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Melissa Agostino – HeyThere
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15

Melissa Agostino

Sali Tabacchi

Partner
Founded by Concrete alumni, Melissa Agostino and Henry Tyminski, Sali Tabacchi are one of Toronto's brightest studios. Their work is fun, engaging and well considered. The studio doesn't have a house style per se — they've done bright bold identities to more minimal and sombre work. We grabbed founding partner Melissa for a chat.
HT

What is Sali Tabacchi? What kind of work do you do?

MA

We are a Toronto-based branding and design boutique. Started by myself and my partner Henry Tyminski in 2007. Print and online design. And some self-initiated work.

HT

You and Henry met at Concrete and started your careers there. What did you learn?

MA

Concrete is a really great place to work – I started there as a junior designer right out of design school. It was fast-paced and I think I learned more about the design industry in my first six months working there than 4 years at university! John Pylypczak and Diti Katona are amazing designers who are able to distill a complex design problem into something that’s meaningful, minimal and with beautiful typography. I learned so much.

HT

Then you worked in Amsterdam for a few years. Why Amsterdam and what did you learn there?

MA

We were incredibly inspired by all the design that was coming out of the Netherlands – and not just graphic design: industrial design, architecture and interior design as well. We just wanted to be a part of it somehow and we were also looking for a new adventure. Luckily, Henry and I both got jobs at the same design studio in the centre of Amsterdam: Artmiks (now Bohemia Amsterdam) which was an incredibly vibrant and fun place to work – a really creative studio.

Marco de Boer, the creative director, is a great thinker – with ideas and plans ahead of his time. We learned so much from him about story-telling and pushing concepts to interesting and unexpected directions. We loved every minute of our time at Artmiks and Amsterdam. The city is incredibly beautiful and pretty much everywhere you look there is something surprising and more times than not thoughtfully designed either yesterday or 400 years ago.

HT

Why did you come back to Toronto and start your own studio?

MA

Toronto was a very different place when we left to go to Amsterdam than when we decided to come back. After a few years of being away, Toronto felt like it had “grown-up” a bit, become more cultural, more fun. More things were happening and we were excited about that. Although we really enjoyed our time in Amsterdam and travelling around Europe, we missed our family and friends back home. After all, Toronto is our home – this is where we grew up. We started Sali Tabacchi since we had worked in other studios and felt like it was time to work for ourselves. A fresh start and a new challenge.

HT

One of the core strengths of your studio’s work is clear and concise use of typography. Do you find you have to ‘sell’ type as a solution or are most clients open and responsive to using it?

MA

We love typography. We feel it’s the back-bone of all successful graphic design, branding and communication. We’ve never really had to ‘sell’ type as a design solution – but clients do tend to gravitate towards it – either in the examples of our past work or in design options we present that contain a typographic solution.

HT

Some of your most successful design pieces are for other design-related companies. How does designing for other creatives change your approach?

MA

Since we love design in all it’s forms, collaborating with creative clients on projects is one of our favourite things to do – and talking over design ideas with architects, interior designers, and organizations and companies that work in the creative field makes it even more interesting. One great example is the Interior Design Show – the largest contemporary design fair in Canada. We’ve been working on branding and design for IDS since the 2011 show and we love the fact that they want to push the look every year. Immediately after the show is over in January, we start developing a new look and feel for the following year – something we know needs to work for quite a big roll-out: from the IDS website, invites, tickets, magazine ads, newspaper and streetcar ads to all the onsite signage. We try to come up with a fresh and fun solution that’s also flexible enough to apply everywhere. And as of this year, we’ll also be working with IDSWest (Vancouver) to more closely align the branding of both these sister shows. Exciting!

In addition, some other design-minded clients include Designlines Magazine, Moriyama & Teshima Architects, Idea Couture, MISC Magazine, Mjölk, Bridgeable, Are&Be, CBC, Pluck Teas and more. Working with other creatives, our approach to design doesn’t really change that much, but because they themselves need to express their creativity and forward-thinking to their audiences (a mix of creatives and consumers/general public), the outcome tends to push more design boundaries while still being accessible to everyone.

HT

A lot of the logos and brands you create have some sort of dynamic element to them. Is this a response to the brief or do you bring this to the client?

MA

It’s probably a bit of both. Sometimes a client feels like a standard static logo just isn’t enough to explain their brand and other times a dynamic logo solution comes out of collaboration with the client – something they realize they could use/need after some explorations and discussions in the design process.

Like with Ryerson Department of Architectural Science, while working on the branding process closely with them, a dynamic identity seemed to really resonate with them – since architecture in general is no longer just straight lines and boxes but more free-flowing and with parametric formations that are exciting and dynamic. A dynamic logo seemed to be very fitting.

Ryerson_Architecture_Logos

With Bridgeable, a consultancy that creates unique and custom solutions for their clients in order to bridge the “know-do gap”, it absolutely made sense that we create a logo that changes colour and included a whole kit of patterns and icons to be used by their internal design team to create pieces and presentations for their own clients and projects.

HT

How do you guys avoid the obvious in your work? What’s your design process like?

