It was a cool, crisp, New York afternoon. Amidst the quietness inside the taxicab, the air, the city, was full of excitement. An endless amount of cars stood between us and our destination. I checked my watch and read the time: 2:55pm. “Great,” I thought, “We’ll be late.”
I picked up my phone and dialed. Seconds later, a serene and sweet voice answers. “Hello?” “Mr. Vignelli , I mean, Massimo,” I said, as I remembered what he had insisted I should call him, “It’s Maria Elena. Just wanted to tell you I’m on my way. We’ve hit terrible traffic; huge jam on 4th avenue.” To this, he calmly replies, “No worries, I’ll be here.” His voice was a soothing melody that juxtaposed with undeniable perfection the chaos that was the city.
Minutes - or what seemed as an eternity - later, we pulled up to his apartment. Bags, cameras, tripods and iPad in hand, we quickly made it through the building.
Massimo Vignelli, 83 and Italian-born, answered the door with a warm and endearing smile, wearing his signature color – black. It took us a couple of seconds to fully grasp and process the long- awaited moment. He immediately showed us in, gave us a tour of his beautiful home and led us into his living room office. A brilliantly-lighted double height black-and-white space with nothing but a massive window and a square table, evoked his bona-fide credo consistent through decades.
It seemed as though every corner of his home portrayed that distinctive Vignelli philosophy: simplicity and elegance. As Ernesto, More Than Branding’s beloved video director set up the cameras, I sat down with Massimo and reviewed the questions for the interview. His graceful manner during our conversation reflected the ease in which he, very graciously, obliged for an interview weeks before. I had always dreamed of discussing the world of design with a man responsible for the creation of so many iconic products – a man who has contributed so much to the field of branding and communications. Equipped with my massive notes and questions, we began.
As a child who grew up in the design-driven city of Milan, Massimo knew he wanted to pursue a life in the field by the young age of 14. After attending the Polytechnic University of Milan, he worked in the Studio of Achille Casteglioni, a world-renowned Italian designer. It was here where Vignelli’s famous maxim started taking its shape. It was here where the concept of applying the fundamentals of design to everything in a minimal, simplistic way, became the essence of his ideology and his craft.
He and his wife Lella founded Vignelli Associates more than four decades ago after moving from Italy to New York City during the 1960’s. With a vast formation in the field of architecture and design, they set forth on a journey that has resulted in an undisputable stamp on our visual culture. Their profession has encompassed everything from architecture, advertising, corporate identity, graphic design, packaging, interiors, product design, books, magazines (among them AAA), furniture and industrial design, as well as countless other products under their distinguishable and iconic aesthetic.
Within the corporate world, they were responsible for the creation of notorious brands such as American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s, Ford, IBM, United Colors of Benetton, Heller, Knoll and a myriad of others across the globe. During the 70’s, the Vignelli’s developed what became the legendary map and signage for the New York City Metro System.
In an interview for Design Boom, he described his work as: “Spare, essential, intellectually elegant, strong, and timeless.” The Vignelli brand is the embodiment of the attitude that less is always more - ridding oneself of the unnecessary in pursuit of conciseness and sophistication.
In addition to practicing their profession, Massimo and his wife Lella both taught, wrote, served as jury and board members, lectured and contributed their talent to the field of design. It was this proclivity that led them to Dominican Republic in 2006, as visiting professors in the esteemed Altos de Chavón School of Design.
Amongst the Vignellis’ many accomplishments, Massimo and Lella were awarded the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Gold Medal in 1982 and were included in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1988. The AIGA medal —the most distinguished in the field—is awarded to professionals who have have excelled in the field of design and visual communication throughout the actual practice of design, teaching, writing or general leadership.
Perhaps one of the best definitions of the Vignelli design is found in an article written in 1983 by David Brown, Wylie Davis and Rose DeNeve published in AIGA Graphic Design:
“It is not enough that something—a chair, an exhibition, a book, a magazine—looks good and is well designed. The ‘why’ and the ‘how,’ the very process of design itself, must be equally evident and quite beyond the tyranny of individual taste. The Vignelli commitment to the correctness of a design has taken their work beyond the mechanical exercise of devising a form best suited to a given function. They've always understood that design itself, in the abstract, could and should be an integral part of function. More than a process and a result, design—good design—is an imperative.”
Massimo Vignelli is the personification of a commitment to excellence fueled by an undeniable passion for the field of design – “Design that is visually powerful, that is intellectually elegant, and above all, timeless.” I can’t help but admire this relentless approach to raising the bar of one’s profession, to the establishment of a legacy that interconnects with all areas of our daily lives. My profound respect stems from his infallible pursuit of relevance, to his keenness in observing everything and everyone – to reading life and contributing to it.
After two and a half hours, we were done with the interview. That same night I followed-up with a thank you email, to which he kindly replied including this last comment:
“There is no valid branding without an overall integrity of the company or products - otherwise is just empty styling - reflecting the company’s overall shallowness. And that is the kiss of death for any kind of company. I see this as a fundamental issue in relation to branding. It’s either real or it is phony. There is no middle ground on these issues.”
In a world so concerned with what is said and done, this moment during the video will forever echo in my heart: “The most important thing is to observe, keep track of everything and not miss anything…” accompanied by his enthusiastic smile - contagious and eternal.
Photo credits: John Madere / Massimo and Lella Vignelli.