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Elena Xausa, Illustrator With a Whimsical Style, Dies at 38

Elena Xausa, who was sought after by top publications and companies for her vibrant and whimsical illustrations that evoked joie de vivre even among the most seemingly everyday subjects, died on Nov. 27 at her home in Marostica, Italy. She was 38.

Her husband, Lorenzo Fonda, announced the death on Instagram. The cause was appendiceal cancer.

Her death came as she was gaining ever wider recognition, with her work appearing in The Economist, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and The Washington Post as well as in campaigns by Apple, Nike and other advertisers.

An illustration for Apple that shows a bustling scene in answer to the question “What are you doing tomorrow, Milan?”Credit…Elena Xausa

Ms. Xausa’s illustrations were known for boldly outlined minimalist shapes filled with bright, solid colors. They were often visual metaphors accentuating the irony of a situation.

In one illustration, created for The New Yorker during the coronavirus pandemic, her character puzzled over where to place a wine bottle on a dinner table, the most obvious space occupied by an oversize hand sanitizer bottle. For promotions for the TV show “MasterChef Italia,” she depicted cameras hungrily staring at a plate of food in one drawing, and a banana seductively peeling itself with a zipper in another.

“I like to synthesize as much as possible and create new and unexpected visual links,” Ms. Xausa (pronounced ex-SOW-sa) said in a 2019 interview with the online design magazine MiND.

In 2018, she was one of 21 artists selected by Apple to promote the opening of its first store in Milan. Her piece for the occasion was inspired by the question “What are you doing tomorrow, Milan?”

“It’s all about what the bustling minds of Milanese people are thinking,” she wrote on her website.

A year earlier, for the “How to Solve The New York Times Crossword” guide, Ms. Xausa created characters made up of three-dimensional crossword block pieces walking a dog, eating a hot dog and engaging in other ordinary activities.

In a phone interview, Mr. Fonda said that her work was “a perfect representation of who she was and her sensibility.”

Elena Xausa was born on July 11, 1984, in Verona, Italy, and grew up in Marostica, a town northwest of Venice. Her mother, Maria (Antonietti) Xausa, was an English teacher, and her father, Luciano, owned a hardware store. She studied industrial design at the Università Iuav di Venezia, gravitating toward graphic design courses. She turned to illustration after going to events organized by her mentor, the graphic designer Giorgio Camuffo.

After graduating in 2007, Ms. Xausa worked in graphic design, composing home décor layouts and completing a one-year residency at the Bevilacqua La Masa art foundation in Venice.

When she turned to illustration full time, her industrial design background informed her work. In industrial design, Mr. Fonda said, “you have to concentrate a lot of functions into one object that has to be simple and beautiful to look at.” Ms. Xausa, he said, “transported those skills” into illustration.

An illustration from the “How to Solve The New York Times Crossword” guide.Credit…Illustration by Elena Xausa
A mug designed by Ms. Xausa for the luxury design store Villari.Credit…Villari

Starting every job with a rough pencil drawing, she sketched out ideas on whatever scraps of paper she could find.

Ms. Xausa lived in Berlin for about five years before moving to Milan. She relocated to Brooklyn in 2019 but returned to Marostica after her cancer diagnosis later that year.

For a 2020 cover design for The Washington Post’s Sunday magazine, for what the magazine billed as “The Coping Issue,” Ms. Xausa portrayed busy characters surfing on a swirl of leaves. She said on her website that working on the illustration had helped her cope herself, with her illness — “especially now, while I’m on chemotherapy and slowly reconnecting myself to my creativity, my enthusiasm and my deep, deep optimism.”

Determined to use her diagnosis to make something positive, she began building colorful graphic sculptures and designed a series of ceramics for the luxury design store Villari, whose collection includes three of her mugs. Mr. Fonda said the profits would be donated toa cancer research center in Milan.

She and Mr. Fonda, a filmmaker and multimedia artist, were married in March. In addition to him, she is survived by her parents and her younger sister, Lavinia.

Ms. Xausa had her first solo show, “Coming Home,” just a year before her death, at the Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto region. It included more than 70 of her works. In a subsequent auction, every piece sold, raising more than 13,000 euros (about $13,800) for cancer research.

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