Profile – Massimo and Lella Vignelli

Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s designs have always been guided by a single-minded philosophy. Mike Dempsey celebrates the life and works of the high-profile husband and wife team, ahead of their London lecture.

‘If you can design one thing, you can design everything.’ This is the world according to Massimo Vignelli, who, along with his wife Lella, has been doing just that for five decades.

Business partnerships can sometimes be tricky, but, when you are also married to your partner, you’d think it would double the potential for disaster. Not so with the Vignellis – or, for that matter, the other high-profile marital design duos, Charles and Ray Eames, and our own Robin and Lucienne Day. What they all have in common is an inseparability between life, love and design.

The Vignellis first met in their native Italy as young architecture students, and it is clear, from the work that followed over the next 50 years, that the structural discipline of architecture had a profound effect on the couple’s approach to design. It was while at the studio of Achille Castiglioni that Massimo was given the pearl, ‘an architect should be able to design everything from the spoon to the city’, which he later adapted to his own mantra. Massimo went on to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago – while Lella worked for architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill – before returning to Italy, where he was a co-founder of Unimark, and then went back to the US, where Vignelli Associates was established in New York in 1971.

The work I most associate with the Vignellis is graphics. It is bold, structured and direct. Some might even see it as a little arrogant. Working with a limited palette of mostly primary colours – red being a favourite – and a small handful of typefaces (but even these have been modified to iron out any anomalies) is the basis of Massimo’s graphic toolkit. In the Vignellis’ most recent book, Design is One, a list of six commandments is set out in the opening pages. Like the Dogma film-makers, the Vignellis adhere rigidly to their manifesto, and out of it has come a stream of consistently beautiful work.

On the graphic front, there are iconic pieces like the New York subway signing system, which still looks wonderful 40 years on, or those brightly coloured Bloomingdale’s bags that cheer up those bleak winter days in the Big Apple. Then there’s that witty building site hoarding, showing a giant blow-up of a blueprint of the building that’s under renovation, or the effortlessly elegant book designs for Rizzoli. Or the corporate identities for American Airlines and Italian motorcycle manufacturer Ducati, not to mention signage for the Guggenheim Bilbao.

But this dynamic duo has also produced wonderfully minimal interiors, furniture, silverware and ceramics. The convergence of all these disciplines can be found in the magnificent interior scheme for Saint Peter’s Church in New York.

In 2000, the couple downsized – the end of the lease meant they had to say goodbye to their wonderful studio. But the Vignellis are still beavering away, creating timeless work. In 1979, when I started CDT, I bought one of Massimo’s perpetual calendars. It is still in use and looks just as beautiful as the time I first set eyes on it.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli will be giving the D&AD Presidents’ Lecture on Thursday 4 May, from 7pm to 8.30pm at Old Billingsgate Market, 16 Lower Thames Street, London EC3. To book tickets call 020 7840 1127

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