Even though I have spent most of my life in the design industry I was still totally unaware of the existence of husband and wife design duo Lella & Massimo Vignelli until I came across Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra’s new documentary. Yet whilst like so many people I may not be familiar with their names, all of us have been impacted some time or another by their vast output of creativity that has influenced all our daily lives.
This strikingly handsome and extremely likable grey-haired couple now in their late 70’s/early 80’s have spent the last half century working together as a partnership creating logos, furniture, interiors, dinnerware, books, jewellery and even clothes. With their exacting tastes and unbending comittment to minimalism they soon adopted the maxim for their lives as ‘if you cannot find it, then design it.’ And that is exactly what they did.
Some of their most famous work includes the signage and the map for the New York Subway Systems, corporate logos for American Airlines, Bloomingdales, Ford etc etc.,furniture for Knoll, dinnerwear for Heller, books for architect Richard Meier, showrooms for Poltrona Frau etc etc ….. the seemingly in-exhaustible list of Clients and Projects is way beyond impressive. Their multi-disciplinary studio has been responsible for re-shaping the identities and products of so many of the world’s leading design-led companies.
Looking at the two of them discussing their 24 hour a day partnership it’s hard not to compare them with that more famous design husband and wife Ray and Charles Eames. Although to be fair to Massimo even though he obviously hogs most of the limelight, he is much more generous in acknowledging Lella’s equal role (which Charles never ever did with Ray). Massimo claims that when it came to creating a design ‘I am the pencil, and Lella is the criticism’ which is not totally true. In fact more other than not he is the dreamer and she the realist who insures that the design works and their business flourishes. And some of the projects such as interiors are just all her (she qualified as an architect).
The Vignelli’s are Italian after all (and still with heavy accents even after all those decades living in New York) and there were some flashes of those moments when with fiery tempers they didn’t quite see eye to eye ….. and in fact the film would have been a tad more human it had included more of these.
I may have never heard of the Vignellis but many creative geniuses had, and as well as Meier, there was the likes of designer Milton Glaser, MOMA curator Paola Antonelli, architectural Professor Barry Bergdoll singing their praises. Their comments, and the seemingly unedited interviews with the Vignellis started to get a little repetitive by the end of the 86 minutes. The irony being that this movie of two ultra-minimalists ended up being a tad too cluttered and starting to lose its direction.
Massimo and Lella have now donated their vast design archives to the Rochester Institute of Technology outside in New York where it is housed in a building they designed themselves, to insure that their designs, and principles will influence future generations.
‘Design’ and ‘designer’s’ are two of the most maligned and misused words in the English language over the past three decades , so here is a great chance to see and hear two of the real masters of the form, who add a whole new dimension to both terms.