The Little White Miller

An interview with Grazia Nidasio
Mariagrazia Villa

An ideal of tenderness, good nature and optimism.  In 1982 the Mulino Bianco advertising campaign acquired a character that would soon conquer the hearts of all the Italian children for almost ten years: the Little White Miller, the protagonist of very entertaining cartoon shorts.
The character was created and drawn in 1981 by one of the most important Italian illustrators of the 1900s, whose pencil touched the highest peaks of art in representing literature for children: Grazia Nidasio.
Born in Milan, but a resident of Certosa of Pavia, a professional journalist, she attended the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera and was a collaborator and editor of the legendary “Corriere dei Piccoli” (Children’s Courier). She illustrated numerous books for children for several publishers and received many awards throughout the world. The characters with which entire generations of children have identified themselves were all created by her, as Stefi, Valentina Mela Verde (Valentina Green Apple), il Chierico Vagante (the wandering altar boy) or Doctor Oss. Today she is an illustrator for Mondadori, and contributes to the Culture Pages and is a cartoonist for the “Corriere della Sera” and for “Corriere Scuola”, as well as a writer of several scripts for educational cartoon movies, and she aids in the making of animated cartoon jingles for television, for RAI and Mediaset. She recently created a series of Guides for Young People for the provincial administration of Pavia, on the theme of the territory.
“At the beginning of the 1980s, the Mulino Bianco advertising communication was entrusted to the Troost, Campbell & Edweld agency, that was located in Via Borgonuovo in Milan; one day the director called me because he noticed the character Stefi on the “Corriere dei Piccoli” and he asked me – I imagine because of the fact that Stefi often spoke about snacks – to think of a character destined to the world of children”, Grazia Nidasio tells.
“I created three characters. The first one frankly I do not remember anymore: it must not have been particularly convincing to me! The second one was called Luca Merenda – and at the time moreover there was a French actor who had a similar sounding name – , a handsome and athletic young man like James Bond who carried on his work as a photographer in Africa, Asia and Southern America shooting photographic safaris on board of his jeep.  The idea was that the young man, by always eating Mulino Bianco snacks during his work, was able to make extraordinary reportages”.
“In the spot, in the midst of the animation, a real documentary about animals that would be different each time depending on the location of Luca Merenda’s travels, would be intertwined. The third idea was that of a White Mill where a miller girl called Clementina lived. She was not particularly beautiful – it woud have been too easy to draw a “beauty queen” -, she was a simple girl, a bit plumpy. She did not know that not far from her Mill, there was another mill, but much smaller, where a little dwarf lived who invented snacks for her because he was madly in love with her, and gave them to her as a gift. Though, she could not see him because he was too small, and when she found the snacks on her table or on her pillow she thought that the mysterious giver and admirer must be an attractive and athletic looking man. If we think about it, she was not too bright…”

What type of relationship did the Little White Miller and Clementina have?
“It was very similar to that of the Dolce Stil Novo (i.e.: the Florentine Renaissance) poets with their beloved women: they never even considered them, but this was not a reason for them to stop searching for their love and to dedicate poems to them, sonnets and literary works. In my mind, the Little White Miller had to always try to conquer Clementina, without ever giving up: this is also a lesson of life, to think about it, because we need to court the people we love every day…”

For the little lover, however, being invisible in the eyes of his beloved did not seem to be such a frustrating experience…
“In truth, it was not. The Little White Miller, a name later shortened to Piemmebì (note:PMB, the initials of the Italian name) in the jingle, was a creative mind, an inventor and  an enthusiastic person by nature, and he always said to himself: yes, now it is like this, but next time Clementina will certainly see me! There was always an optimistic catch, at last, and he never lost his hopes.  The plot of the story was always happy. At some point, then, I had though of a character that was the same size of Clementina, I do not remember now if it was a gardener or a milkman, that instead  noticed Piemmebì and told him not to loose his hopes because sooner or later she would realize that he existed. And as a corollary to the two main characters, I also invented a series of small animals, like the porcupine, the cricket etc. even though this idea was not developed. Before my proposal of the Miller and Clementina was accepted, it went under the scrutiny of a few famous psychologists and sociology experts, who worked as consultants for Barilla. One of these, whose name was – and still is! – Francesco Alberoni, said that we could not propose to children the same old love story one more time. Then…when he realized that the implications of my story were not sugary, but humorous, he gladly accepted the idea”.

At a certain point, Clementina’s character, from absent minded and overweight as she was, became a lean and “sexy” young lady. How come?
“It was the animation studios to decide this change, adducing as a reason the fact that children were complaining that the character was too fat. In reality, I do not believe that it was an idea of the children… In any case, my original intention was for Clementina to be a maternal image, a bit of an ingénue, and beyond any possible sexual implications. The aspect of Clementina was not of great importance, after all, and her role was mostly symbolic: she was a silly girl that did not notice the existence of the Little Miller”.

