Massimo Vignelli, a member of AGI since 1965 and the organization’s president from 1985 to 1988, died on Tuesday, May 27, 2014.
Massimo Vignelli was one of those rare designers who enjoyed both immense respect from his professional peers and recognition from the general public. Born on January 10, 1931, in Milan, Italy, Massimo’s earliest design experience was as a teenager in the studio of the Castiglioni brothers, where he had first encounter with the ethos that a designer should be capable of creating everything “from a spoon to a city.” He subsequently studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano. It was while as a student there that he met his future wife Lella Valle; they both later attended the University of Venice together.
In 1957, Massimo and Lella were offered fellowships in the United States. They married before making the move, living first in Boston, then Chicago. In was in Chicago that Massimo met the designers and businessmen with whom he would found Unimark in 1965, one of the first, and certainly one of the most influential, international design firms. Working first in Milan and then in New York, Massimo pioneered a new design language, introducing the rigor associated with European designers to the American corporate marketplace, as well as an unfamiliar but soon to be ubiquitous typeface, Helvetica. It was at Unimark that Massimo worked on two of his most iconic projects, the identity for the Knoll furniture company and the signage for the New York subway system. Both are still in use today.
The end of the Unimark adventure in 1971 led to the opening of Vignelli Associates. For the next 40 years, with an ever-changing, devoted, and surprisingly small staff, Massimo and Lella created a staggering array of identities, books, signage systems, interiors, and products, from coordinated literature programs for the U.S. National Parks to guidebooks for birdwatchers; from church interiors to inexpensive plastic mugs. In the process, he won the Compasso D’Oro, the U.S. Presidential Design Award, the AIGA Medal, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum Lifetime Achievement Award, and was elected to the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.
All the while, Massimo was an inescapable figure in the New York and international design scene. At AGI Congresses, every meeting with Massimo — whether for the first time or the fiftieth — was memorable: with boundless energy and inexhaustible good cheer, he would envelop you in a warm hug and excited chatter — and with Massimo, the talk was always about design. He did not hesitate to rail against those he felt were undermining the profession. But it was always amusing to see him meet another designer whose work he disliked: no matter how harsh his criticism had been, Massimo’s instinctive generosity would take over and he and his former foe would soon be sharing a laugh and a glass of wine. Massimo loved design and he loved designers.
He was like that to the end. Even as his health began to fail over the last year, he was hungry for company, and in his last weeks he saw a steady stream of visitors that would have exhausted a healthy man. Instead, it just seemed to energize him. It was enough to persuade you that this designer who had dedicated his life to creating work that would last forever would last forever himself.
But it was not to be. Massimo Vignelli died with the satisfaction of knowing that he was at the top of his profession, with his influence on successive generations of designers never more profound, and with a reputation that would endure far beyond his lifetime. We will miss him.
Tribute to Massimo by Ken Carbone