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Remembering the Great Massimo

Written by in Profiles

“An Unapologetic Modernist on a

Crusade Against Vulgarity”

Tribute to Massimo Vignelli by Ken Carbone for Against the Grain

It was a sunny day in Philadelphia in the spring of 1971. I was sitting on the front steps of the art college I was attending, when an enormous, gleaming white 18 wheel truck came driving by. The ten foot black letters on its side spelled: Knoll. I didn’t know what Knoll was. I didn’t know that this was “graphic design.” I didn’t know that this was the work of Massimo Vignelli. All I knew was that I wanted a career doing that!

Massimo setting up a shot of his NYC subway map with John Madere.

Massimo setting up a shot of his NYC subway map with photographer John Madere.

Massimo Vignelli’s work is legendary. The graphics, products, books, furniture and interiors that he designed with his wife Lella are iconic. American Airlines, The New York Transit System, The National Parks Service, Bloomingdales, Benetton and Ford, all have the mark of Vignelli. They were the definition of “multidisciplinary” and they did it all. As a couple they were like designers from “central casting,” elegant, stylish, almost regal. Yet both were warm and welcoming, never aloof.

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Massimo and Lella Vignelli: “She was a vital partner in the studio’s design work and Massimo never let anyone forget it.” – John Madere

I didn’t work with Massimo but I was introduced to him through many friends who did. Over the 35 years that we knew each other, our encounters were not particularly frequent, but whenever we met at a conference or design event, it was just the right balance of familiar and professional with every conversation focusing on design.

Vignelli was an unapologetic modernist on a crusade against vulgarity. He designed from the “inside-out” in a style that was rigorously structured, sometimes lyrical and quintessentially European. With all of his prestigious accomplishments he was very “human” and liked to have fun. Once a group of friends arranged a bachelor party for a designer at the Vignelli office, complete with a surprise “strip-o-gram” performance. I can still remember Massimo’s delight as he went along with the prank.

John Madere’s favorite shot of Massimo and Lella. He also photographed the Vignellis separately and side by side.

Massimo and Lella Vignelli with a Roy Lichtenstein tapestry and a bust of Goethe, who Massimo revered.

We became closer in recent years after he agreed to write the foreword for a monograph about our agency and my partnership with Leslie Smolan. I specifically asked him to reminisce about his working with Lella, an assignment he accepted with great pleasure. I’m honored that he made this memorable contribution to our book.

I have always had a particular fondess for the Vignellis’ three-dimensional work. The refinement of their glassware, the muscular forms of their furniture, and their dramatic interiors. Twenty-six years ago, my wife and I chose to be married in the Vignelli-designed St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. Our ceremony was held in an intimate chapel featuring walls adorned with beautiful Louise Nevelson sculptures. Even though Massimo was not among our invited guests, his presence was deeply felt in the graceful design of this space.

Now that he is gone, I plan to return to that chapel, light a candle and celebrate the life of the great Massimo Vignelli.

(L to R: Massimo Vignelli, Ken Carbone, Leslie Smolan, Steven Heller)

(L to R: Massimo Vignelli, Ken Carbone, Leslie Smolan, Steven Heller. Photo courtesy of Ken Carbone.)

Credits and Notes: John Madere graciously lent his photos of the Vignellis, who were the first designers he photographed for his ongoing series of portraits of prominent graphic designers. He has posted his recollections of photographing and filming Massimo and Lella on his blog , along with a link to the 7-minute video he shot in 2010.

Massimo’s 60-second sketch of the evolution of 35mm camera design.

Massimo’s 60-second sketch of the evolution of 35mm camera design.