The world of design has lost a timeless icon. A bold spirit with a profound, abiding commitment to elegance and simplicity. Massimo Vignelli, known for his work on brands such as American Airlines, Bloomingdale's, IBM, the New York Metro System and many others, passed away at the age of 83. Esteemed designer, Armando Milani, shares a heartfelt memoir on his colleague and friend with More Than Branding.
Vignelli and Milani oversee a project during a workshop at The Altos de Chavón School of Design. (2006)
Massimo Vignelli has flown away with his charge of creativity, passion and dignity. I will always remember him as an extremely professional designer, a perfectionist with a big heart. He believed in timeless design, refusing any ephemeral fashion. He used so say to his students "if you design it right, it will last forever". He was like a lighthouse fighting the darkness of ignorance and bad taste.
Massimo succeeded in adapting his work to the needs of his clients, and with great coherence he never betrayed the principles of his minimalist design, always finding a subtle equilibrium between form and contents. His approach was to articulate a basic geometry in all his projects, translating it into visual pleasure, making the intangible tangible.
Massimo introduced the aesthetics of European Modernism to American graphic design. He was link to the rationalism of Mies van der Rohe, influencing the way we look at things by starting from a rational position, and choosing every solution for a precise reason. With basic grids, only six typefaces and primary colors he was able to invent different solutions for every problem, and they were always elegant and appropriate.
Among his more renowned works of graphic design, I recall the posters for the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, the logos for Bloomingdale’s and American Airlines, the image for Knoll Furniture, the map for the New York City Subway, and the graphics program for the United States National Park.
As a product and interior designer, among other projects Massimo designed the Divano Saratoga, the interior of St. Peter’s Church in New York, the Heller line of plastic ware. His book "Canon" was widely distributed around the world.
But this is just a small list of his endless and fantastic creative productions.
When working on projects of my own, I would often wonder what Massimo would have thought about a particular idea, and from time to time I would send him my designs and ask for his advice. Massimo was always very generous with his time, and always replied with various suggestions or appreciations. When criticizing a project he was direct, logic and persuasive. His thoughts and ideas were always coherent, and his advice invaluable.
Massimo was a master of self-promotion, he knew how to sell and persuade a client, helped greatly by his wife Lella. On one occasion, I recall a competition for a corporate identity that he was participating in, along with two other important design studios in New York. When he presented his work he told the client "we are all very good, you could choose between us with your eyes closed… but if you open them, you will choose us."
He used to say that we designers should behave like doctors, suggesting to our clients to do what they need, not to do what they want.
Massimo was a tireless organizer, always pondering over new projects. I remember various AGI meetings where he was president, such as in Amsterdam, Amalfi, and Tokyo. Through his humor, enthusiasm, and distinctive elegance he communicated an international and an Italian flavor. Massimo was an Italian that held the image of Italy high around the entire world.
He used to say that he would like to design the corporate identity for the Vatican, keeping the logo, but redesigning all the rest. It was interesting to note the contrast between his sparkling personality and sense of humor and the meticulous strictness of his design.
I had the opportunity to teach with Massimo at various workshops and seminars around the world and I always appreciated the methodology, discipline and passion for design that he was able to communicate to his students. Roger Remington, director of the Vignelli Center in Rochester, said "as we move forward at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, our task is to extend his legacy of excellence in everything we accomplish.”
Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Roger Remington and Milani among others at the Moulin des Trois Arcs, Provence.
Collaborating with Massimo for so many years has been a privilege and a great pleasure. He was a grand master of design and a real friend, I will miss him very much and for me he will always be by our side. He wrote a book about his work "Vignelli from the A to the Z" but for us his Z will be endless.
- Armando Milani
Watch Vignelli's recent interview on More Than Branding.
Photo credits: The Altos de Chavón School of Design and Armando Milani.
Special thanks to Armando Milani for his beautiful words.