Celestino who? You may not know the name of this influential Swiss designer and graphic artist, who died in 2007. You may not have seen his work directly, but you have seen echoes of his bold line and bolder colors everywhere in midcentury advertising and illustration. In 1961, already famous for his posters, he became the chief designer for the Munich publishing house Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, for which he would create more than 6,300 covers, each instantly recognizable for the contrast between Piatti’s clever graphics and the utilitarian, sans-serif Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface he favored—an epic feat of branding.
His illustrations often had a dashed-off, even child-like verve. That was deceptive, of course, but it made his style perfect for picture books. It’s a shame he illustrated only seven. They’re all beauties, however, and have now been collected for the first time as Piatti for Children by NorthSouth Books, the English-language imprint of a Swiss children’s publisher.
American readers may see an affinity between Piatti and his contemporary Eric Carle, who also started out in advertising before, in Carle’s case, making children’s books his lifework. It’s not bad training, given that a certain refined directness distinguishes both first-rate commercial art and a first-rate picture book. But the latter also needs a good dose of wit or mystery or both to really engage a kid’s imagination, and Piatti’s illustrations have all that in abundance—he reaches out, then lures you in. As he once said of his favorite bird, “You can draw an owl a thousand times, and never find out its secret.” In that effort is his spark. —Bruce Handy
Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult