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Graphic Designer Massimo Vignelli Dies

Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, and Paola Antonelli pay tribute to their collaborator and mentor.

By Laura Mirviss
May 29, 2014
Photo courtesy Richard Meier & Partners Architects
From left: Tadao Ando, Lella Vignelli, Richard Meier, and Massimo Vignelli, in January 1990.

Massimo Vignelli, one of the leading graphic artists of his generation who designed some of the most recognized logos and branding materials of the second half of the 20th century, died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 83.

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Vignelli applied his strict minimalist aesthetic to some of America’s most iconic brands, designing the austere American Airlines logo, consisting of sans-serif AAs, introduced in 1967 and used until it was replaced last year; Bloomingdale’s signature brown bag; and the controversial and doggedly Modernist New York City subway map introduced in 1972 and used until the late 1970s.

With a diverse body of work ranging from the interior of Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan to furniture for Knoll, Vignelli worked with dozens of notable architects, designing everything from their monographs to their websites, stationery, and business cards. He also designed numerous publications, often for free. Vignelli twice oversaw the redesign of Architectural Record, in 1982 and 1991. He also served as a design consultant to Record from June 1982 through December 1989, and again from March 1991 through December 1996. (Read Stephen A. Kliment's editor's letter about the redesign in March 1991.)

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better graphic designer in the world,” says Richard Meier, who knew Vignelli for decades and worked for years in the same office building on Tenth Avenue in New York. “He made graphic design an art.”

The two collaborated on numerous projects, with Vignelli designing all of Meier’s books as well as his website and office publicity materials. “There were a lot of people doing graphic design, but not like Massimo,” Meier says. “Massimo has always been the reason I’ve done so many books. He has an incredible eye not just for graphics, but for architecture, for everything, he was extremely perceptive.”

A revered figure in the international design community, Vignelli often freely gave of his time and resources, touching the lives of the next generation of designers. He worked as an architectural draftsman as a teenager, and went on to study architecture at the University of Venice, when he met his wife and longtime collaborator Lella. In the mid-1960s, the couple left Italy for America and started a joint design firm, Vignelli Associates, in New York in 1971.

Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, says the couple mentored her for decades, taking a fellow Italian under their wing when she moved to New York City and joined MoMA in 1994. “We’ve known each other forever. They were always very protective,” Antonelli says. “New York was not the easiest place back then, and they helped me figure out how to move, what to do, where to eat. The relationship goes beyond professional. It was a family feeling.”

In 2004, Antonelli helped MoMA acquire her favorite Vignelli project, the New York Subway Map, and associated memorabilia, including the New York Subway Guide, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority Subway Transportation Graphic Program, and three New York Subway signs, which were designed in collaboration with Dutch graphic designer Bob Noorda. “I’m so proud that it’s two Italians that gave New York such a big piece of its identity,” she says. “They really designed the world around us.”

Architect Peter Eisenman says he is indebted to Vignelli for designing nearly every issue of Oppositions, an architectural journal produced by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies from 1973 to 1984. Eisenman says he designed the first issue of Oppositions himself in 1973 but quickly realized he needed outside assistance. “I had designed not only a cover, but the inside layout, everything. We hadn’t gone to Massimo for the first issue, but when the dummy came back, it looked terrible. I called Massimo up and I said, ‘We can’t afford to pay you, but we need somebody to design our new magazine.’”

Massimo asked Eisenman to come to his office, and he spent the next six or seven hours laying out the entire magazine. “I wanted to have a gray cover, but Massimo told us that the cover needed to be a bold color—a processed red-orange. He told us, ‘Twenty years from now, you’ll want it to stand out because all the issues will be there on a bookshelf,’” recalls Eisenman, who was the executive director of the Institute, which closed in 1985.

“We realized that this guy was an amazing friend and character who loved doing this and never charged us a penny,” says the architect. “It was a fun thing to watch him work. No one could do what Massimo did.” Over the next 11 years, Vignelli designed more than 25 issues of Oppositions for free.

Mildred Schmertz, the Editor in Chief of Architectural Record from 1985 to 1990, encouraged the magazine to hire Vignelli after meeting him at the Aspen Design Conference in the early 1980s. “He got hired and had a contract—he was to come up with a new typography, a new format, a whole new design system,” says Schmertz. “For the first few issues, he was to participate with the art department in laying out actual stories.”

“But when the contract was over, he kept coming because he just got a tremendous kick out of designing. He’d call me up and find out when we were laying out the magazine, and he’d show up and take a hand in it,” says Schmertz. “I think he thought it was an opportunity to do great work, and he didn’t give a damn if he got paid or not.”

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