Lorenzo Petrantoni's intricately choreographed collages of black-and-white illustrations taken from 19th-century reference books breathe new life into their century-old materials, creating a strangely dateless visual landscape. He explains his obsession with graphic details.

‘I began making these collage pieces over ten years ago. It all started with my love of graphics and my passion for history, particularly the history of the 19th century. What’s the appeal of that time? Well, it was an age of great discovery, exploration and invention – probably the most challenging period in our history – and that’s what intrigues me about it. Looking at the encyclopaedias and dictionaries from that era, before the invention of photography, I decided that I wanted to do something new with the images. My raw material is those illustrations that were used to portray people, objects and events, much as we use photos today. Many of them are extremely elaborate and aesthetically very beautiful. A lot of the characters that appear in my work are completely unknown today, but they are still full of charm to me – perhaps the fact that they have been forgotten increases their appeal.

‘For me, print is just the best medium. I collect these old reference books, make copies of the images I like and then arrange them according to the laws of aesthetics and my training in graphics. I combine images with others that they share a relationship with, or that together determine a theme. I don’t know why the results are so popular – perhaps because the past is in fashion again.

The combination of black and white has the greatest visual impact possible. If it’s used well, it is more powerful than a rainbow

‘People often ask me why I only use black and white, but the answer is that I honestly don’t know. My work has always been exclusively monochrome – perhaps I should ask a shrink. Is it limiting? No, I don’t think so. In my opinion, the combination of black and white has the greatest visual impact possible. If it’s used well, it is more powerful than a rainbow. Of course, it is also faithful to the 19th-century images I use – but on the other hand I always find black and white completely timeless.’

Born in the Italian city of Genoa in 1970, Lorenzo Petrantoni studied graphic design in Milan. He moved to France, where he was an art director for Young & Rubicam, but later returned to Italy where he still lives today.

This interview was originally published in our book One Artist, One Material: Fifty-five makers on their medium. Get your copy here.