Dr. KJ Baysa interviews artist Massimo Alfaioli


The Curator-at-Large of LA-based The Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO) and the Co-Founder of The Honolulu Biennial Foundation (HBF), Dr. Kóan Jeff Baysa interviews Italian artist Massimo Alfaioli about his work in illustration and a new project for A Lab on Fire.

Massimo Alfaioli is an Italian freelance illustrator with a passion for gardening, music and perfumes. He was born in Italy in 1969 and grew up in a village near Florence then moved to Milan to study illustration. For the last two decades, he has been working as an illustrator of children's books and textbooks for nearly all of the major Italian publishing houses. He lives on the shore of Lake Maggiore and recently started a new portfolio of works for the adult market.


Kóan Jeff Baysa (KJB): I love the spare use of the line in your work that still clearly conveys emotion and character, but also the way that your lines direct the viewer's gaze to the various parts of the scenes depicted. After working extensively on children's books, you've now turned your attention to the adult market. How do you approach these two markets differently?

Massimo Alfaioli (MA): My adult-oriented work was born some years ago, not intentionally. In a particular period of my life, I started drawing things with more complexity and some months later I started thinking of using them for adult-oriented works. From then it took me almost five years of research and experiments to find a personal way to work for an adult market and to propose these to publishers. When you do work for children, you have to follow some rules about the contents and how you can express them. I had to separate the two markets for commercial reasons. I had to find two different styles that didn't cause confusion for the publishers. When I do work for children, I have to use elementary feelings, no scary things, and no ambiguity. Children still aren't strong enough and you have to present them with a soothing version of the world. Adult-oriented works allow me to express all the other emotions avoided in children's works: scariness, passion, ambiguity, etc . . . they make me feel complete. 

KJB: You fled from the madding crowd and now live in a small lakeside house surrounded by greenery, adopted four dogs and nine cats, and transformed the garden of your house into a jungle. Here, you cultivate your true passions: gardening, foreign languages, and above all, illustration. You also have a strong interest in fragrances. Can you talk about this interest and how the olfactory sense came to impact your illustration work?

MA: The strongest memories I have are related to scents . . . my mother's roses, my grandma's lilies, the violets that grow along river embankments, the smell of the Tuscany countryside where I grew up. I discovered perfumes thanks to my friend Fabio when I was almost 19 years old. He showed me Fahrenheit by Dior. I was shocked for the strength by which it caught my imagination. It was not a natural smell, but created by a person. It was complex, evocative, and abstract. A fragrance can create emotions, move your senses and your mood in an uncontrollable way. I started thinking that the person who created this was an artist, like a painter or a musician. I have a library of fragrant memories.

KJB: Can you speak more about your relationship to fragrances, but also touch on how music, gardening, and foreign languages also inform your illustration work.

MA: Perfumes have a strong power on imagination, like music. I wear perfume every day. When I work on a project I always choose music and perfumes that help me to find the right mood for that particular purpose. Or to do time travel . . . I was thinking, for example, about the historical Guerlain fragrances. Music speaks to the soul in the same manner that perfumes do, in a straight uncontrollable way. I usually listen to electronic music, always brand new and non-commercial. I try to discover a new artist every week and to remain open-minded. I have a playlist for each kind of work: for children's stuff, sad illustrations, melancholic works, etc.
I think that gardening, and nature overall, give a sense of balance. It's not something poetic or bucolic, it's something stronger and more severe. Nature tells us that nothing is important at the end except life, so you can give the right value to all the rest. They give me a sense of balance and detachment that helps me a lot when I'm trying to produce something nice.
Foreign languages give me the possibility to have a wider horizon where I can work and where I can find inspiration.

KJB: Can you give some hints about your project with A Lab on Fire?

MA: I have been always a fan of a Lab on Fire that I discovered at Colette in Paris. In my cabinet there are always two of its creations: Made in Heaven and Rose Rebelle Respawn. ALoF creations are very modern, urban and they make me feel good and connected with my era. I was so excited when I was asked to work with ALoF because for the first time I could work on two of my passions, perfume and illustration, at the same time.
With the help of my friend Juri Giordani, I started working on the story and illustrations for ALoF. We wanted something without any particular chronological order, something that could be read in any direction.
The intention was also to suggest a festive atmosphere without the classical elements of this period, so we played with different colors and lights, trying several solutions for each of the illustrations and for our girl.

KJB: What does the future hold for Massimo Alfaioli?

MA: There are artists who choose to have the same style for all of their lives. That's not me! The way I draw changed a lot during my career. It has to represent who I am now! For these reasons I always try to find time for my experimental works. These are works that I made for myself and where I'm free to do what I feel. I try new drawing techniques, different styles, and sometimes I discover new solutions that change all of my work.
Unfortunately I have not been as successful with my work in foreign languages: my English is "sloppy", my French "peu soigné" and my German "schlampig." I would like to illustrate a manual of gardening for children . . . maybe in German!

KJB: Grazie mille, Massimo! Wishing you successes in writing in foreign languages and that you continue your passions and obsessions with perfumes, gardening, and music.

All illustrations copyright © Massimo Alfaioli