Summer 2006

The Vignellis: a thoroughly Modernist marriage

Lella and Massimo Vignelli talk to Eye’s
John L. Walters and Simon Esterson

The Vignellis breeze through London in May, looking every inch the Modernist role model couple, dressed in elegant, monochrome clothes they designed themselves. Lella wears one of her beautiful silver necklaces – more industrial design than jewellery – while Massimo has a brooch pinned to his throat that looks like a portcullis. Of course it’s not a gate, it’s a grid.

The Vignellis are in town to deliver a lecture at Billingsgate to a 700-strong crowd as part of the D&AD’s annual series of President’s Lectures, which boasts one of the most impressive line-ups for years, including Jane Bown, Erik Spiekermann, Terry Jones and Chip Kidd.

The substance of their talk is a career retrospective similar to the content of their book Design Is One (see review in Eye no. 54 vol. 14), which covers more than 50 years of design practice, with an impressive list of satisfied clients, both corporate (American Airlines, Knoll) and cultural (Guggenheim, US National Parks Service) in two and three dimensions.

In 2000, the expiry of the lease on their old premises forced the couple to scale down their business – from 30 employees to just two. Though they regret the loss of their beautiful office with its river views, the decision to streamline the studio seems to have had a rejuvenating effect. The practice is now located elsewhere in New York City, in a double-height space ‘just tall enough for Massimo’s ego,’ they joke, where they enjoy the efficiencies that computers make possible.

In their view, postmodernism has died, and the Vignelli version of the Modernist gospel is taken seriously again by a new generation of students and aspiring designers, whose emails Massimo is always keen to answer, typing late into the night with two fingers. ‘Young people have gone back to a certain discipline in design, to rediscover the pleasure of good typography,’ he says.

So what advice do they have for young designers starting out? ‘My first advice: Never do anything for a bad client, to begin with,’ says Massimo. ‘Because from a bad client you get a worse client. From a good client you get a better one. So it’s very important to say no to the bad clients and go after the good ones. And of course it is important to do good things. But how do you do good things? Number one, by not trying to do things you have seen.’ But he notes that you have to keep working: ‘If you do a lot, you also acquire a certain agility. It’s exactly like exercise.’

They worry about getting too many new clients. ‘I only have to open my mouth and I get a new job,’ jokes Massimo. Of course clients have changed. ‘In the old days the client was the owner. Then you got marketing. Marketing is what ruined everything. It changed everything from quality to quantity … that is the disaster.’ Lella says: ‘In the 1980s, these young designers were thinking just about money and being different and being talked about.’

‘What our profession needs,’ says Massimo, ‘is more attention to history and criticism. Until we have that as part of our DNA we will not be a profession.’

Can they imagine starting out today? ‘I would never make it,’ says Massimo. ‘When we began in the 1950s there were simpler issues to deal with.’ Lella continues: ‘There were not too many designers then. And in many of the bigger companies, the founder was of European extraction, so the client had a similar cultural background, which was great.’

We discuss magazine design, including the design of Eye (they approve) and Dot Zero, their design magazine from the 1960s. ‘We had this missionary attitude of spreading good design around,’ says Massimo. ‘At one point we had a client, Future Paper, and my partner, who was the president of Unimark, convinced them to make a magazine. It was a short-lived project … but we had Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Bayer and a lot of other people. It was great to have this possibility because you get rid of all these things you have inside.’

Do they still feel the need to express this? ‘No, no,’ says Massimo. ‘I like to try things that are different, but I’m not after experimentation per se.’

But do they recognise that need for experimentation and anger in younger designers? ‘Yes, they have to be … it is the young people that are moving things. But I’m a strong believer, not in novelty but in refinement. I always say: “I belong to the culture of refinement.” I’m not American. They belong to the culture of novelty. Being different is important in America, more than any other place. For us it is important to keep refining all the time. Americans are not disciplined by their culture, but we don’t want to transform them. Europe is an older culture – we bring a discipline which is not American but is useful in our business.’

The Vignellis ask whether we have seen the latest innovation from Architectural Record, which they re-designed in the 1980s. ‘You can now get it on disc. You get the experience of reading the magazine and turning the pages.’

The pair regularly rail against fashion and novelty, insisting that ‘design’s purpose is to solve problems; fashion does the opposite.’

They hold forthright views about the wastefulness of much design. So what do they think of computer design? ‘Well the machinery, the function is changing so quickly, that once you have the computer for three years you have on the market a new one that you need,’ says Massimo. ‘So that is different from obsolescence: that is development, and in that case it’s fine. I bought one in December, and in January comes out the one with a camera, and I say “damn!” Now I have to give mine to Lella so that I can get the one with the camera!’

John L. Walters, Eye editor, London
Simon Esterson, Eye art director, London

First published in Eye no. 60 vol. 15 2006

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.