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INTERVIEW: Humour and beauty are our greatest survival tools

You might be one of his 24,000 followers on Instagram, or a fan of his hugely popular illustrated book series about two gay penguins named Gus & Waldo. If you're neither of these things, then it's time to gift yourself with the joyful artistry of Italian illustrator and animator – Massimo Fenati.

Massimo is a London-based Italian comic book artist, illustrator and animator. He studied architecture in Italy and then moved to London in 1995 to work in product and furniture design with big players like Jasper Morrison, Pentagram and David Chipperfield Architects. In 2003 he set up his own studio, but quickly decided to veer his design trajectory onto the cartoonist route. In 2006, Gus & Waldo's Book Of Love was published, and Massimo's newfound vocation found its audience. The success of the first book led to three more volumes – Gus & Waldo's Book Of Fame, Gus & Waldo's Book Of Sex, and Gus & Waldo Crazy In Love. The rest, as they say, is gay penguin love history, and Massimo has since been beguiling the world with his hilarious and soul-nurturing work.

Cover: Illustration from Massimo Fenati's Instagram Foodle series

Illustration from Massimo Fenati's Gus & Waldo series

"Gus and Waldo are loosely based on myself and my partner and were born out of a very random sketch I once left on a post-it note to him, several years ago," Massimo tells Think, describing the genesis of these popular characters. "He liked that doodle so much that for our tenth anniversary (we’ve now been together over 26 years!) I made a little illustrated book to give him as a present".

This anecdote is just one in a few instances he describes wherein the line between 'Massimo the man' and 'Massimo the artist' is blurred beyond distinction. "It all originated in a very spontaneous and personal way," he says, "the obvious choice when making my first book was to explain what it means to be in love".

Illustration from Massimo Fenati's Gus & Waldo series

Massimo's work for the Gus & Waldo series open doors to new projects, and to clients that an emerging designer could only dream of landing. Channel 4, BBC, the Torino Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Sky, Gail's Bakery – these are just a few of the big guns who have entrusted him with communicating the spirit of their stories with his unique brand of upbeat illustration and animation.

But aside from this steady flow of mainstream success, Massimo feeds his artistic drive with self-initiated projects. "The thing I love the most besides drawing is baking, so I combine these two passions in a number of ways," he explains. "I run a cartoon blog on the website of the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, which talks about baking and cooking, I’ve collaborated with UK food companies on marketing campaigns, and I also regularly post on Instagram what I call foodles: fun illustrations that combine food and doodles".

Illustrations from Massimo Fenati's Instagram Foodle series

Again, the underlining drivers in Massimo's practice seem to be, firstly – a genuine interest from his part in the subject he's portraying, and secondly – a unique visual language of light-hearted optimism. "I always try to make people laugh or smile," he says, "I do believe that nowadays we all need a little laugh – the world is already very depressing as it is, so humour and beauty can often be the best way to get some respite and to survive all that ugliness".

The idea of storytelling is also crucial to Massimo's work. "I adore stories: [the] one thing I found personally frustrating as a product designer was the impossibility to tell a story. So that might have been a push to go into a field like comics and books that allowed me to do that. Comics were my childhood passion so I guess I was somehow always destined to end up working in that field".

Destiny is only a small part of Massimo's career history. His is a journey that was propelled by quality, a deep sense of curiosity and experimentation, and – crucially – courage. Massimo's conviction allowed him to do what many others wouldn't – ditch a career that was going brilliantly to follow his childhood dream. "It certainly wasn’t easy," he says, discussing the shift from a thriving stretch as a product designer to becoming a cartoonist. "The design industry in those years was going through a critical phase and it was hard to get commissions – the process was very gradual and slow".

But like his work, Massimo holds positivity responsible for his success. His advice to designers who are looking to make a big career change? "I suppose the main thing is to be patient and be ready for a difficult transitional period. Working in a new industry doesn’t only mean learning the job, but also understanding how things around you work, making new contacts from scratch, building a new list of clients… It takes time. But if what lies beneath this change is your real passion, that will always give you enough fuel to keep going. You just need to take this big step with eyes wide open, and be prepared to sweat a lot. But the reward at the end of the race is just amazing".

He couldn't have said it better if he made a cartoon about it. Or could he? Whether or not that's what's next from this talented designer – we can't wait to watch and giggle along with him.


Massimo Fenati was born in Genoa, Italy, and now works in London as a comic book artist, illustrator and animator. He is the creator of the Gus & Waldo book series and animations, and his books have been translated and published in several countries. He works regularly for Corriere della Sera newspaper amongst several other high-profile clients.

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