Graphic Design, Typography

Massimo Vignelli in Gary Hustwit’s film, Helvetica

Sad news reached CR from the US earlier today – the great designer and teacher Massimo Vignelli died this morning at the age of 83…

Earlier this month, Pentagram partner Michael Bierut informed us that Vignelli was very ill and was spending his final days at his home – and that the designer’s son Luca had a request. He wanted to ask those who had been either inspired or influenced by his father’s work to write to him in New York.

The reaction was unprecedented. While intended as a means through which to send hand-written notes of thanks and appreciation to the designer, news of the idea spread online and soon people were also leaving their thoughts on blog posts, in comments, and on social media. Such was his influence.

As a graphic designer, Vignelli’s place within the history of the great practitioners has long been assured. He and his wife Lella had initially established the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in Milan in 1960, with Massimo becoming design director of the pioneering Unimark International Corporation, with its offices in New York, Chicago and Milan, five years later.

New York Subway Guide, via MoMA

The subway sign system created for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1966 – along with the modernistsubway ‘diagram’ – remains one of the studio’s most well-regarded projects among designers (the signage manual now even has its own website at thestandardsmanual.com).

In 1971 Massimo and Lella co-founded Vignelli Associates, which became Vignelli Designs in 1978. As Vignelli Associates, the Vignelli’s continued to produce work for a range of iconic US brands – from Bloomingdale’s to American Airlines – as well as working on interiors, packaging designs, furniture and products, such as the much-loved Hellerware system (another client which continued a relationship with the designer since the Unimark days).

Identity for American Airlines, via vignelli.com

Yet many of the comments on our own post last month mentioned Vignelli’s generosity and engaging manner; the amount of time he gave to young designers, particulary on their portfolios; or what he conveyed when he gave presentations and talks. It’s a reputation that Vignelli had for many years.

Indeed Bierut, who worked for Vignelli Associates from 1980 to 1990, today posted a moving recollection on Design Observer of his time spent with the designer.

“Today there is an entire building in Rochester, New York, dedicated to preserving the Vignelli legacy,” Bierut writes. “But in those days, it seemed to me that the whole city of New York was a permanent Vignelli exhibition. To get to the office, I rode in a subway with Vignelli-designed signage, shared the sidewalk with people holding Vignelli-designed Bloomingdale’s shopping bags, walked by St. Peter’s Church with its Vignelli-designed pipe organ visible through the window.”

It is fitting that the last project to surround Vignelli at his home was one that came out of a connection with so many people. We hope he got to see as many of the letters as possible.

The AIGA biography honouring Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s joint award of the AIGA Medal in 1982 is at aiga.org.Michael Bierut’s post on Vignelli is here. For an overview of his work see vignelli.com.

In March The Architectural League gave its President’s Medal to Lella and Massimo Vignelli – above, the designer is holding untrimmed press sheets of covers for the evening’s programme (designed by Michael Bierut) which featured a series of five Vignelli quotes. Photograph by Hamish Smyth, via pentagram.com.

From CR Blog

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