These Intense Illustrations for Airbnb Were Created Using A Single Line

Jonathan Calugi discusses how he drew and composed these ‘oneline’ illustrations for Airbnb’s own stationery and in-house products.

Jonathan Calugi’s illustrations are blissfully chaotic yet artfully composed world of vibrant shapes and lines. To me, his work ties the knot between surrealist painter Joan Miro and street artist Keith Haring at the altar of digital illustration.

Yet Jonathan is an innovator in his own right. Andrew Shapiro, certainly thinks so. Andrew, Airbnb’s head of brand creative, recently commissioned Pistoia, Italy-based Jonathan after being drawn to the illustrator’s ‘oneline’ style. As the name suggests, Jonathan’s ‘onelines' use a single continuous line to create human and non-human figures. Though the concept may sound simple enough, the end results are anything but.

Jonathan’s ambitious set of pieces for Airbnb – titled One love, One Line, One World – features the loose, playful movements of a line that intricately loops, curls, twists and folds into various human forms – only to unravel back into abstraction. Look closely and you can spot figures poised in all sorts of routines: making phone calls, reading, typing on laptops, carrying briefcases, and even holding wrenches and cogs. Considering its complexity, it’s hard to believe a single line connects so many figures.

Jonathan also created a version of the work that forms a repeating pattern.

However, this sense of connection is exactly what Airbnb sought to capture when Shapiro approached him. Jonathan sums up the creative brief for us as “One Airbnb”. Fittingly, the illustrator used his unique style to unite multiple people in the middle of multiple activities.

“I designed separate categories," he says, "but when I put everything in the final piece, you lose the idea of [the] category. You just see people…. We are all in movement.”

Image: Jonathan also created a version of the work that forms a repeating pattern.

The artwork, elements from it and patterns produced using those have been used across stationary and products for Airbnb employees.

So what drives Jonathan’s ‘oneline' pieces? Storytelling, he says. Jonathan sees his illustrations as a collaborative narrative between viewer and work – the piece requires the viewer’s gaze to complete the lines’ movement.

Jonathan particularly enjoys the freedom afforded by this form. He finds it redemptive, even, of mistakes – whether on the page or in life. He explains, “I believe that errors identify you. Nobody can make your errors. [Your] errors are unique.” In this way, Jonathan feels the viewer can divine their own meaning and narratives from the movements they see in his lines.

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Jonathan's rough studies of how to represent the human form in the One love, One Line, One World pieces.

Yet Jonathan did not anticipate what his piece for Airbnb would evolve into when he started. Generally, his creative process is straightforward. He sketches quickly, avoids overthinking, and then meticulously refines his sketches in Illustrator to create balance. For Airbnb, he began by drawing several series of oneline characters. Eventually, he merged them to allow figures to multiply and recede into themselves in a glorious pattern.

A rough layout of the artwork's linework.

Jonathan is no stranger to pattern design. In fact, it’s what he’s known best for; but before Airbnb, and before oneline, and even before his success, Jonathan admits he stumbled into the creative field without truly considering himself as an illustrator or designer. Though, any uncertainty here would be doused in 2010, when New York-based organisation the Art Directors Club awarded Jonathan the prestigious title of ADC Young Gun for his pattern work.

The layout of the coloured graphics that sit behind the linework.

This is why Jonathan is appreciative of the flexibility offered by Andrew and Airbnb. Jonathan had assumed Airbnb would want the same pattern work his past clients flocked to, however, it soon became clear Andrew was more interested in Jonathan’s more recent experiments with the ‘oneline' technique.

“Andrew Shapiro gave me the possibility to express myself,” Jonathan says. “He understands what I love to do and how this could work for the brand.”

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These simpler strips of three 'characters' were combined to create the repeating patterns.

The creative potential for Jonathan’s oneline technique is only at its infancy. Eventually, Jonathan hopes to evolve his technique to a stage where viewers can identify their own stories in just a scribble. With what he’s achieved so far, that vision doesn’t seem too out of line.

The Young Gun award celebrates the most promising and talented creative professionals who are of 30 years of age or under.

This newfound recognition attracted Jonathan numerous clients – and while he was grateful for their patronage, Jonathan eventually ran into a numbing creative impasse. All his clients wanted to see the same type of pattern work. “The market is like a photocopy machine,” Jonathan says. “[They] want something that exists”.