Words by Nicholas Bonde
Illustration by Anna Lewenhaupt
Italian Illustrator Jonathan Calugi’s work rests on a foundation of playful simplicity. His unique and clean style is sprung from a childlike creativity and his ability to chip away at an idea in search of its raw essence.
Born, raised and still presiding in the Tuscan town of Pistoia, Jonathan Calugi is surrounded by everything he needs in order to feel happy and peaceful.
Happy and peaceful are also words that can describe Calugi’s illustrations. Fluid and perfectly balanced pieces made up of lines punctuated by shapes and forms similar to certain works by greats such as Matisse or Picasso. Even though such comparisons are somewhat arbitrary. Calugi’s style is simply his own.
A style that stems from a childhood that was spent drawing and drawing. Without the faintest idea of what it meant to actually work professionally as an illustrator.
As a self-taught artist in his early twenties, Calugi was encouraged to upload some of his work online, where clients started taking heed to the young Italian and seeking his services.
In 2010, he was awarded the ADC Young Guns Award and the Print Magazine Award which cemented his name in the upper tier of the ad world. Today, still working out of his birthplace of Pistoia, Calugi can boast of a resume which includes work for clients such as Nike, Sony, Apple and Google. But you will hardly find Jonathan Calugi boasting about his accolades. He is simply living his dream and spending his days striving for simplicity and peace of mind, while staying creative and constantly reinventing himself artistically.
We phoned up Calugi to get his take on creativity, the noble art of childlike doodling and why he never gives clients his best work.
Who are you and what do you do?
– My name is Jonathan Calugi and I am just a guy who tried spending his life doing what he loves. I never studied for what I do today but grew up dreaming of the idea of creative freedom. I was fortunate enough to have parents who gave me that freedom; the freedom to become whoever I wanted to be.
I have drawn for as long as I can remember but ended up studying computer programming and web design, so I guess you can say I made the “wrong” choice in my education. But I was very lucky because I randomly published some of my work online and in 2010, right out of the blue, I won the ADC Young Guns Award and the Print Magazine Award. That opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me as an illustrator. This was happening around the time when I didn’t even consider myself an illustrator or even really knew what it meant. And to this day I do this research on my own, finding my way. I was born and raised in Pistoia, a small town outside of Florence, and still live here. It helps me to keep life simple, just the way I like it. Basically, I am just trying to remain happy.
Work for Airbnb
Your work is very distinctly “you”; how would you describe your personal style?
– I believe my style is more unconscious than some might think. People say my work focuses on connectivity, and that’s true to some extent, but I never stopped to think that I wanted to do work that represents connection. I do this because it’s what I can and it’s really simple in the end. Just like me. Basically, it is based in one line connected to a certain point from a variety of directions. One line to tell a story in a different way each time it is connected to a point. Everyone can do this, but I have found the right balance I suppose.
"Be mindful and cherish your mistakes. A lot of stuff in the world is perfect but your work will always be your work because of, and thanks to, your individual mistakes."
What was the biggest challenge you faced during the early days of your career?
– Well, after big brands like Nike, Apple and Sony started approaching me for work I was in heaven. For a 24-year-old kid to be working with companies like these - it was the ultimate feeling of pride, joy and achievement. But I quickly realized that these guys were only interested in the kind of work they had seen me do before and wanted me to continue in that vain. It became sort of like a “copy/paste routine” where I felt I wasn’t able to showcase who I really was and how I had developed. I was trapped in somewhat of a creative cage if you will. Finding the right balance keeping customers happy and feeling creative was a struggle.
So, does working with lesser known brands improve your level of creativity and expression?
– Absolutely, but at the same time you have to find a balance to do both. Today I make time for doing commercial work as well as artistic work. If you sit around and wait for the right moment to do either you just end up doing nothing, and both commercial and artistic work develop my craft in their own ways. It’s not a good idea to say this perhaps, but I never give my best work to clients. Because clients always want a continuation of previous works. But a lot of the time you get summoned to do commercial work because of the creative stuff you did in the past, so I guess it comes full circle in the end. Does that make sense?
It makes total sense. You work mainly with computer software, what is it like being an illustrator in the digital age?
– The thing is that I am a super chaotic guy, you can’t even imagine. My life is chaos 24 hours a day. I mainly use the computer to limit myself, because I am a guy who, if given a piece of paper, will draw all over it. To use a computer software helps me in limiting myself and makes the work easier to reproduce. Especially when working with brand identity, you have to be sparse and delete, delete, delete. My usual M.O. is to draw something with a pencil really quickly to develop an idea, put the piece of paper in the scanner, and then reduce, reduce, reduce in the computer to try and achieve a balance.
"It’s not a good idea to say this perhaps, but I never give my best work to clients."
Calugi at work during a project for Alfa Romeo
The simple art of doodling with a pen and a piece of paper; how important is this in developing as an artist in your opinion?
– For me it’s an instinct. A primitivism. To me doodling is something deeper than work, I can’t live without it. I used to be quite organized with my doodles and would keep several sketchbooks around me at all times that I would end up saving. But today, I just have big and small pieces of paper lying around, all over the place, with ideas that have popped up and which I have felt the need to put to paper. Sometimes the sketches are too ugly to do anything with but oftentimes I put them in my scanner and try to work off them. So, in essence: doodling is a natural part of life for me and has of course helped me develop as an artist.
Was there anyone who inspired you more than others growing up?
– My grandfather for sure. He was an artist living in New Orleans and he worked as a designer of carnival parade wagons. I never grew up around him, but he was living proof that it was possible to be an adult and to live and support yourself as an artist. My mother would always give me material to draw with and I had my grandfather as a role model to convince me that my dream of making a career out of drawing wasn’t so crazy after all. Apart from him I have also studied countless artists by myself and bought many, many books about my favorite ones. I wanted physical copies in case the internet died one day!
What would your advice be to someone who thinks about a career in illustrating?
– Be mindful and cherish your mistakes. A lot of stuff in the world is perfect but your work will always be your work because of, and thanks to, your individual mistakes. I once read an interview with Alberto Giacometti who said he always aimed at making the perfect sculpture. But every time he finished it, something completely different had been done from what he originally set out to do. And that enabled him to be the genius he was. So always believe in your mistakes.
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