At Armando's School

Armando Testa Biography

Born in Turin, 1917, Armando Testa attends the Typographical School "Vigliardi Paravia" where Ezio D'Errico, abstract painter, introduces him to the world of modern art, a genre that will permanently hold his interest. In 1937, age twenty, he wins his first contest for the ideation and creation of a poster, a geometric design, for the Printer Ink company ICI.
After the war, he works for important companies such as Martini & Rossi, Carpano, Borsalino and Pirelli. He also works as a newspaper and magazine illustrator and opens his own private graphics studio.
In 1956 he inaugurates "Studio Testa" dedicated to publicity, not just for the print medias, but also for the burgeoning TV industry. Several companies that turn to "Studio Testa" for their promotional needs, soon become the leading names in their respective fields: Lavazza, Sasso, Carpano, Simmenthal, Lines. In 1958 he wins the national contest for the official Rome 1960's Olympics poster. His creation mysteriously refused by Government authorities, a second contest is held in 1959 and Testa wins that one as well.
Then between the 50's and 70's Testa brings all manner of fixed and animated images to life which are destined to remain milestones in the history of Italian publicity and which become every day realities in the collective imagination: the B&W play of graphics for the digestif Antonetto (1960); the perfect geometrics of his suspended sphere over a half-sphere for the aperitif Punt e Mes, which in Piedmontese dialect means precisely "a point and a half" (1960); the conical puppets of Caballero and Carmencita for Lavazza's Paulista Coffee brand (1965); the spherical inhabitants of the Planet Papalla for Philco (1966); Pippo the blue Hippo for "Lines" diapers (1966-67); and then the actor, Mimmo Craig tormented by obesity nightmares, with melodies by Grieg in the background, for Sasso Olive Oil (1968); the knockout blonde, Solvi Stubig for Peroni Beer (1968).
By way of a first institutional recognition for his work, Testa is awarded the Chair of Design and Print Composition at Turin's Polytechnic Institute, from 1965 to 1971. In 1968 he receives the Golden Medal from the Ministry of Education for his contributions to the Visual Arts, and in 1975 the Italian Publicity Federation awards him their Gold Medal for his successful work abroad. In 1978 "Studio Testa" becomes Armando Testa Spa which in the following years opens branches in Milan and Rome and continues to produce highly successful publicity campaigns.Starting from the mid-Eighties, along with his activities in the commercial publicity sphere, Testa dedicates himself to the ideation of posters for socially oriented cultural events and institutions, such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross, the Spoleto Festival of the Two Worlds and the Royal Opera House of Turin. He also creates the logos for cultural entities such as the Book Fair and Turin's Youth Film Festival and Castello di Rivoli's Museum of Contemporary Art. His agency becomes the biggest of its kind operating in Italy, with branches in the top European countries.
In the Eighties and Nineties, he dedicates himself to research in the field of free form graphics and painting. By then publicity is studied as an autonomous form of expression and communication, and several Italian and foreign institutions dedicate anthological exhibits to Testa's activities, often including his "pure art" paintings. Worthy of note are the exhibits at Milan's Modern Art Pavilion in 1984, at Turin's Mole Antonelliana in 1985, at New York's Parson School of Design Exhibition Center in 1987, at Madrid's Circulo de Bellas Artes in 1989. In 1989 he is also acclaimed "Honor Laureate" at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Armando Testa dies in Turin on March 20th, 1992, three days before his seventy-fifth birthday. Among the exhibits dedicated to him after his passing are the personal tributes of Palazzo Strozzi of Florence in 1993, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rivoli and Castel Sant'Elmo in 2001 and the Italian Cultural Institute of London in 2004.

Creative Philosophy

Very often, when people ask me how I got started, I tell them I was born poor but modern. When I was fourteen; I started working for a typography studio as a typesetter’s apprentice. Although it was a fairly antiquated and traditional environment, I was curious to find out about what new things were happening and I used to read all the magazines I could find: curiosity is the first step towards creativity. Apart from this, I was avidly attending evening classes at typographical school where one of my teachers was Ezio D’Errico, one of the ten Italian abstract painters of the period. Needless to say, I immediately fell in love with abstract art and the whole of modern art. This passion of mine for the newest trends in the field of graphics and painting along with an instinctual love for abstract art were what shaped my education. A kind of education which wasn’t based on the rational, methodical approach, but which precisely for this reason has allowed me to be in the position today of having absolute freedom with respect to “official culture.”

