Sara Fanelli’s energetic and characterful illustrations have led to her becoming the first female illustrator to be made an Honorary Royal Designer. She talks to Paula Carson about inspiration, success and surprises
Sara Fanelli is having a spot of bother with a large red cardboard devil. ‘I’m happy with the horns, I’m not sure about his head,’ she frowns. Dropping her homespun demon amid a landslide of boxes and paper she apologises repeatedly for the mess. Around her, brightly coloured papier-mâché masks peer down from the walls. Shelves are crowded with bric-a-brac, and autumn
sunlight streams through windows – Fanelli’s studio and home in north London’s Belsize Park is as charming and idiosyncratic as one of her picture books.
She talks quietly about growing up in Florence. ‘The tall cypress trees, the colours in the frescoes – things like that have stayed with me.’ Her American mother was an art historian, her Italian father taught history of architecture. ‘One of my big memories as a child was looking at the books around the house, in particular the spines – they were very intriguing.’ Her American grandparents would send books from the US. ‘I remember [children’s writer and illustrator] Richard Scarry from then. When I visited my grandparents, I would go to the supermarket and see these very bright graphics, much brighter than we had in Italy. I still like that contrast between very earthy and fluorescent colours.’
Surrounded by these diverse influences, it’s perhaps no surprise that Fanelli was drawn to collage. ‘I like layering images, having different threads within them,’ she says. ‘Life is quite complicated – I’m almost putting the different points of view into the collage.’ She enjoys piecing together disparate histories from shreds of old stationery, labels, packaging and letterpress. ‘The old papers I use carry a narrative in themselves. I like joining that narrative to the rest of the picture,’ she explains. Her own distinctive handwriting regularly appears too, along with vigorous scribbles and splashes of paint. She appreciates the mistakes and splodges. ‘Accidents always happen with collage. There’s an element of surprise. I like not knowing how the finished picture is going to look.’
Life for a jobbing illustrator can be tough, but Fanelli seems to have worked constantly since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1995. Often she has a book in development, alongside commissions from clients including the Tate, Penguin Books, The Royal Mail and the New York Times. She singles out her invitations for the Milan Furniture Fair for Ron Arad. ‘I really like working with him. It’s fun to play with his furniture, make it into my own world,’ she says. The cover of Muriel Spark’s book The Snobs, for the Pocket Penguin 70s series, is another job she’s proud of. ‘The paper was from an old Penguin anthology I found from the 1960s, and I used that to make the new cover,’ she recalls.
Fanelli’s ongoing relationship with the Tate has proven fruitful. Visitors to London’s Tate Modern may spy her distinctive handwriting, currently spanning the concourse of two floors, spelling out major figures and movements in 20th century art. But Fanelli is most famous for her children’s books, particularly her first book Button and more recently Pinocchio, both of which won the V&A Illustration Award. ‘I try to make what I would have liked when I was young,’ she says. ‘It’s like letting the part inside that is still a child guide you.’ The aforementioned devil is from a collection of personal work due to appear next year in a book not geared at children, called Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am.
This week, Fanelli is made an Honorary Royal Designer by the Royal Society of Arts – the first female illustrator, and, at 37, one of the youngest generally to receive such a distinction. She smiles and says, ‘I’m not the first female illustrator who deserves it, but I am still overwhelmed and pleased to have been chosen.’
Shy when asked about her appeal, Fanelli says, ‘Maybe people relate to the children’s books, and that supports the brochures, book jackets and the Tate work.’ At a loss, she adds, ‘I’m not good at analysing, I’m a bit scared of looking at it all too closely.’ She does know that she’d like to try more 3D work, particularly theatre design, and she’s open to changes in her visual language. ‘The balance is less on collage, more on painting. It’s not that I’m settled – I really do hope for another direction.’
All images © Sara Fanelli