Besides from drawing the characters of the story, did you also take care of the television animation of the adventures of Piemmebì?
“No, but I collaborated with the animators. Once a character was created and delineated in all of its characteristics, I prepared the drawn story-boards, using various techniques according to each different case, from tempera paint to watercolour and from these the animation studios would then make the film. There was an excellent feeling of synergy with the Quick Sand Production studio of Milan, owned by Walter Cavazzuti and Michel Fuzellier – who also were the authors of the animation movie “ The Seagull and the Cat”, from a novel by Sepulveda. Together with them, I took care of the graphic sign, the environment setting, the scenes etcetera. What we were looking for was the atmosphere of an old Mill that would be tidy and creative as a place, and where any child would want to be able to play. I found myself at great ease also with the animation studios that followed later on, the RDA70 – the same studio that produced “Joan Padan and the discovery of the Americas”, the animated version of Dario Fo’s theatre work – because they were great professionals”.

Was your collaboration with Barilla limited to relations with the advertising agency, or did it involve the company as well?
“I also collaborated directly with the company. Once a month, I met with Mrs. Cattani, an extremely sagacious and sensible person, whose intelligence was sharp as a knife. She cut straight to a yes or no and this is a managerial quality that I always appreciated in her: creative artists, usually, tend to go overboard and need someone to put a limit to their flow! The contacts with advertising agencies have always been very positive, both with Troost and with Young & Rubicam, that came into the scene a few years later and with whom there was a real creative explosion”.

Aside from the television spots, was there also a search for new ideas rotating around the world of the Little White Miller?
“Sure! A constant research. Both about the subjects of the stories, and about the promotional gadgets that could be created. The tiny miller in his Happy Valley was surrounded by many miniature objects: I even made a scale model of the mill in which he lived, complete in every detail… The miniaturization is always very captivating, I think: I have quite a taste for small things. I collect miniature tea sets for dolls that are really of microscopic dimensions! I also had the idea to create a merchandising for small miniature things that could be found inside of Piemmebì’s mill, even though this did not materialize. Other ideas, instead, all become realities and all were absolutely coherent with the image and the brand of the character of the story. For example, the Surprises in small boxes personalized with drawings of the Little White Miller on the packaging, which replaced the previous ones who looked like a common match box. Some of the small objects contained inside the boxes were created based on Piemmebì’s character, like the scotch tape, the small rubber stamp…Then the Little Surprise Jars came, always bearing the design of the Little White Miller  who for example raced around on board little fantastic automobiles that looked a bit like spacecrafts”.
“In those years I was also studying the possibility to make small figurines, with our character on a little car, or piloting a small plane or on a water bike. I took care of the project, and made the model with DAS modelling clay or with putty – when I was at Brera I studied sculpting for four years with Messina: and look at how I ended up! – and then I proposed them to the agency. It wasn’t just me, but all of the creative team was always bringing forth new ideas: some of these found the favour of the company, others unfortunately did not. For some time, calendars dedicated to the Little White Miller with my drawings were printed, and were issued with children’s publications and weekly magazines for families: every month our hero, who always was in a good mood and full of hopes, gave a different snack to Clementina who every time failed to notice him… A calendar that was particularly successful was the one that a child could hang to the wall of his room to gradually measure his or her growth in height. Then other comic book stories were born with Piemmebì as a character, but those were not drawn by me, but by the illustrators of the RDA70 studios, who exaggerated with Clementina’s proportions so much to turn her into a caricature. In my original drawings she was a simple country girl, but rather graceful, while the one drawn by the animators even had a double chin! Perhaps this could explain the need to make her a more sensual character later on…”

Were there ideas for other gadgets?
“Yes, There were ideas I proposed but were not produced both for lack of a chance and also for differences of opinions. For example, the cotton T-shirt with a microchip in the pocket that when pressed played a jingle; or the Piggybank Mill that answered “bravo!” when a child put a coin in it; or the collection of plastic watches the colour of yellow pastry who had the Little White Miller in the middle of the quadrant to mark time with his moving arm and an oven spatula – it would have become a cult gadget, I think. Then I thought of a small mill, on the model of doll houses, in full scale, that could be opened from the top and contained all of its miniature furniture, and that worked thanks to a battery; an entire line of school products, from the book bag to the pencil case, to notebooks, with a chocolate stain as a decoration, so that even if the child made a stain on it, it would not be a problem – perhaps today an idea like this would have been produced by the company, but back then they told me it was a little too avant-garde to be appreciated…by the mothers! In the end, a line of school accessories was produced, but with the image of a landscape as seen by Piemmebì on a helicopter”.
“Of the line of breakfast tableware, instead, which I designed as a complete set, only the tray was produced. The birthday party napkins with Piemmebì, the fishing boat of the Little Miller; the battery – but not the book lamp that belonged to the same series dedicated to light – ; the Mill in the half dome with snow, a cascade of flowers etcetera; the postcards and letter paper with the image of Piemmebì with which you could answer to the avalanches of letters that children mailed to the “Little White Miller, Mill of the Happy Valley” – and that the Italian Postal Service was still able to deliver to Barilla, with a great sense of poetry!”

