2012 Artists & Illustrators magazine UK article "Seeing Double"

Artists & Illustrators Magazine UK, December 2012 p.27-29 article: "Seeing Double" Identical Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso are taking the illustration world by storm with their fantasy designs. Here they reveal why two heads are better than one. by Chris Beanland

"Seeing Double"
Identical Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso are taking the illustration world by storm with their fantasy designs.
Here they reveal why two heads  are better than one.
by Chris Beanland

"We’ve never been [to] London
before!” says Elena Balbusso, making big eyes at me like an excited student telling her tutor what they’ve learned during the
weekend. “The National Gallery!” adds her identical twin sister Anna.
What did they enjoy looking at there? “English painters. Turner, Hogarth!” answers Anna.
We’re squeezed into a lift at The Folio Society in a historic mews in London’s Holborn. This is the home of the boutique publisher dedicated, since 1947, to putting out new versions of classic books, complete with wonderful illustrations.
Inside the lift there are the twins, two PRs, one interpreter and your correspondent. Interviews don’t normally command this kind of retinue – it’s usually one person with a dictaphone chatting to one person without in a cafe with a wipe-clean tablecloth. The twins can speak tourist English, but in order to better get their points across, they speak to me mostly through an interpreter for the duration of our interview.
It’s fascinating to watch the pair make identical gestures at the same time and finish each other’s sentences as they hold court about art theory. They sit side by side: Anna wearing a cream cardigan, Elena a darker ensemble. I wonder how I’m ever going to transcribe this one, as they both smile at me, wearing identical glasses.
We’re seated in a conference room with a wall of beautifully illustrated books down one side. My eye is momentarily caught by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but the Folio Society’s art director hands me a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. With sumptuous illustrations and a striking cover design made by the Milan twins. It is among their finest work to date. “It is inspired by Russian Constructivism, by fascism. Even though, of course, we are the opposite political spectrum to that,” says Anna through the interpreter – who speaks for them from now on. “It is a novel with a powerful message.”
Elena describes their design for the cover. I can’t speak much Italian but I understand her clenched fist "and use of the word forte to describe what she wanted" "to achieve. “It was to be a strong image. Powerful.” The twins work incredibly closely together and it is hard to imagine one without the other. “There’s no competitiveness between us,” points out Anna. “We’re not the same person though,” cautions Elena."
"Each has an individual role of sorts. They both come up with the creative angles, but they agree, it is Elena who handles the more business-like jobs – the marketing, answering the emails, the website.
"Is it better to make art as a pair?  “Yes, two is better than one,” they chorus. Anna adds: “It could get boring by yourself, it is better to have someone around.”
I ask them whether they think other art double acts are a good thing, or indeed an influence upon them, such as Gilbert and George. They both seem excited by the mention of the eccentric pair. “Yes,” says Elena, “We are very much influenced by Gilbert and George and by how they work together. We saw their work at the Venice Biennale.”

Elena hands me one of their book cover illustrations, which bears a striking resemblance to the jaunty yet creepy collages that Gilbert and George nail with such effortless aplomb.
Understandably for twins, family seems vitally important to them. The pair were born in the industrial city of Udine in north east Italy and went up together to the Brera Academy of Fine Arts to study painting, before settling permanently in the Lombard capital and working first as graphic designers, before moving into illustration. “Our mother has an artistic eye,” says Anna. “She is a good judge of our work, if you need someone who is distanced from things.”
The sisters reminisce about watching their mother when they were young. Interestingly, they note that Italian women seem to possess a kind of innate creativity; an expressionism that comes to life in unlikely domestic scenarios. “We remember our mother knitting and cooking – these are the things Italian women do creatively,” says Elena.

"The pair began by designing covers for several Italian books but judging that their native publishing industry is “not in a good way”, they decided the time was right to spread their wings.
"It is the Anglophone world that has since caught their imagination. They’ve travelled to the US and became members of the New York-based Society of Illustrators in 2009. “I’d love to illustrate for The New York Times,” says Elena. Anna adds the caveat that: “Newspapers have such short deadlines though – sometimes a day. We need a minimum of several days or a week to create our work.”
"Keen to bridge the cultural divide, I show them a photo I took recently of their hometown on my phone and they both seem excited in a highly endearing way. Both Anna and Elena want to move to London and learn English. They’re enjoying their current stay in Cavendish Square: “It’s a beautiful apartment off Oxford Street with a very pretty piazza,” says Anna.
Certainly the English-speaking world increasingly has time for the likeable pair, who may look like librarians but are far from shy, bookish sorts. Instead, they are rather full of gusto and a desire to talk about their work.
The Folio Society for one has been a champion of the Balbussos’ approach to illustration. The pair’s most recent commission for the high-end publisher was to produce the artwork for a new edition of Alexander Pushkin’s fiery Eugene Onegin – a classic of Russian literature. The cover illustration that the twins have produced is an intriguing affair: it depicts a man in a morning suit in a forest – but instead of a head, he has tree branches sticking out of his neck.
Illustrations like these can add much to a book, I suggest. Think of Quentin Blake. “His work is great, but it’s quick – quick pen strokes. Our work takes much longer to produce,” says Anna. “And it involves these long brushstrokes,” she adds, as she waves an imaginary brush through the air. Next up for the duo is some work for the popular sci-fi and fantasy website Tor.com. For now though, I bid them goodbye. As I close The Folio Society’s conference room door and can still hear chirpy Italian being spoken from the corridor. Who knows? They might still be there now, talking about their love affair with illustration.
Anna and Elena’s illustrated edition of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is published by the Folio Society.