There was plenty of backslapping for the architect Massimo Vignelli from Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie and Richard Saul Wurman at Wednesday night’s National Design Awards on the eve of the premiere of the documentary “Design Is One: Lella and Massimo Vignelli.”

At 81, Vignelli has left his mark on Bloomingdale’s, the New York City subway map and American Airlines’ logo (though the latter insisted he include the eagle). Suave as ever, Vignelli lingered after the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum dinner, unmistakable in a black cape-like jacket, black tie and pants. Like much of what he does, his ensemble was of his own creation. “I design them but I have someone make them,” Vignelli said of his clothes.

Rather than have one metier, he has many — interiors, environments, packaging, graphic design, furniture, and products. Known to work firmly within the Modernist tradition, he zeroes in on simplicity by using basic geometric forms in all of his work. At work on “the usual” — new books and other projects — Vignelli chatted with WWD about his heritage, the state of design and the challenge of finding someone to succeed Bill Moggridge as the Cooper-Hewitt’s director.

Recalling His Roots

“I am from Milano. Where else? Como is where Milano should be with the lake instead of this stupid place. You know the Romans, which are nasty people, they decided to put Milan — because they smelled the competition — in the worst place in the world, in the fog, no lake, no hills. Thirty miles from Milano you have the most beautiful place. Without the lakes, the Milanese had to overcome the environment and become very hard workers. You know what they did in the Renaissance when they destroyed the square where the Roman families were, they were industrious. It was amazing when you look at the creative class. They were not like the Medicis, you know bankers or fencers, they were industrialists. There was a craftsmanship tradition and furniture [makers]. Milan has been involved with design since before design was born. Architects were the original designers. People thought if you can design a building, you can design anything.”

Fashion Versus Design

“Fashion is ephemeral but design is timeless. Fashion has to be that way. Otherwise, they would go out of business. Fashion doesn’t have to last forever. A car can. Look at Volkswagen. That is great design. Styling is a crime. It is irresponsible because you have today and then it’s gone. Why spend all that money on something that doesn’t last?” 

The Stupidity of Men’s Fashion

“Men’s clothing hasn’t changed in 200 years, maybe a lapel gets a little wider or a tie gets narrower from time to time. But it’s usually always the same. There is stupidity in men’s fashion. But women know who they are. They can change. Clothing is seductive for women. They get different personas by buying new clothes. But men don’t.”

How He Hopes His Documentary Will Resonate

“I will pleased by the reaction of viewers eventually, but that’s all. Europe soon. I don’t know what people will perceive. It is very difficult to guess the perception. You hope they will understand. They might be surprised. It might open their eyes to something. It might be boring. It might be exciting. It might be inspiring. It is very hard for me to say. I will be surprised by their reaction more than anything.”

Bill Moggridge’s Legacy

“He did great things. Moggridge’s work made him the John Ives [of Apple] of his time, coming out with work that was completely different than anybody else and he was very good. I would say his death is a loss. He was great as the director of the Cooper-Hewitt. It’s a sad thing. The right kind of leader [to replace Moggridge] in my mind would be John Ives. He is extremely good. The only thing is that he doesn’t have the time. He’s not going to leave Apple for this place. They need someone who has a new language who will lead the way. It’s all a matter of language. That’s all you need is someone who has a language and who can expand that language. Otherwise,  you can’t hear the language. It’s garble. That’s why it’s important that the director of the Cooper-Hewitt has vision, courage and discipline to guide. You know design is a new profession. It’s not like architecture.”

The Takeaway

“I have been preaching for 60 years. It doesn’t matter. Well, it can attract attention.”

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