival in Pordenone and in ’85 the image of a research project on Italian comedy, as well as the logo and many posters for the Teatro povero in Monticchiello.

The alphabet of the Alphabet. Example of deisgn as invention.

The Cinema

Cinema is certainly the main muse of de Santis. The father of a motion graphic image as well as of a design. This method develops in a tight sequence of images (like frames of a film) where creative intuition finds its way to the final image. This aspect is also explored in his book Storyboard. Animation Graphics. Segni, sequenze, storie (La Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1989), designed among other things as a teaching basis for his courses at the IED in Rome. Movie language more than others, demonstration of the application of design as an invention of new cinematic creations, fascinated Alfredo de Santis.

The press

Another essential aspect of his graphics is the definition of the visual communication of newspapers and propaganda of the PCI from 1973 to 1977. In 1979 he redesigned the Genoese daily newspaper «Il Lavoro», in ’84 a subscription campaign for «la Repubblica». From ’85 he resigned the illustrations for «il Manifesto» and the redesign of «Rinascita». His graphic work has been used in the definition of the corporate image in the sporting sphere. For the women’s skiing world championships in Piancavallo in 1986 and for the European basketball championships in Rome in 1991.

Alfred Hitchcock, 1978
Sigla di testa e appunti
dello story-board
Alfred Hitchcock, 1978
Opening scene and notes
of the story-board
Elia Kazan, 1981
Appunti dello story-board
e Ripresa video
Elia Kazan, 1981
Story-board notes
and video shooting
Marchio e story-board per la sigla
di testa di Teleconfronto
Branding and story-board for the opening scene of Teleconfronto

A professional and creative path to be reconstructed, also on the basis of the critical literature and the publication of his works in the main Italian and international graphic design magazines: «Novum», «Art Directors Club Milano», «Idea» (Japan), «Graphicus», «Modern Publicity», «Visual Design», «Pubblicità in Italia», «Graphis», «Linea Grafica», «Italian Illustrators», «Ottagono», «Domus», «Japan Publications Trading Co.»

Marta Sironi is an art is an historian with research interests for illustration and editorial graphics especially of the Italian twentieth century. She worked at the Centro Apice (archives of speech, image and editorial communication) of the University of Milan. Sironi has obtained his PhD at the University of Parma. She currently collaborates with several archives as a freelancer.

Alfredo de Santis was an important Italian graphic designer. Check his Bio.

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