When looking at an image I don’t have any prejudices about content or historical context. I look at works that are a thousand years old through the same eyes and the same approach with which I look at works of art from the 1990s: I look at form, color, sign. I’m always very curious, I like looking at absolutely everything: from graphic pagination to painted posters, from color photography to sculpture to visual happenings. I like Richard Serra’s works in the same way I do Lucien Freud’s paintings. On one hand I’ve always felt extremely close to all kinds of experimentation in art, but on the other my job as an adman has constrained me to adhere to some very strict rules governed by market forces and the obligation to communicate in a simple and plesant way so as to “park” a given product in people’s memory. As an adman I’ve alwais been accustomed to spending entire days and weeks looking for the right slogan for a soap powder or another product, usually an ephemeral one, doing my utmost to come up with clear, straight-forward messages and, apart from very few cases, I’ve never had the privilege of being ambiguous.
Both in my posters and in my ads in general I’ve always looked for synthesis, expressive impact, while at the same time being somewhat envious of so-called “pure art’s” privilege to be able to play on ambiguities, on the undefined. On the other hand, in my graphic works I’ve occasionally allowed myself the liberty of playing with signs, with the ambiguity of images, amusing myself in personally interpreting the kind of products that advertising celebrates every day. I’m always restless. I dont’t know whether tomorrow I’ll still like wath I like today. When I’m in a bad mood, I just scribble something down and the cloud lifts: creativity is a marvelous thing.
Armando Testa

At Armando's School

I remember my father as a versatile innovator, a man who never limited himself to one way of viewing things. Each time I examine his life and career I find confirmation of this multiform creative vein of his. A successful adman and an experimental artist, as this exhibition illustrates, he also developed an original approach to design. Armando Testa’s world was highly stimulating. No doubt, as in the case of all great figures in the fields of culture and art, a conceptual guiding thread can be found that gave my father’s creative career shape and consistency. This thread is visual research, whether applied to commercial communication, pictorial representation or the exploring of three-dimensional objects. Whatever the challenge my father was facing at any given moment, his creativity always remained extremely flexible and open to the many different aspects of the language of signs, of life and emotions.

The outcome of all this are works in which art and everyday life are closely interconnected, mutually interacting in the name of synthesis and of simple but unquestionably original results. My father loved to amaze the eye, surprise the hearts and amuse the minds. In this, was almost invariably successful. Each day may father’s assistants and I spent observing his work was a lesson to cherished in our memories. We would stand there, charmed by the confidence with which before our very eyes he combined elements and cultures so different from one another. We would follow him, fascinated by his sketches, thoughts and arresting quips. By the end of the meeting, something new would have taken shape on the table, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Sometimes it was a campaign, other times a packaging, or the draft of a painting or object which of course would then have been revised a number of times before being considered finished.
If on the one hand Armando Testa set no limits as to the sources and learned references he took as his sources of inspiration, on the other he never missed the opportunity to stress the importance of simple ideas as ways of showing respect for the public. He would revise and add final touches to his creations with almost obsessive care. He often asked everyone’s opinion on what he was producing. Even at the height of his career, with the humbleness of an apprentice he continued to show interest in any doubts raised. A great communicator, he only wished to make sure that everyone would understand the message he wished to deliver. As he felt he was serving the public, he was always ready to call things into question.
Make no mistake: Armando Testa was on the side of thouse watching. He turned this approach into his life and work philosophy, as well as into the tile of a beautiful book he wrote. Given these premises, the transition from the artist’s talent to the birth of a genuine Testa school of communication was a natural step for us, and a wonderful adventure on a person- al and professional level. Over the years, my father’s small graphic design studio became a famous advertising agency, which later – after enduring success – was turned into that which it represents on the market today: Palazzo della Comunicazione, the leading integrated advertising group in Italy.
Beside the company’s business results, which are certainly gratifying for us all, what I find most thrilling when I turn to examine our career is the fact that to this day we have pre- served the “Testa style” in facing creative challenges. Fifty years have passed since the establishment of the agency and when I look around me, I see that everything has changed: the context, languages, professional outlooks, technologies, products and consumers. Yet, that versatile approach – which today we would call integrated – based on pure creativity and on a simple but never trivial synthesis close to people’s hearts and minds, luckily has not changed at all since Armando’s days.
The very same approach underlying the items displayed in this exhibition has shaped half a century of memorable campaigns and enables us to pride ourselves in being a “school”, which is to say a form of culture – something more than merely a company.
I am sure that as long as this spirit will inform our way of seeing things, we will continue to grow and bring innovation, reaching everyone through the power of ideas – in other words, that we will continue to stand on the side of those watching, as Armando would say.
Marco Testa