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Style Icon: Massimo Vignelli

by Maxwell Tielman


Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.

A long-held belief amongst design enthusiasts is that the best design is design that becomes invisible—design that is simple and doesn’t announce its presence, but coexists harmoniously with the world, performing its function with understated beauty. If there is any single designer for whom this value holds the most truth, it is the late, insurmountably great Massimo Vignelli. Born in Milan in 1931, Vignelli displayed an interest and aptitude for design at a preternaturally young age. Although Vignelli originally went into the field of architecture, studying at both the Polytechnic University of Milan and Universita di Architettura in Venice, he was an avid proponent of Adolf Loos’ belief that an architect could (and should) design anything from “a spoon to a city.” Vignelli himself was famous for saying, “if you can design one thing, you can design everything,” a philosophy he lived and designed by, his prolific career dotted with iconic graphic programs, object designs, logos, interiors and furniture.

In the mid 1960s, Vignelli emigrated to the United States, where he would eventually find permanent residence with his wife, Lella in New York City. In 1966, he helped to found Unimark International, a Chicago-based design firm that was, at the time, one of the world’s largest and most well known. It was during his tenure at Unimark that some of Vignelli’s most iconic and enduring designs were realized, Unimark’s numerous clients including American Airlines, Knoll, JC Penney, Ford and The National Parks Service. In 1971, Massimo resigned from Unimark and went on to establish Vignelli Associates alongside Lella.


Above: A sampling of just a few designs from Vignelli’s prolific career. Clockwise from top left: Perpetual Wall Calendar; the Bloomingdale’s logo; Heller Dinnerware SetHandkerchief ChairThe 1972 Diagram for The New York City Subway SystemAcme Stiletto Pen; the Ford Motor Company logo; Long Index WatchThe Vignelli Canon, Vignelli’s 2010 design manifesto.

Although Vignelli is probably most famous for his work in graphic design, his architectural training appears to have had a massive influence on his overall design sensibilities. One of the most well-known designers to popularize the “grid” technique of graphic design, the idea of structure informed much of his life’s work. Vignelli believed that design should be functional above all, following a strict stylistic guideline of grid marks, primary colors and typographic classics. Putting superfluous, ostentatious design on the same level as heinous criminal activity, he strived to create objects and visual programs that were universal—easily understood and free of artistic ego. To Vignelli, beauty could be found in the details—ease of use, legibility, simplicity—not excessive or needlessly expressive ornamentation. Some of his most iconic designs follow this philosophy to a tee—from the graphic program for the National Parks Service to his comprehensive design for the New York City subway system.


Above: Illustrator Libby VanderPloeg’s interpretation of Massimo Vignelli’s Stendig Calendar. Read more about this design icon here.

Despite his adherence to a rigid design structure and a severe color palette, Massimo Vignelli’s personal demeanor was one of immense humor, vitality, wit and warmth. The author of numerous books and manifestos on design, Vignelli was as much a teacher as he was a design practitioner, deeply invested in the notions of education, social improvement and sharing. In 2008, Massimo and Lella donated their entire archive of design work to The Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. This formed the basis for what would be The Vignelli Center for Design Studies, a multi-functional space on the campus that contains galleries, study spaces and classrooms, all aimed at educating young students of design. Each year, up until last summer, students from around the world were able to visit the center to study underneath Massimo himself for a week-long graphic design workshop. I had the pleasure of attending in 2012 and the experience was absolutely unforgettable. I went in expecting an intimidating figure, but Massimo was kind, open and patient with all of his students; an exceedingly charming man with no sense of pretense. One got the feeling that he was right at home in this setting, despite being miles from his Italian birthplace—a teacher at heart, he was where he belonged.

It was with an extremely heavy heart that we learned of Massimo’s passing this week. At the age of 83, he had lived what seems like ten lifetimes, leaving behind a legacy that will continue to inspire, inform, and change the world. —Max

Above: The trailer for “Design Is One,” the 2012 documentary about the life and work of Massimo and Lella Vignelli.

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  • A great designer, his works will remain with us forever because of their simplicity and beauty, like the perpetual wall calendar and the handkerchief chair. What I didn’t know is that he was such a nice and kind person, thank you Max for sharing your story with us, it is always a pleasure to hear that such a talented person could remain simple at heart.

  • This was so interesting. I didn’t know that Massimo Vignelli was the one person behind all these iconic designs. I always enjoy your writing. Thanks for sharing!

  • I enjoyed reading your article and feel it was imbued with the personality of the designer.