A trip down memory lane

Primary meets laurent cilluffo

Words by liv siddall,
Pictures by renaud coilliot
A trip down memory lane

Laurent Cilluffo takes the art of drawing stick-men to a whole new level: designing and drawing up whole new cities for them to reside in. You would be forgiven for skimming quickly past Laurent’s small but perfectly-formed spot illustrations in The New Yorker – they’re designed to add character to the page without taking away attention from the words. This isn’t reason for you to feel sad for the illustrator – it’s just a reminder that in this instance, they’re doing their job properly. Laurent’s work – a rare hybrid of architectural drawings and comic book characters – is a great example of illustration designed to appear simple at a glance, and then delight at a closer look. Laurent works from his home in the north of France where he creates magazine covers for titles such as The Boston Globe, L.A. Times, N.Y. Times and The Washington Post among others. Here he is on his work, life, and the recent trip down memory lane he took in order to create this beautiful Primary print inspired by the town he grew up in.

Can you tell me where you grew up, and how you became interested in drawing?

I grew up in the Lille/Roubaix/Tourcoing region, which is the major urban area north of Paris. I became interested in drawing mostly through reading Belgian comic books: Tintin, Spirou, Gil Jourdan and Johan et Pirlouit. 

I was going to ask if it was comics actually as your work reminds me a little of Chris Ware. And of course the connection to architecture. Is it true you actually wanted to be an architect?

Well actually I started studying architecture, but I didn't have the necessary resources to concentrate on it really. I shared a bedroom with my brother at the time and we didn't get along, also the grants were pretty small back then and my parents couldn't afford to help. So I was done and dusted before the end of the first year. I then switched to a Beaux-Arts school (in Tourcoing) so I could use the printing equipment. This didn't work out that well either: some guys had robbed the engine of the vacuum tables in the silkscreening department…

You were mostly on your own and left free to do whatever you wanted”

What was your expertness of the Beaux-Arts school? Aside from the printing disaster, what did you study instead of architecture and did you learn a lot there?

It was a time when I guess you didn't learn much at a Beaux-Arts school. You were mostly on your own and left free to do whatever you wanted. My interests lay in comic books, illustration and architecture. I ended up making up a combination of it all quite early on.

So can you tell me how you first were in contact with The New Yorker, and who commissioned you? Were they the first people you made work for?

I attended a comics convention here in my area (Villeneuve d'Ascq) and I happened to meet Paul Gravett of Escape fame. Escape was a great magazine of the era, dedicated predominantly to comic strips. We hit it off and he said I should visit him if I ever went to London. I finally went across the pond, visited and Paul gave me the info of Steven Appleby, whose work I’m still a big fan of. At that time Steven still had a weekly feature in the NME called Captain Star. Steven and I hit it off and he said, “hey why don't you send stuff to this guy in New York? He's got that great fanzine called Nozone and I’m sure he'd be interested in your work.” I did. That man was Nicholas (Blechman aka Knickerbocker) and so I submitted a story to him which got in the magazine. At some point I was approached by Nicholas to design some animation for The Ink Tank studio run by his father R.O Blechman). For some reason my portfolio didn't make it there in time and Nicholas suggested that he could go to The New Yorker and drop it off. So he did and Chris Curry liked what she saw and said that I was welcome to submit sketches on a bunch of cultural topics for the “Goings On About Town” section. So that's how I got my break. I just wanted to add that beside Nicholas and Chris getting me in The New Yorker, I also have Owen Phillips to thank for trusting me and lasting there.

When you first receive a brief from a client, how do you tackle it? Do you begin with sketches?

Yes, usually you work out some rough sketches and go from there.

Do you work in a studio or from your home?

From home, in my closet space (not literally a closet, but space-wise it is…)

How do you decorate it – do you have images by other artists and illustrators on your walls? Can you describe the room?

I don't have pictures of other artists on the walls, except for the (horizontal) May 18, 1952 Sunday page of Dick Tracy from The Chicago Sunday Tribune and plenty of surrounding shelves filled with books.

If someone who had never seen your work asked you to describe what it looked like, what would you say?

Some would say, "Klare Lijn with a minimalist twist.” I always try to come up with some smart detail that will make sense of the whole picture, but sometimes it's not possible. Here we can relate it all to architecture in general and its representational modes. That’s what I use in order to purport some clarity. The human factor and the intervention of characters is there to bring in some twist which, when possible, tries and make sense of some idea or point of view or system, while derailing it all.

After you have done your preliminary sketches, do you move over to the computer?

I actually tend to complete the final sketch which is done in pencil. I scan it, turn the greyish pencil into final black. I also scan the "colour" layers and give them proper colour value.

How about the piece you made for Primary, what inspired it, how you approached it, and how you created it?

When Thom approached me regarding a piece for Primary, he wanted to send a photographer to shoot some pictures of where I live in a small town called Arras. I suggested to Thom that maybe where I grew up was more likely to be linked to my work than where I live now. Thom suggested that maybe working on a piece after having gone there with the photographer would lead to a better outcome. The primary inspiration is the conurbation where I grew up in Lille/Roubaix/Tourcoing: a heavily industrialised area mostly made up of textile factories which, when I was a kid, were shutting down one after the other. All the empty factories and the three cities were mostly linked by "Le Grand Boulevard,” a kind of urban highway equipped with tunnels, forking out to Tourcoing or to Roubaix from Lille (the major city) and with a "tramway" to boot. As a kid, this was pretty impressive. Some factories are still standing as far as I was able to see, but some have been turned into housing. As for Le Grand Boulevard, with the advent of a subway, I'm not sure that it still retains the importance it had, but to me, it still holds that importance of opening my eyes to an urban environment which was pretty unique. That was my world.

Was it emotional to return back to the town where you grew up, with the photographer?

A tad, yes. Funny also to realise that I could still walk from one point to the other without the help of a GPS, except at one point when we stepped out of the station and I was unable to figure out the proper direction. Most of the area had been razed and built over, which was probably for the best.

What are the fond memories you have of your home town? Were you happy there as a kid?

Yes I was, it was a great place to be: lots of movie theatres. There’s not really just one single memory I can share…It's like my feeling about the urban conurbation: there is not a single building that stands out, but the whole of it – a bit fuzzy maybe – remains.