Designer Massimo Vignelli, born January 10, 1931, in Milan, Italy, died peacefully in his New York City home on May 27, 2014. One of the world’s most consistent supporters of a modernist approach to design, architecture, and life, Vignelli was widely known for his work on signs and diagrammatic maps of the New York subway; the identity for American Airlines; and for a vast array of publications, signage, products, and furniture for clients including the U.S. National Park Service, Knoll, Heller, Artemide, Casigliani, Feudi di San Gregorio, Ducati, and the British GNER Railway. He worked in tandem with his wife Lella for most projects, particularly on interiors such as Saint Peter’s Church and SD26 Restaurant in Manhattan, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Poltrona Frau showrooms in Italy and the U.S.
Many people list award-winning artifacts as Vignelli’s most meaningful legacy, but these products and projects were a tangible result of his intent to make the world a better, more organized place. Vignelli’s unwavering belief in design as a tool to benefit society grew naturally from his childhood. Familial stresses and the political upheaval as Italy was torn apart in World War II disrupted his schooling and when he was 15, life was further confused by the untimely death of his father. Vignelli first became aware of furniture and architectural design thanks to a family friend and this provided a meaningful focus for his intellect and skills as he excelled in studio and art history courses.
He furthered his education as an avid reader of Domus and international design magazines. Assisting a cousin who was studying architecture brought him into the studios of Italy’s leading modernist architects; the views of Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Giancarlo de Carlo on life and work strongly influenced the young Vignelli. Issues of politics, economics, and war raised ethical and societal questions and led to his self-directed search for answers. At that time, Vignelli’s learned distrust of the inequities of capitalism and of America was contradicted by his interest in innovations in American architecture and by the fact that many Bauhaus masters had resettled in the U.S.
In 1950, Vignelli enrolled in the architecture program at Politecnico di Milano. For a time, he rented a room to Swiss designer Max Huber, who became his mentor for graphic design and typography. In 1951, he was a student volunteer at an architectural conference on Lake Como. There he met Elena (Lella) Valle, who accompanied her architect father to the conference. Lella would become his wife (in 1957) and lifelong business partner. Later, both would study architecture at the University of Venice.
In 1957, Massimo earned a fellowship at Towle Silversmiths and the Vignellis moved to Massachusetts. Lella continued her studies at MIT. The couple traveled across the US; while visiting Chicago, Massimo was offered a teaching position at the Institute of Design and a part-time position in design research at Container Corporation. The Vignellis stayed in Chicago until their visas expired in 1960, when they returned to Milan and opened their own design office. During this time, Massimo defined a language of visual form that would provide the foundation for his entire career.
In 1965, Vignelli was a co-founder of the short-lived Unimark International; through this position he became influential in establishing a comprehensive approach to American corporate identity and in promoting the widespread use of the Helvetica typeface. Unimark brought the Vignellis to New York, but in 1971 he abruptly resigned from the company to form Vignelli Associates with Lella. From that time, their firm continued under their leadership along with a second company, Vignelli Design (for licensed products). Their showcase office was on Tenth Avenue from 1984 to 2000, then the Vignellis downsized their business and moved to their home office.
Massimo fulfilled a lifelong goal by actively working until his final days. Vignelli clients often became Vignelli friends. His love of architecture resulted in some of his favorite projects as he designed books for and developed close friendships with many architects, including Richard Meier, Harry Seidler, Peter Eisenman, and Tadao Ando.
Vignelli’s constant battle against mediocrity, obsolescence, and the consequent deterioration of society itself lasted through his lifetime. His impassioned embrace of an engaged life came with a ready smile, quick wit, raised eyebrows, and a nimble mind, but he also aimed sharp criticism at anyone whose work failed to meet his strict standards. “There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence,” he said. This led him to a lifetime of teaching, sharing, and explaining ideas and methods with consistency, clarity, and patience to clients and designers alike. He was active in several professional organizations during his career, serving as president of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) and of AIGA, as vice president of The Architectural League, and as member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA).
Massimo Vignelli’s most meaningful legacy was relationships. He was a designer—a builder—not simply of materials, but of ideas and of people. Besides visiting and lecturing for many schools and organizations, he began offering a series of Master Designer Workshops through the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). In 2010, the Vignellis donated their archives to RIT. The archives are housed in a Vignelli-designed building with exhibition and teaching spaces. “The Vignelli Center is not only the building and the archives, but it is sharing our philosophy of the importance of design theory, history, and criticism,” he said.
Massimo Vignelli is survived by his wife Lella, daughter Valentina, and son Luca. His final days were honored by an outpouring of mail, thanks to Luca’s suggestion of a “Dear Massimo” letter-writing campaign. Hundreds of letters arrived from those who felt Massimo’s influence. Some were witty, some serious, but all expressed gratitude and support to the mentor who touched their lives and work in a meaningful way. It was a final reward and a warm tribute to Massimo Vignelli, whose great desire was “to rid the world of ugliness.”