Vignettes of Vignelli

As the US celebrates Independence Day, Clare Dowdy charts the illustrious career of the Vignellis and, overleaf, examines just how hard it is for Europeans to crack today’s US market.

It sounds like a dream existence. You have long-standing relationships with a string of European and US clients who like your work so much, they are just as likely to let you loose on their corporate identity as their chairs, their museum interiors or their newspaper layouts.

And such a well-reputed, prolific career has attracted its fair share of awards and accolades, book entries, touring exhibitions and television programmes. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that this reputation has been built up as expatriates, for Massimo and Lella Vignelli are Italians working out of New York.

Lella puts their initial success down to the European philosophy they took with them: “In the Sixties it was very easy to break into the US as we had a very strong [design] language.” Vignelli Associates was set up in 1971 in New York with Massimo, an architecture graduate, handling the graphic side and his wife Lella, who also studied architecture, concentrating on furniture and products.

An earlier Vignelli venture in the Sixties called Unimark International Corporation opened offices worldwide including New York and Milan, but over-expanded and soon collapsed. Since then they have kept their operation tight and now have a staff of 25. “We don’t want the office to grow much more because we could never control it,” says Lella.

Despite being credited with wowing the US with European minimalism, most of Vignelli Associates’ work is now overseas. It was the US recession in 1990 which upped the number of European projects, says Massimo, and he ticks off on his fingers current commissions in the UK, The Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

The corporate identity for German insurance company Bayerische Rck is being redesigned, and Italian motorbike company Ducati is being rebranded with a new marque, signage, showrooms, and packaging for its expanding merchandising range. French street furniture manufacturer JC Decaux has commissioned Vignelli and others including Sir Norman Foster to design pieces for its bid for New York City’s street furniture contract. And in true Vignelli style, the consultancy has picked up the redesign of JC Decaux’s corporate identity.

The new World Trade Centre at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is getting an identity, interiors and signage system courtesy of Vignelli Associates. All Milan’s museums which are run by Poltrona Frau will have new graphics, signage, book designs and trade fair branding. Spain is opening a new Guggenheim Museum, with graphics and seating by Vignelli Associates.

In the US the consultancy has just completed an identity programme for the Brooklyn Museum of Art and is working on one for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Within all this diversity, a common thread runs through their work, illustrated in their approach to the branding of UK rail franchise Great North Eastern Railroad. “We are not interested in trains, but in giving a solution to a problem,” says Massimo. They are now creating the identity for Sea Co, one of the sister companies of GNER, owned by US conglomerate Sea Containers.

Massimo is best known for the New York City subway signage system designed in 1966, and the redesign of the city’s subway map in 1972. And the Vignelli-designed identity for American Airlines is still in use – one of the oldest identities for a carrier. Posters, packaging, and kitchenware are also in their remit, but “graphics and products are our strongest disciplines”, says Massimo.

Massimo describes his approach to design as incorporating the notions of discipline, pertinence and timelessness: “We don’t share a passion for trends.” Indeed, the couple’s own minimalism is apparent in their simple black outfits, sporting a discreet Vignelli label in “Vignelli red”, a colour also to be found on Lella’s finger nails.

Despite being such strong figureheads at the helm of Vignelli Associates, their designers are not shadowy figures in the background, but are involved right from the start of a project at the client meeting. This makes sense when the owners are so often commuting between countries. And although the designers tend to remain within one discipline, there is a multidisciplinary feeling in the office, says Massimo: “We think specialisation brings entropy, and entropy brings creative death.”

Over the years the Vignellis have seen their roles evolve from pure designers to consultants, acting as advisors to clients and training up in-house design teams to carry on or apply their designs. In 1995 they set up a design office for Benetton, after creating the marques for United Colors of Benetton, Colors, Sisley and Benetton Sports System. This process is currently being repeated at GNER’s York headquarters.

So where do the Vignellis go from here? With minimalism coming back into fashion, particularly in the UK, the offers of work keep coming in. Unlike another living legend Philippe Starck, they have not fixed their retirement date. One challenge which has not yet presented itself, is a hotel project – the biggest feather in any international designer’s cap, as Starck would surely agree. They have been approached several times and Massimo hints they “might do something in the near future in Japan”.

And like other design gurus who have been operating since the Sixties they are facing the question of the business’s future. “[Our consultancy] is very personalised which is good, but it means we could never sell,” says Massimo. So perhaps, like any legend, they will just have to live forever.

Advice on breaking into the US market

With the recession behind us, many UK design groups, having already made inroads into continental Europe, are hungry to get their teeth into the US market. On paper it offers juicy clients and contracts in a massive market. But, in reality, hard graft and a significant amount of capital are required to crack the US.

