Margherita Sabbioneda on defining her unconventional design practice
Avoidant of claustrophobic commercial design, Margherita seems to be continually in conflict with creative classification, instead, she finds solace in the silly and serendipitous.
- Harry Bennett
- 14 October 2021
London-based freelance graphic designer and illustrator Margherita Sabbioneda defines herself as such, but feels “an itch of discomfort” when asked. “As soon as I say it I can see from their eyes that they’ve immediately stuck a little label on my forehead,” Margherita tells us. “One that reads ‘commercial figure, makes things look tidy, knows Photoshop, possibly shallow’,” she adds, “and that hurts, oh it hurts.” Far from anything that she described, Margherita notes how she innately avoids being a “clinical” or commercially-focused designer, finding the confines of the definition and the work claustrophobic.
“When I get the chance I usually add, in an acute and rasping voice, ‘I’m a weird one though!’” she explains, having only found a fitting description of her practice during a Zoom while on her MA. “It was held by the great Ken Hollings, where he was helping us find the words to describe our practice,” Margherita explains. “The only thing I came up with was ‘I really like dolphins, especially when they jump,’” she adds, “which I still think today is the best description of myself and my practice I could possibly write.”
This beautiful ambiguity comes from Margherita’s perennial exploration of everything and anything that catches her eye – be it ugly cars, Pippi Longstocking or the signage of off-licences and poetry. “I’m attracted to anything that could be labelled (by some) as boring, ugly, uninteresting, tacky, badly designed, quirky, unusual, and unfamiliar,” Margherita lists. “They’re all ever-shifting definitions so there is no end to it,” she adds. Fuelled by her own ever-expanding tastes, Margherita, in turn, finds “everything inspiring and I dislike very little.” This love of the unloved occurs across Margherita’s practice, making use of nostalgic and tactile details from early 20th Century life in tandem with random self-expression to culminate in earnest, compassionate objects. In the end, her work seems to take one step beyond being classed as unconventional, seemingly reacting against it rather than simply avoiding it. Perhaps better defined as anti-conventional.
Margherita’s book Open Eyes Open Heart, published by Sold Out, is a true showcase of this definition; designed as a creative tool to challenge and expand the scope of one’s practice, “to loosen up the ego, forget rules and habits, and be spontaneous,” in the process. The project came about during Margherita’s MA, where she found herself “suffering from a constant tension between making what I liked and what I knew others would like.” Open Eyes Open Heart culminated as a result of wanting to move past this feeling, “and just find the right tools to help me dive into the unfamiliar,” she explains, “which I could feel whispering sexy words to me from the depths of my brain.” The book itself is made up of messy and mysterious creative exercises – which Margherita responded to within the design of the object itself – collated into an exercise book alongside written thoughts on the design process, aesthetic freedom and taste, acting as a dramatic personal manifesto. “I’m Italian,” Margherita adds, “I can’t help being dramatic.”
Discussing the signature staples (or lack thereof) within her work, Margherita tells us: “I don’t have a proper fixed visual language that persists over time, although I guess there must be something.” An ethereal feeling that can’t quite be defined, “I have temporary ones for sure,” Margherita adds, “for example, recently I’ve really been into vernacular graphics and designs that weren’t designed by designers.” As a result, there are familiar elements, reminiscent of teacher-design pamphlets, children’s drawings or corner shop signage, that pop up across Margherita’s printed material.
“As an attitude, I’m often subtly irreverent and I tend to question everything,” Margherita explains, “myself included,” however finding herself restricted by the smaller factor of needing to make a living. “Most of the time I just have to accept comments from clients like ‘it’s way too messy’ or ‘the nose needs to be shorter’ or ‘please make it look more normal,’” she describes, finding a reprieve in trying to push her clients into unexpected directions. “It’s boring when things are how you’d expect them to be,” Margherita adds, “and I find difference a strength.”
The notion of difference is also significant to Margherita due to the impacts of divisive trends. “I think a division of styles just reinforces division in society,” she explains, “the rich go to the opera house and the poor go to the charity shops, the women go to beauty salons and the men play football,” she notes. “It was mostly designers who came up with these ‘styles’ and I think they should be questioned,” Margherita explains, encouraging herself and others to design more openly, and less in line with certain styles and associations. “We might help free those associations on a wider scale for a more inclusive society,” she postulates, “all very utopist and up in the air I know but just something I think is worth discussing.”
In the process of getting back on track post-Covid, Margherita seeks to pursue what the pandemic cut short. “I still definitely want to collaborate more with artists, write, do more work by hand and less with the computer,” she concludes. “I want to keep learning and experimenting and just see where the wind might take me.”
Margherita Sabbioneda: Theory (Copyright © Margherita Sabbioneda, 2021)
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.