[Tracey Shumate's self portrait with the Massimo Vignelli designed Stendig calendar from Issue 6]
Designer Massimo Vignelli (1931 to 2014) was a man for the masses. Primarily a graphic designer, he made modernity functional. And he extended this idea of making everyday things beautiful to kitchenware, signage, book covers and home interiors. His best-known creation—the signage for the New York City subway—has been in use since 1966. But our adoration is more than Eames-era nostalgia: Vignelli's take on modernist principles still feels new today.
Vignelli was born in Italy. He studied art and architecture in Milan and Venice. He was an admirer of the modernist work of architects Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. In Italy he made a splash with his clean, colourful designs for glassmakers Venini.
Vignelli moved to Chicago in the 1960s, attracted by the opportunity to take his ideas to a larger audience. He joined ad agency Unimark, at the time, one of the world’s largest design firms. In Chicago, he worked on designing corporate identities for clients such as American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox, Knoll and Gillette.
[Vignelli's work for Knoll seen in Knoll: A Modernist Universe]
Although he had an unerring sense of wit and beauty, he saw himself as a problem solver, not an artist. “We have to make a distinction between design and art,” said Vignelli in an interview in Print magazine in 1991. “If you are an artist, you can do anything you want. Design serves a different purpose. If in the process of solving a problem you create a problem, obviously, you did not design.”
At this time he also branched out into industrial design, most famously for the crayon-coloured plastic dinnerware sets for the furniture company Heller in 1964.
[Heller Dinnerware set in White]
In 1971, he and his wife Lella left Unimark to start their own design firm. Their work had a sense of permanence as well as playfulness. Case in point: Bloomingdales’ iconic Big Brown Bag. “You can reach timelessness if you look for the essence of things and not the appearance,” Vignelli once said. The appearance is transitory—the appearance is fashion, the appearance is trendiness—but the essence is timeless.”
[Vignelli's Max 365 perpetual calendar]
The couple felt that permanance was important to sucessful design. Which explains why Vignelli’s work never went out of fashion. And Lella still runs the companycarrying the torch for the firm's principles, a.k.a the “The Five Vignelli-isms:”