Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Massimo Vignelli: A Master in the Grammar of Design

Massimo Vignelli (January 10th, 1931 – May 27th, 2014) R.I.P.

Massimo Vignelli: A Master in the Grammar of Design

What would it be like to read your own obituary? Massimo Vignelli, the renowned designer who died Tuesday at the age of 83, had that chance a thousand times over.

On May 14, after being hospitalized for an irreparable heart condition, Mr. Vignelli returned home to the Upper East Side apartment he shared with his wife and creative partner, Lella, and found the first outpourings of a deluge of mail that summed up the accomplishments of a remarkable career.

It was his son, Luca, who first suggested the “Dear Massimo” letter-writing campaign, which invited all those whose lives had been touched by him to express their gratitude.

The call for mail whipped around the Internet starting on May 9. By May 20, letters filled multiple crates.

Massimo Vignelli in 2013 at The Bronx Design and Construction Academy, where he was involved with a project that brought together architects and public school students.Massimo Vignelli, Visionary Designer Who Untangled the Subway, Dies at 83/

“To see what people are saying, I cannot repeat it even, because I feel blushing,” Mr. Vignelli said that day, seated at a desk in his double-height living room next to a giant window of leaded glass. (Though he lived in the United States for 49 years, the Italian-born designer still spoke endearingly mangled English.)

Massimo Vignelli in his home on the Upper East Side.
Credit Danny Ghitis for The New York Times
Dressed in his habitual black, he had the same aquiline profile as always, the same irrepressible eyebrows. But he was as gaunt as a thin stroke of Bodoni, one of the few typefaces he used in his designs. (He famously confined himself to five or six out of the expanding font universe.)

“They talk about the quality of the work and the elegance of whatever we were doing in a project,” he said, referring to the people who had written to him from around the world, including masses of young designers.

“Let’s say if I died soon, I would die very happy,” he said. “No regrets.”

By Monday, the day before he died, more than 1,000 cards and letters had arrived, along with hundreds of emails. Some of the notes were written with displays of penmanship that recalled the early part of the last century. Many had hand-drawn hearts. A few were scribbled on postcards that showed the San Diego skyline. One was marked “Urgent.”

The artist Dale Chihuly sent a note on fax paper that said, “Thinking of you,” with drawings of Mr. Chihuly’s Basket series of glass objects running along the page like doodles.

Mr. Vignelli's Handkerchief armchairs for Knoll, designed with David Law. Credit Vignelli

A woman who identified herself as Kelly in Alaska mailed a card with a smear of red paint that she said was one of the first art pieces executed by her daughter. Referring to a graphic-design tool Mr. Vignelli favored for organizing words and pictures on a page, she wrote, “One day I’ll teach my little Margo all about THE GRID! (She’s almost 2).”

An unsigned postcard from Duluth, Minn., credited Mr. Vignelli with popularizing the midcentury Swiss typeface he specified for the logos of companies as diverse as American Airlines and Knoll furniture. “Thank you for Helvetica!!” the writer said, adding, “Sorry for the awful handwriting.”

Several correspondents mentioned Vignelli Associates’ controversial 1972 New York City subway map, which traded a realistic representation of geographical features for a stylized rendering of the city’s three underground transit systems (Central Park appeared as a square). Mr. Vignelli had disciplined the tangle of routes into colorful ribbons that turned and intersected neatly, and the abstraction was too much for many riders to bear. The map was retired after only seven years.

Mark Rozzo, a deputy editor at Vanity Fair, wrote to Mr. Vignelli about his pride in commissioning an updated map from the designer in 2008, when Mr. Rozzo was at Men’s Vogue. Produced in a limited edition, the diagram eventually found a home, in an interactive version, on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s website.

And Sandra Bloodworth, director of the authority’s Arts for Transit and Urban Design program, praised Mr. Vignelli’s enduring subway graphics system for providing “an iconography that identifies us around the world.” She concluded by saying: “I have spent my life working to improve the New York subway with art, music and good design. You laid the groundwork and on behalf of our riders, I sincerely thank you.”

Mr. Vignelli managed to read only a fraction of the letters before his death. He said he was especially happy with one from Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko, founders of the digital type foundry Emigre. Twenty-three years ago, when the couple were publishing an avant-garde design periodical of that name, for which they coaxed the new computer programs to manipulate and layer type, Mr. Vignelli, departing from his customary geniality, declared that Emigre was a “national calamity” and a “factory of garbage.” (These statements were originally reported in Print, a graphic design magazine where I worked at the time.)

In Emigre, Mr. Vignelli recalled last week, he saw a threat to the more neutral communication styles he favored. The magazine “was happening at a moment when design had to be solidified rather than put into major confusion,” he said. The warring factions eventually smoothed over their differences and even worked together on a project.

But more remained to be said. “Over time, we have come to realize that your critique was probably one of the most valuable replies to our work,” Mr. VanderLans and Ms. Licko said in their letter. Though they hadn’t come around to Mr. Vignelli’s point of view, they said that they had learned to appreciate the spirit behind the tussle. “It was the passion, the honesty, the bite and the eloquence of your statements that we’ve always admired,” they wrote. “We can only hope to maintain that level of passion for what we do.”

In the pantheon of Vignelli virtues, timelessness ranks up there with Bodoni. And the crates of letters showed, to his delight, that his ideas about timelessness were not lost on younger generations.

Judy Dixon, an architect and product designer in Mount Pleasant, S.C., for instance, never met the maestro, but she had absorbed his principles and was prepared to quote them back to him.

“Mr. Vignelli, ‘If you do it right, it will last forever,’ ” she wrote. “Please know you did it right.” — Julie Masky | The New York Times

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