Massimo Vignelli 1931 – 2014

The Italian-born designer credited with introducing European modernism to American graphic design has died
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The Italian-American designer Massimo Vignelli
The Italian-American designer Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignell, the Italian-American designer best known for his work on the New York subway, died in his Manhattan home yesterday (Tuesday), aged 83, after a period of poor health.

Deyan Sudjic, the Phaidon author and director of London’s Design Museum, was one of the designer's many admirers; he told Phaidon.com earlier this month that Vignelli’s work was “remarkably consistent.” Sudjic went on to characterise Vignelli as “an elegant designer,” and believed that his 1972 subway map was “the only one to have given London transport’s a run for its money.”

 

Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda's 1972 New York Subway Map
Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda's 1972 New York Subway Map

Michael Beirut, partner at the Pentagram agency, also paid tribute. “Massimo, probably more than anyone else, gets the credit for introducing a European Modernist point of view to American graphic design,” he said.

This introduction began in the 1950s when Vignelli, a design enthusiast inspired by the work of Mies van de Rohe and Le Corbusier, first visited the US. Settling permanently in New York in 1966, Vignelli brought his modernist sensibilities to such new world brands as American Airlines, Bloomingdales – Vignelli produced the department store’s famous brown bag – and the New York Subway.

 

Vignelli's American Airlines work
Vignelli's American Airlines work

Not all of these sleek introductions were met with universal admiration. At the firm’s insistence, an eagle was inserted between between Vignelli's two sans serif ‘A’s in the American Airline’s 1967 logo.  Similarly, Vignelli’s diagrammatical subway map, which guided New Yorkers from 1972 until 1979, was abandoned following a sustained period of public disapproval. 

 

Massimo Vignelli addresses old friend George Lois and wife  Rosie at the launch party for George's book Damn Good Advice -  photo courtesy Shaun Mader/Patrick McMullen.com
Massimo Vignelli addresses old friend George Lois and wife Rosie at the launch party for George's book Damn Good Advice - photo courtesy Shaun Mader/Patrick McMullen.com

However, other creations, such as his Bloomingdales bag, his subway signage, and his Knoll logo (both of which are pictured and written about in the Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design) now form part of our cultural landscape – testament, perhaps to how widely the modernist aesthetic has been adopted, thanks to proponents like Vignelli. For this alone, we should thank the designer for helping to create a simpler, clearer world.

 

Bloomingdale's Medium Brown Bag, by Massimo Vignelli
Bloomingdale's Medium Brown Bag, by Massimo Vignelli

For greater insight into Vignelli’s work pick up a copy of the Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design, and for more on his inspirations, consider our Mies and Le Corbusier books.


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