The Space of Story: The Small Worlds of Leo Lionni

Discover this hands-on approach to adding archetypes to your strategic and creative toolkit.


Parallels between the life of Leo Lionni, graphic designer and co-editor of PRINT magazine from 1955-1956, and the picture books he created.

Left: Tillie and the Wall, by Leo Lionni (Amazon) Right: Cover of PRINT magazine, “Italian issue” by Leo Lionni (Print)

I believe that a good children’s book should appeal to all people who have not completely lost their original joy and wonder in life.” –Leo Lionni

In 1989, the same year that the Berlin Wall was torn down, a children’s book illustrated with colored paper scraps was published. It told the story of a mouse who, motivated by curiosity, leaves her familiar land to forge a way under a seemingly impassable wall…ultimately surfacing on the other side to find a vibrant, welcoming community of mice like her. As long-separated families and friends reconnected across Germany, the story was a thinly veiled representation of (and encouragement for) reunion, rejoice, and relief.

From Tillie and the Wall, Leo Lionni (Archive.org)

Tillie and the Wall was not a publicly notable achievement by Leo Lionni, who—by any measures—could be called a man familiar with success. In his career spanning painting to poster design, advertising, magazine layout (including PRINT magazine), art direction (most notably for Fortune magazine), and sculpture, Lionni was something of a Renaissance man with a Midas touch, achieving international acclaim for leading new forms of expression in multiple art forms. His work was highly visible (even before the internet) and his influence was substantial; in Stephen J. Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History, Lionni’s design work for Olivetti is described as being so cutting edge that it led IBM, their industry competitor, to hire Paul Rand for a logo redesign…leading to the iconic IBM logo we know today.

Left to right: Leo Lionni for PRINT magazine (Print), Olivetti typewriters (Museum of Modern Art), Fortune magazine (Alliance Graphique Internationale)

Tillie and the Wall incited no such drama. It was one of more than forty books that Lionni wrote for children, and not one of his four that received the Caldecott Medal for excellence in children’s book design. But, arguably more than any other work by Lionni, this simple story offers a window into Lionni’s complex views on life, politics, and art. Like Tillie the mouse, Lionni was eager to explore the relationships between place and perspective, space and connectivity, and individuality and integration. With much of the same sense of adventure that Lionni showed in his childhood exploits and later in navigating his professional and personal life, Tillie and the Wall presents an idealized world formed through Lionni’s own experience, imagination, and hope.

From Tillie and the Wall, Leo Lionni (Archive.org)

Born in 1910, Lionni grew up internationally, moving between various European cities and the United States. By age sixteen, Lionni had learned his fifth language, Italian, and was beginning to absorb the language of politics. Witnessing scenes of persecution, book burning, and violence in the increasingly Fascist Italy around him, teenage Lionni immersed himself in communist ideology, eagerly seeking and reading banned novels by Tolstoy and Pushkin, among others. Throughout his adult life, he actively followed political issues, participating in dozens of political organizations between Europe and the United States.

But Lionni’s sensitivity for the places and conditions of defining the self was apparent early in his life. As a child, Lionni had nightmares about spaces, of endless corridors leading downhill to an unending void. He found paintings at once soothing and engaging in their ability to provide a securely contained, static scene easy for closer scrutiny. Fortunately, his world offered no shortage of them. With the decorations in his childhood homes, visits to museums, and the playful influences of an art-collecting uncle, Lionni seemed to find a stability in paintings that he lacked from a childhood in homes so often transitional.

As much as he loved still paintings, though, Lionni also loved living, breathing systems. In his youth, Lionni captured and kept tadpoles, salamanders, dragonflies, minnows, beetles, snails, finches, mice, butterflies, and more in his bedroom. He created terraria and aquaria for these creatures, designing tiny spaces where he could watch stories unravel and study how each individual held a role in the larger system.

Lionni realized decades later that these living dioramas and the interacting characters he nurtured reappeared in his life as the books he crafted for children. “My miniature worlds, whether enclosed in yesterday’s walls of glass or today’s cardboard covers, are surprisingly alike,” Lionni reflected in his autobiography, Between Worlds. “Both are the orderly, predictable alternatives to a chaotic, unmanageable, terrifying universe.” To accompany Tillie as she digs a tunnel beneath the wall is to experience moving between worlds, exploring uncertain spaces, and crossing boundaries—but all within the security of a contained object, a highly designed and curated environment.

From Tillie and the Wall, Leo Lionni (Archive.org)

Perhaps Lionni, with his frequent travels in childhood and geographic restlessness in adulthood, felt that a sense of self is discovered as much through solitude and stillness as it is in seeking and contributing to a community. Tillie could have ventured to the other side to find nothing more than sunshine, but instead, Lionni let her meet others there like her, eager to celebrate her arrival. Lionni may have recalled the feeling when he returned home from a greatly anticipated interview in New York City to see his wife sprinting towards him with arms outstretched, or perhaps when he voyaged back to Italy and was received with embraces all around from family and friends. This theme reappears in Pezzettino, Lionni’s story about an orange-colored block discovering his role in his community.

With Tillie’s story, Lionni seems to suggest that the accomplishments of the self are not more important than the connections we can build with others, a clue to Lionni’s appreciation for communist ideologies. Communist values are suggested in many of his picture books, down to the media he predominantly worked in—bits of paper assembled together in collages and mosaics to render a more significant, powerful whole. But the plotlines also speak for Lionni, such as that of Swimmy, in which one fish leads a school of fish to assemble in a form that frightens off the enemy; Frederick, in which one mouse uses his storytelling skills to uplift his community during a depressing time; and Pezzettino, in which an orange-colored block finds that he belongs in his community of mosaic-like friends.

From Swimmy, Leo Lionni (Archive.org)

From Pezzettino, Leo Lionni (Archive.org)

Perhaps it is this fascination with the influence of the individual pieces in contributing to interactions that explains how Lionni worked prolifically and fluidly across diverse media forms. Whether painting a picture, crafting a bronze sculpture, laying out a magazine, designing ads and brochures, or creating children’s books, Lionni consciously experimented with the interaction of individual elements in communicating a larger message.

Believing strongly that the context and position of every artistic element holds meaning, Lionni even taught university classes on his theories on the significance of dot placement on a page. In Between Worlds, Lionni reflects, “I never failed to stress [with my students…] to be aware of the fact that every position in space has a meaning of its own. In practical and moral terms, you must feel responsible for every line you draw, for every decision you make.”

From Little Blue and Little Yellow, Leo Lionni (Archive.org)

With this perspective that the position of any single mark can influence (and is influenced by) a larger whole, of course the number of possibilities for a design project would be endless. Of course other media would offer tempting modes of communication and interaction to explore. And of course Tillie and the Wall was about much more than a mouse and a wall.

Unlike many artists of his time, Lionni defied being pigeonholed into a specialty. Instead, he expanded the limits of what “an artist” could handle and express. With Tillie and the Wall, Lionni crossed an invisible border between children’s entertainment and political commentary, and in doing so, has left behind a glimpse into his complex individuality. Like Tillie, Lionni pushed boundaries with his curiosity and values, innovating opportunities where no path had existed before, showing that just one creature can make a difference.


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