Branding group Pearlfisher International should know. Two of its founders Jonathan Ford and Karen Welman spent three years from 1989 to 1992 setting up the former Michael Peters Group’s brand division in the US and continue to work regularly in the country.

“Americans are very direct in their approach and this is reflected in the way their brands work. Most American designers view brands as the worst form of design, however, I think that mature UK designers see the US brands as a tremendous opportunity,” says Ford.

“It’s no good going into the US market with a ‘Brits know all’ attitude and a sense of ‘what’s been successful over here is going to appeal to an American’. You may have short-term success, but Americans stick by a winner and if you don’t deliver what’s right for their market, you’ll be shown the door,” he adds.

In the past the US has not always been so attractive to UK designers. When the dollar was weak, fees were down and there was not much attraction in putting all that effort into breaking in. However, recently things have changed and it seems a lot of US consultancies, particularly on the West Coast, are delivering better work, making the environment more competitive for UK go-getters.

At the same time, US clients have been accused of being xenophobic and very protective of their local talent. That has been the experience of Brown Inc managing director Peter Hollingsworth who works over here for multinationals but admits to finding it more difficult to translate that ability to the other side of the Atlantic.

So what are the approaches deployed by UK consultancies for cracking the US?

Making initial contact

Print and screen graphics group The Attik Design went to a TV festival in the South of France to network with the industry’s bigwigs. “I introduced myself and it went from there,” says Will Travis, who heads up the group’s six-month-old New York office. Attik’s self-promotional book Noise helped as an introductory tool, and Noise 3 sold out after getting its own bookshop window display.

Through a strategic alliance

Ideal Global Branding Services Network was set up in 1995 and includes three US groups and Siebert Head in London. The network’s aim is to offer global branding solutions by drawing on local expertise.

The idea is not to get lots of work in the US but to help the local partners, says Siebert Head managing director John Parsons, who is also Ideal vice-president.

The main thrust of Siebert Head’s approach to the US is “mostly the presence and promotions through the associate companies of Ideal. It has worked reasonably well,” he adds. He admits, though, that clients are not all forthcoming: “The problem is that clients still like to deal with the people they know on a local level.”

Through a referral from a UK job

Siebert Head was working for Colgate Palm-olive in Europe on its Hills Pet Nutrition brand. After creating the packaging for Science Plan pet food, the consultancy was then referred to Colgate Palmolive’s headquarters in Kansas and picked up the brief to create the global redesign for the US version, Science Diet.

That sounds fairly straight forward but it is not always the case. Brown Inc works for Kodak and Unilever, but only on European projects, which proves that getting in on decent sized US jobs does not come automatically.

Through a partner in the US

Nucleus Design has a management consultancy business based in the US and UK through which it provides management-led design solutions.

Nucleus Consulting was set up in the US in 1994 and works on IT and networking projects. “Challenges from clients require a combination of skill sets: strategic management consulting, technology consulting and design consulting.”

Nucleus has worked for American Express and Time Warner. “These businesses want to work with us because we have a US and a global perspective. We are selling multidisciplinary project management,” says managing director Peter Matthews.

“It’s quite likely we will have a design consulting office this year,” he adds, though he could not comment on what form this would take.

“It’s a very expensive place to gain a profile, it’s better to come up with a unique offer to sell to individual clients. The market is much harder-nosed in many ways, but if you have credibility and good ideas you can charge reasonable fees,” says Matthews.

Following a UK client to the US

Newell and Sorrell makes it look so easy. After working with The Body Shop in the UK, the consultancy followed the client to the US. “If companies are happy to work with you over here, they are happy to work with you in the States,” says the group’s spokeswoman.

Entering US awards

Everyone enters US awards schemes as a way of building or raising their profile with potential or even existing clients. Mobius, New York Festivals, the Packaging Design Council and the Clios are favourites.

“We’re quite choosy about which ones we enter,” says a Newell and Sorrell spokeswoman. “It’s a way for clients to gauge how creative and effective we are.”

“We go in for competitions to raise our profile and get our work into people’s awareness,” says Ian Logan Design business development director Orli Lang, who is constantly sending out work to competitions.

Ian Logan Design has targeted US awards for the last decade as a means of getting US jobs, and can point to a host of clients picked up as a direct result, including companies such as The Gap and WH Smith.

“The Americans like very English designs,” says Lang, “It’s a selling point.” Award wins are used to back up marketing trips, and are included in promotional literature to impress clients. “As an English design company we already have respect,” she adds.

Whatever the successful UK groups may imply, really getting a foothold in the US is no easy task, and with US groups making headway in Europe, the competition will become even tougher.

However, there is clearly good money to be made and UK consultancies will have to become even more tenacious if they wish to make their mark.

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