MA

Our design process seems to be changing and evolving all the time (which we think may help in keeping things fresh!), but generally, we try to do some or all of the following:

  • look around at what else is out there
  • do lots of options to get those “easy/obvious” ideas out
  • if something “feel familiar” it probably is and we research a bit more and eliminate the option or push it further
  • play around with far-fetched options/ideas, sometimes something unexpected comes from such unfocused and unpredictable, messy design work
  • try not to follow current “here today, gone tomorrow” design trends
  • try to not have a studio style: it may sound a bit corn-ball but each client is unique and they come to us with a new and unique design problem. We don’t want to give them the same predictable solution they’ve seen before.
HT

What is the main focus of growth for you right now?

MA

Continue to fight the good fight – not becoming complacent and keep working hard for great design (and honestly some days it’s easier than others). And although we now have a full-time designer who’s joined our team, Erica Yasuda, who has been with us for over a year, we are very interested in continuing to stay hands-on with the day-to-day designing. We don’t plan to get so big as a company that we get to the point where we are only managing a roomful of designers. We got into graphic design because we truly love creating and working on getting better every day.

HT

What steps are you taking to promote ST?

MA

Well, honestly we probably should promote ourselves more formally than we do now, but we spend a lot of our time servicing our current client roster. We are very lucky that we have a good number of clients that have been with us for many years and truly value our relationships with them and work hard to keep them. We love seeing the progression of our clients’ successes throughout the years and glad to be able to help out, even if in a small way producing design for them and their audiences. We do get a lot of referrals and new clients through word of mouth. Our website also brings in a surprisingly good number of inquiries as well.

HT

You’ve done some outstanding work for Mjölk and really created a strong and playful brand for them. How did you foster this relationship and build trust with the client?

MA

Just before they opened their shop and gallery, John Baker and Juli Daoust Baker found us through our work for Designlines and contacted us up to create a logo for the shop they were going to open in the Junction. We love everything about Mjölk – it’s a great Toronto Entrepreneur success story that two independent people could open a shop featuring things they love and get so much acclaim here and worldwide. Very inspirational. And they are super nice too! The logo we designed for Mjölk is a custom drawn and crafted wordmark that speaks to the hand-crafted quality of the items they show and sell. From there, we designed their e-commerce website, stationery and shipping boxes. In the last couple of years John and Juli have collaborated with some super impressive names in the International design scene such as Claesson Koivisto Rune, Luca Nichetto and Anderssen & Voll to create custom pieces with them that are locally produced in Toronto – beautiful items for the home. It was a thrill for us to design the invitations and catalogs for these exhibitions.

HT

From your name you get the sense that ST takes a serious approach to history of design and the role it can play in modern design. In your work do you try “look back to see forwards”?

MA

Haha. Our name comes from corner shops all throughout Italy: “Sali e Tabacchi” where they sell smokes (but we don’t smoke!), bus tickets, magazines and once upon a time the only place you could buy all forms of salt (sali) as it was government regulated. That’s not true anymore, but the name stuck. It’s fun and most people have a difficult time pronouncing it and I still get calls from people looking for “Sali” – keeps things interesting. In terms of history influencing our work, we love retro graphic design and vintage industrial design (we are “pack-rats” and have lots of “quirky” collections like perpetual calendars and vintage DIY paint-by-number “masterpieces”) and perhaps some of the retro-vibe sneaks into our work. We certainly strive for contemporary clean design with nothing too superfluous (not to say we don’t try some wacky options that are far from minimal when appropriate). Above all, we try to keep it fun and interesting and relevant.

HT

What influences your approach to design?

MA

Obviously, we are influenced by modern graphic design greats such as Massimo Vignelli and Paul Rand, but I guess most graphic designers are. I would also say we’re equally influenced by the vernacular, everyday design like anonymous Brutalist architecture or interesting street art/graffiti or other art movements like Expressionist painting and Conceptual art. I love the clean lines of Alvar Aalto’s furniture but at the same time the complexity and playfulness of Droog design pieces. Right now I love Warhol, Jenny Holzer, Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli and architect Zaha Hadid. And a bunch more – including perusing my Instagram feed (I’m a bit addicted). And all this will probably change tomorrow or next week. I think consuming lots of different kinds of “art” and “design” (both those terms used loosely) on a regular basis, sooner or later something in the back of your mind becomes useful in some design we’re working on – you just never know what, when and how exactly.

In terms of the actual approach to our design work, we feel quite strongly about the idea of “brand-first” design – that everything should come from the core identity/ideals of the company or organization – print, digital, video etc. Although not always possible, we generally like to be involved with the creation of the logo/identity/brand and then apply the look and feel to all elements needed for a more cohesive overall.

HT

You guys also sell posters on your online shop. What drives you to create these pieces? Are they an outlet from the ‘paid’ client work?

MA

We were given an opportunity to include some pieces in a design show called “Souvenir” so we gave ourselves the challenge to come up with something new and just for the show – we didn’t want to re-use something or re-hash old ideas. We love food and the diversity of Toronto and thought what a perfect “souvenir” to have all these foods in one place. We had some fun coming up with the food items we wanted to feature and then to draw all the icons. We named the piece with a cheeky title “A T.O. Z” since we love typography, the alphabet and Toronto. It is definitely a fun project and we since we got a really great response from the Souvenir show we decided to have the posters available online.

HT

What’s in the future of ST?

MA

So many plans. So little time!


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