The Editorial: I Vignelli / Design Is One

The Editorial: I Vignelli / Design Is One

It’s difficult not to speak reverently about Massimo Vignelli. He’s one of the living greats and a reminder that Italy was once ground zero for good design. You know his work, even if you don’t know him. And every student of design, graphic or otherwise, (at about the same time he or she falls madly in love with the “rationality” of Helvetica) has fleetingly considered him an idol.

And while his design’s appropriateness for today is not so clear, it’s been sad to see it systematically begin to disappear from the common landscape. Most recently, his logo for department store JCPenney – pure nostalgia for tons of 80s and 90s kids – was recently jettisoned in favour of a bizarre reinterpretation of the American flag. American Airlines, for which he designed their once revolutionary identity, is bankrupt with many speculating that it will be eaten up by another company and disappear in short order. And the gorgeous 1960s and 1970s Vignelli designed and/or inspired signage still visible in Italy’s tube stations, streetcars, roads and public spaces is decaying, busted or covered by graffiti. Arrivederci once again, modernism.

His NYC Subway map is long gone, and while it could have used some tweaks, it is in my opinion the only transit map in the world that ever approached the level of functional, iconic simplicity as Harry Beck’s London Tube map. (Those things must be hell to design: have you looked at the tiny Milan metro’s pitiful spaghetti pot?)

Although his designs were striking, beautiful and salient, they were almost always in the service of massive corporate clients. His works were thus stamped out by the millions and became synonymous with the unthinking, relentless profit mongering of late 20th century capitalism. Many, including a great many designers, are ecstatic to see it go. (Ironically enough, University of the Arts London – of which Central Saint Martins is a part – have rebranded under a new, Vignelli-inspired logo earlier this year. Everyone hates it.)

But as his ubiquity fades, Vignelli is gaining a new sort of cultural traction that he had always lacked. He’s spoken candidly about his work, most notably with Debbie Millman on her seminal show, Design Matters, and has revealed a great deal about his integrity as a designer. And a new film, which premiered just this week at the Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York aims to tell the lesser known personal story about Vignelli, his wife Lella and their extraordinary collaborative legacy. (It’s about time someone crafts a narrative to give the Eames’ some real design power couple competition!)

Love or hate his work, the man is a genius. He – together with Lella – has left a mark on modern society that we’re only beginning to understand.

Tag Christof