How the Vignellis Changed the Face of Design

Image Courtesy of John Madere

In the early 1960s, a married couple from Italy arrived in New York City and molded a modernist approach to design that gripped the world. They were Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Young, ambitious, and beautiful, "The Vignellis" infused America with timeless Italian style. They created corporate identities for American Airlines, IBM, Ford Motor Company, and Bloomingdales. They also developed a transportation ethos for the New York Subway System. These high-profile projects overshadowed other work by the couple, who regularly designed furniture, modular plastic dinnerware, drinking glasses, jewellery, and the inside of Saint Peter's Church.

Trained in Europe, Massimo Vignelli introduced America to the "grid" concept, in which a matrix of square and rectangles is applied to every facet of a project. A magazine layout, for example, uses the same grid on every spread, arranging text and images inside it so the publication and everything associated with it, such as an advert, has a cohesive and structured appearance. Using grids, the Vignellis created a language of design that made their work highly recognisable but specific to every client. Combinations of warm red colours and modern typefaces, such as Helvetica, Univers, and Bodini, create the Vignelli style that has been borrowed by companies such as Target and institutions such as the Modern Museum of Art.

As their firm became more established, the Vignellis gained enthusiasm for educating new designers on their philosophies and methods. They donated a vast archive of work to Rochester Institute of Technology, where it can be viewed in a building they designed. Massimo Vignelli released "Vignelli: From A to Z," a free book that categorises his work process. Both taught at world-famous universities, gave numerous lectures, earned awards, and helped produce the short independent film "Helvetica." Their story is detailed in the documentary "Design is One," titled after the famous quote: "If you can design one thing, you can design everything."

Just like anyone, the Vignellis had a few failures and misdirections. A plastic coffee cup designed for Heller, Inc., was disliked by Americans because the integrated handle caused a space in the rim, allowing coffee to drip out when filled to the top. Their first New York City subway map, although beautiful enough to frame, was difficult to use and had to be modified. The couple eventually redesigned the map into a viable product. Massimo Vignelli died in 2014, but his influence lives indefinitely.