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Bob Noorda, 1927-2010
Massimo Vignelli recalls his impeccable design partner
Bob Noorda in the Milan Metropolitana subway, which helped him and Vignelli win the commission for New York's system.
Courtesy This Is Display

Back in the early 1960s, Bob Noorda was the designer in Milan with whom I most wanted to work. His famous graphic designs for Milan’s Metropolitana subway were of the highest standard. His elegant figure and gentle manners opened all doors of Milanese society, giving him access to the best clients. His manners were polite, subdued, what we used to call those of a real gentleman.

Noorda And Vignelli's designs for the New York City Subway. (Click to zoom)
COURTESY Vignelli Associates

We started our friendship by driving to Venice every week to teach graphic design at the School of Industrial Design. That experience and closeness cemented our friendship, and in 1964 we decided to merge offices. Then with some friends in Chicago, we started Unimark International in Milan. For a year we worked together at the same desk, each one of us on his own projects, all the time exchanging our impressions and opinions. When I left for the United States, I left my clients in his hands and he took great care, losing not a single one.

In the following years, we worked on other projects together, one being the signage for the New York City subway in 1966. I remember when Bob came to New York. He spent every day underground, recording pedestrian traffic flow in order to determine where signs should be placed. I remember how we decided all details, from typeface to type spacing, color-coding to implementation.

Bob had a systematic mind, and it was always a pleasure to see logic prevail over emotional issues to deliver the best possible solution. His work was extremely civilized, his Dutch origin reflecting that culture and bringing a quality of spareness and essentiality to all his work.

Bob’s excellent sense of typography could be seen in the endless lists of publications designed by him through the years. His wife Ornella, a prolific designer, was a complementary presence in his life, bringing a witty and fresh component to his sober style. When Unimark closed its U.S. offices, Bob kept the Milan office going, eventually under his ownership for many more years.

Bob was a designer who contributed enormously to the recognition of our profession, a noble person to whom we designers are all indebted. His example will remain a beacon for us all.

Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignelli is principal of New York-based Vignelli Associates.