Back in Time: Marco and Stefano Van Orton

By Scott Kirkwood

Jason and Freddy. Alien and Predator. Magic and Bird. Even He-Man and Skeletor. The 1980s are full of first-name-basis duos who dominated pop culture. And another duo started paying homage to those icons long before Stranger Things introduced us to the Upside Down. Twins Marco and Stefano Van Orton, who work together as Van Orton Design, pair ’80s nostalgia with Technicolor patterns that incorporate the dots and lines wielded by Roy Lichtenstein and other Pop art idols from an even earlier decade. 

Illustrations from Van Orton’s Icons series

Scrolling through the nostalgic images on the twins’ site, you might assume that the Van Ortons grew up in the United States, spending summer afternoons in suburban movie theaters. But they have never set foot in the States; the two have spent their entire lives in Turin, Italy—the top of the boot. Like the electronic duo Daft Punk—another pair of European remix artists straight out of Comic-Con—the Van Ortons guard their privacy: their social-media accounts obscure their faces with masks from Robocop and Teen Wolf rendered in their own unique style. (And yes, the Van Ortons have illustrated Daft Punk, too.)

The twins say their earliest memories of design include the Masters of the Universe logo—with all of its three-dimensional type and glorious gradients—featured on packaging for action figures they purchased as children (and as adults, thanks to eBay). The twins took up drawing in high school and then enrolled in Turin’s Istituto Albe Steiner, a design and advertising school, where they learned from a different set of masters—and ultimately created their own style. 

The duo designed this Empire magazine cover dedicated to Blade Runner 2049.

“Initially, our work was very similar to the stained glass windows you’d find in churches—thick black lines and bright colors—but over time we decided to experiment,” says Stefano. That stained glass style is obvious in their early work, which paid homage to The Goonies and Gremlins, the first films they remember seeing as children. In time, the geometric shapes eventually took on neon shades, and the black lines started to resemble the bold, thick curves you’d expect from a Sharpie, prompting favorable comparisons to Craig & Karl.

Fan art was a great way to stretch their muscles and define their style while the two worked at AWE, an agency focused on big conventions and events. That changed in 2015, when the Van Ortons got their first big freelance gig from European clothier Sisley—a project that allowed the two to walk away from the agency to pursue their own work full time. 

Having a twin for a business partner offers a few advantages: Marco and Stefano trust each other completely, and they rarely argue. And when one of them is facing a particularly difficult challenge, he’s got the perfect ally to support him. According to Stefano, there’s only one drawback: “When we’ve got too much work, we wish we had two more twins to share it,” he says. 

The pair has described some of their work as having a “stained glass” look. The illustrations above are from their series NBA Legends

These images from 2015 were part of a Marvel Official Art Showcase.

In the beginning, the Van Ortons tackled all of the same tasks independently, but in recent years they’ve divvied things up: After they’ve identified the main idea behind a project together, Marco generally traces the design in thick, well-defined black lines, using vector illustrations and Photoshop brushes to balance digital with analog; Stefano focuses on the color scheme, inserting textures and patterns, and bringing each project to completion.

Although their most recognized illustrations are placed firmly in the 1980s, they occasionally venture beyond the Reagan era, crafting Valentine's Day illustrations for Sisley, featuring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in mid-kiss and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s classic image of a U.S. Navy sailor embracing a woman on V-J Day. You’ll also find 1970s stalwarts like KISS and Pink Floyd, and modern-day NFL icons like Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford, commissioned by ESPN: The Magazine

Recent clients include (from left to right) Swatch, Armani Exchange, and the Italian magazine Moda 24. 

One of their favorite projects from the last year is a Blade Runner 2049 cover illustration for Empire magazine, which made its way to Ryan Gosling’s Twitter avatar—fan art come full circle. Another involved creating an entire visual identity for Three Olives Vodka, from print ads to street art to packaging bus wraps, even a starring role in a short film, with their faces cleverly obscured, of course.

Given their pop-culture milieu, it’s probably no surprise that the twins have developed a cottage industry selling posters, T-shirts, and stickers emblazoned with some of Hollywood’s most beloved characters, thanks to a presence on Curioos, Society6, and StickerApp. In 2018, the duo is hoping to land at least one commission for an official poster for a film or TV series or a record cover for a big American band. And in their spare time, Stefano says they’d like to build a flux capacitor just like Back to the Future’s Dr. Emmett Brown. But barring any advances in time travel, their modern reinterpretations of 1980s themes and a few evenings of Netflix binging will just have to do, for now. 

January 26, 2018

A frequent contributor to HOW, 99U, and Adobe Create, Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director focused on do-gooders, graphic design, and the great outdoors.