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Remembering Massimo Vignelli, Modernist Master

Massimo Vignelli is one of the most important protagonists in the history of design and graphic design in particular. He designed graphic systems that had, and still have today, a tangible utility for millions of people every day, thanks to his determination in basing the design on a true understanding of the users’ real needs. Through both his deep cultural commitment and his real comprehension of the design discipline, Vignelli crucially contributed to the design profession by keeping alive and also promoting the evolution of the fundamental principles that were developed by the Modern Movement during the early 20th century, thus revealing to everyone their ongoing validity.

A validity that we can see in his own design, as demonstrated by both the strength and functionality that still characterize it and also by the interest toward Vignelli’s design shared by thousands of people from all over the world. The work of Vignelli indeed shows a timeless validity housed in its pragmatic, rational and visually forceful nature.

Vignelli taught us to appreciate the functionality and elegance of simple, rational shapes—an aesthetic that is the result of deep cultural sensitivity, before being a matter of style or taste. His opera will always be an excellent example to make people understand the social value of design and to make designers understand the need to adopt a professional discipline that will allow them to properly manage such a responsibility.

Massimo Vignelli has been one of the most important designers of the 20th century. A deskmate of Heinz Waibl from 1946 to 1950 at the Arts High School in Milan, and a classmate of Marirosa Toscani Ballo at the Brera Academy of Arts in 1948-50. He studied architecture at the Politecnico of Milan in 1951-53 and the School of Architecture at the University of Venice in 1953-57 but interrupted his studies before graduating.

Since he was 16 years old, he started to collect a series of short internships with some of the best Italian architects and designers of that time — Achille Castiglioni and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Giulio Minoletti, Giancarlo De Carlo, Franco Albini, and Ignazio Gardella.

While still a student at Brera, Vignelli worked for Rotofoto, the photo agency of Fedele Toscani—father of internationally renowned photographer Oliviero Toscani. While he was based in Venice, he designed a series of lighting fixtures for his friend Paolo Venini—founder of the eponymous blown glass manufacturing company—including the iconic Fungo lamp (1955). In the same period, he also designed a house that was built in the Venetian and published in Domus magazine (May 1955) realizing that “the architectural process was too slow if compared to the speed of the industrial design process.” He then started to focus more and more on editorial, product, and packaging design projects.

In 1957 Vignelli married Elena Valle, who from then on became known as Lella Vignelli (1934-2016). Lella came from an important family of architects—his brother was renowned architect Gino Valle (1923-2003)—she was an architect too and a fundamental professional partner to Massimo during his entire career. The same year the couple left for the USA, where Vignelli was offered a fellowship from a silverware manufacturing company based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. While working there, he was invited to teach graphic design at the Institute of Design, New Bauhaus in Chicago, where he acted as an educator in 1958-59. Meanwhile, Lella started working as an architect at SOM (Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill)—one of America’s best-known architectural firms.

In 1960 their visas expired and the couple moved back to Milan, where they opened the Lella & Massimo Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture (1960-64) focusing on furniture, product, and graphic design for important Italian and European companies like Olivetti, Penguin Books, Piccolo Teatro, Pirelli, Poltronova, Triennale, Venice Biennale, and Xerox. The first assistant of Vignelli at his office was Salvatore Gregorietti, who will also become one of the best designers in the history of Italian graphic design. It was at that time that the Vignellis defined the basis of their expressive language and started receiving official recognition for their work—in 1964 the Compact stacking dinnerware that they designed was awarded a Compasso d’Oro, one of the most prestigious design awards in the world.

In 1970 Vignelli designed a diagrammatic map for the New York Subway System, following Harry Beck’s design criteria from his London Underground map (1933)—thus using only 45 and 90 degrees lines. In this way the route diagram was simplified and reading the map is self-explanatory. While today this solution is an international standard, at that time passengers felt uncomfortable with a map that didn’t match the real geography, so in 1970 it was dropped and replaced with a conventional map. However, in 2008 Vignelli was invited to design a new diagrammatic map that was later revised in collaboration with his assistants, Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshiki Waterhouse, and finally adopted as the official map of the New York Subway’s app.

In 2008 the Vignellis founded and designed the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). The institution houses the archives of Lella and Massimo Vignelli, striving to promote their design legacy all over the world.

During his career, Vignelli taught at the Institute of Design (New Bauhaus) in Chicago in 1957-58, the Umanitaria School in Milan in 1960-64, the University of Venice’s School of Design in 1962-64, the Columbia University’s School of Architecture in 1967-68, the Philadelphia College of Art in 1969, and the Parsons School of Design in 1980-81. He also gave lectures and workshops in China, Europe, and the USA.

He has been a member of ADI (Industrial Design Association) since its founding in 1956 and also served on its board of directors in 1960-64. Member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) since 1965, he was also president in 1985-88. Former president of AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) in 1976-77. Former vice-president of the Architectural League of New York. Member of IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America).

Vignelli was awarded numerous recognitions including the Triennale Grand Prix in 1964, two Compasso d’Oro awards in 1964 and 1998, the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Industrial Arts Medal in 1974, the AIGA Gold Medal in 1983, the first Presidential Design Award in 1985, and the Architectural League of New York President’s Medal in 2011.

He also received lifetime achievement awards from the Brooklyn Museum in 1995 and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2003. He was inducted in the ADC (Art Directors Club) Hall of Fame in 1982 and elected Honorary Royal Designer for Industry in 1996 by the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects). He also received honorary doctorates in fine arts and in architecture from the Parsons School of Design in 1982, the Pratt Institute in 1987, the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988, the University of Venice in 1994, the Corcoran School of Art in 1994, the Pasadena Art Center College of Design in 2000, and the RIT in 2002.

His work is part of the permanent collections of major museums including the Brooklyn Museum, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Die Neue Sammlung, Met Museum, MoMA, Victoria & Albert Museum, and Vitra Museum. He also had individual exhibitions in Boston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Milan, Toronto, Miami, Moscow, Leningrad, Helsinki, London, Budapest, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Munich, Prague, and Paris.

Many books have been published by Vignelli himself and others regarding his work. The best-known is Design: Vignelli (Rizzoli, 1990), Vignelli: From A to Z (Images Publishing, 2007), and The Vignelli Canon (Lars Müller Publishers, 2010), which he also released as a free PDF.

He died in New York City in 2014.

To learn more please visit: Massimo Vignelli, Italian, 1931–2014