Did you also design larger gadgets as collectible prizes?
“Yes. During one of our frequent brainstorming sessions, I thought of bigger objects like the Mill Sack, a futon on which children could sleep – an idea that found inspiration both in the habit that millers had throw themselves on the bags of wheat to rest, and also in the famous Sacco futon by designers De Pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi, which was produced at the end of the 1960s. Then I suggested the realization of a large surprise  box, in which the little ones could get in to take a nap, and a stuffed toy bear with a marsupial bag in which a child could get settled to take a nap. An object of good size dimensions was also the inflatable car, a toy that once the child was tired of playing with, could be put back in place without taking too much space in the house. But none of these objects were ever produced”.

Were there any ideas proposed that never saw the light and to which you remained particularly attached?
“Oh yes! Especially the idea of a mono-bike. In the great cities, children often do not have a bike because they do not know where to store it once they are home. If there was a means of transportation that they could fold up and bring with them in the elevator, or that once they arrived at school they could pack in their backpacks, it would be ideal. So, I made a complete study to invent this foldable mono-bike with a double back wheel which was equipped with all of its accessories, like a helmet: it was noiseless, small, manageable and colored. In a nutshell, it could have become the craze of the moment and around this object a complete line of bicycles could have been created, with shirts, hats, shoes, and events like bike rides, races etc. could have been organized…
Another  project to which I am particularly emotionally tied, even though it is outside of the scope of my activities, is a proposal I made to create a Museum of Milling Art, dedicated to the civilization of wheat, by acquiring a real water mill in the province of Parma. While in England, I had visited a small mill that existed in the yard of the home of writer Richard Kipling, that was accessible to children and still working nowadays: it was truly delightful and I literally fell in love with it! In the Parma area, in a sort of place of miniature dimensions, there could have been built an entertainment Games Park of the Happy Valley. There, the children could have found all of those tools once used in mills that do not exist anymore nowadays, and at the end of the visit, they would have put on a paper hat and apron and would have learned to make bread or cookies with the help of bakery technicians, and would have cooked them in the oven and in the end, could eat them! Barilla answered me that the idea was very interesting, but it did not find a place in its immediate priorities. I think that had we been in America, and having at our disposal a complete mythology apparatus of the Little White Miller, we would have built an entire theme park for children… Another idea of which I was fond was the Piemmebì monthly wall hanging magazine, that unfortunately was only printed once. It was a magazine you could hang on the wall, like the first ones that appeared in history, those of the ancient Romans, to hang on the walls of a room or in a classroom like a sort of renewable poster that could also be read as a normal paper, by folding it like a road map. I did not want the usual children magazine, that looked like a parish bulletin, but something original. The first page of it would have hosted a comic strip dedicated to the adventures of the Little White Miller, while on the back side, there would be stories signed by the great authors of “Corriere dei Piccoli” and related to the world of the Mill”.

Did you also develop books related to the figure of Piemmebì?
“Sure. But only because the agency at a certain point thought about proposing children’s books. Personally, I am against the idea of giving real books together with products, because I think they are less appealing, unless they are gadget-booklets. For Mulino Bianco, we created so many of those game books with the Litte White Miller as a protagonist, such as “Who is afraid of darkness?” to help children to overcome fears in an entertaining way, or the series with pliable folding paper about sports, among which “carrot launching” (note: like javelins) on the occasion of the launch of Camille (note: carrot cake snacks), or those in which, turning the pages quickly, you can see moving images of a story
Besides, I open a parenthesis: the animated cartoon spot with the Rabbit looking for a carrot was also based on my drawings, and was made in 1988 by Young & Rubicam for the launch of Camille snacks. But let’s go back to the children. I designed the draft of a book dedicated to Piemmebì that explained how the character was created, that unfortunately was never published. The title was: “Life, fortunes and miracles of a Little White Miller, known as Piemmebì to his friends”. The tone was intentionally humorous and it contained not only the story of Piemmebì, but also the story-board plans of advertising spots and some of the letters sent by children.
Another book of mine, instead, whose subject and graphic outline I supervised, was “The Little White Miller in England”, that was printed, though in a small number of copies. It was printed in 1984 by Vincenzo Bona of Turin, in a bilingual version, with a small dictionary and a map of the United Kingdom in the appendix. The story was this: Clementina goes to London to study English and Piemmebì decides to go visit her. He leaves with his small plane as big as a horsefly and is able to get into the baggage load of an airline and to reach his destination.
When he gets there, he travels within the British world, that is presented through little bits and morsels: he meets a groundhog that lives under a golf course, a little mouse with a bowler hat and reads the Times magazine in the city. He meets Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, drinks beer in a pub, visits with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles who have tea, admires the Jewels of the Crown and goes to visit Sherlock Holmes. In the end, he does not find Clementina because she has already returned home and so he leaves for Italy”.

When the company decided to discontinue the spots with the Little White Miller in 1989, did this experience still have something left to say, according to you, or was it fading away?
“Naturally, like all living things, also the adventures of Piemmebì had their evolution, a lifespan, growing tension, climax, and then began the descending curve. It could be that, at a certain moment, the idea showed signs of a bit of tiredness, but my sensation is that its life span was not yet completely exhausted. We had so many stories, gadgets and promotional activities in store…”