Ambidextrous as he was in many disciplines of design, Massimo Vignelli spoke of the profession with the same degree of precision he used in his work.
This story first appeared in the May 28, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Vignelli, who died Tuesday at his Manhattan home at the age of 83, left his mark on Bloomingdale’s, the New York City subway map and American Airlines’ logo (though the latter insisted he include the eagle). Rather than have one métier, he excelled in many — interiors, environments, packaging, graphic design, furniture, books and products. Known to work firmly within the modernist tradition, he zeroed in on simplicity by using basic geometric forms in all of his work. He even designed his own clothes — all-black, all elegant. Few New Yorkers pushing 80 could pull off his interpretation of black tie — a black capelike jacket, black tie and pants.
Vignelli also occasionally crafted a fashion item or two for friends, such as the discerning architect Richard Meier.
Over the years, Vignelli shared his design wisdom with WWD in a series of interviews. A Cooper-Hewitt National Design Lifetime Achievement Award winner, his body of work, composed partially with his wife, was explored in the 2012 documentary “Design Is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli.” Last fall, under his watchful eye, 10 Italian graduates were chosen to show their work in the “Top Young Italian Industrial Designers — Slow Design Exhibition” at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York.
Vignelli, who also created iconic branding systems for United Colors of Benetton, Knoll and Saks Fifth Avenue, once told WWD, “What constitutes good design? Anything that is not vulgar.”
Here, a look at some of his other more candid quotes as told to WWD.
• Designing in sparse times: “A tight economy is always good for design. When the economy is down, we need designers to make things that work and are styled better than a lot of things that are just around.”
• 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.”
• 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.”