Lella and Massimo Vignelli – “Design is One”

Lella and Massimo Vignelli – “Design is One”

vignellis 1

Italian-born Lella and Massimo Vignelli are among the world’s most influential designers.

The movie Design is One is …..  a love letter about modern design and the Vignelli’s 50 year marriage.

Kathy Brew & Roberto Guerra‘s film ” Design is One” brings us into the Vignelli’s world, capturing their intelligence and creativity, as well as their humanity, warmth, and humor.

To leave an indelible impact on a whole nation of people is an accomplishment perhaps no other husband and wife team can claim. Their work covers such a broad spectrum that one could say the Vignellis are known by everyone, even by those who don’t know their names.

“If you can’t find it, design it” is the motto of the Vignellis, whose renowned work ranges ”from the spoon to the city.”

vignellis 3

While each has their area of speciality, their works are collaborative in nature. With Massimo operating as the dreamer, Lella’s realist instincts tempered his ideas into the achievable.

Throughout the film, luminaries from the world of design – including Michael Bierut of Pentagram, architect Richard Meier, and graphic designer Milton Glaser and many others –  spoke of the perfect balance created by Massimo and Lella.

This retrospective film of the Vignelli’s union and career covers a spans a vast array of material, in keeping with the breadth of the legendary designers’ work.

Their achievements in industrial and product design, graphic and publication design, corporate identity programs, architectural graphics, and exhibition, interior, and furniture design have earned worldwide respect and numerous national and international awards for over 40 years.

The film features extensive personal conversations with Lella and Massimo themselves , who reveal for the viewer their intensely collaborative creative process and the inner workings of their deceptively linear genius that has defined contemporary design as we have come to know it.

Born in Udine in 1936, Lella Valle studied architecture, and met Massimo Vignelli who also studied architecture in Venice, in the 1950s.

The couple moved to to the US during the 1958-1960 period, on fellowships from Towle Silversmiths in Massachusetts and the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.

Lella Vignelli worked in New York for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Massimo Vignelli taught at the Chicago Institue of Design.

In 1960 they returned to Italy and opened a graphic design studio in Milan – the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture

In 1965, Massimo joined Bob Noorda and Jay Doblin in founding Unimark International Corporation, a design consultancy, in Milan.

In that same year, 1965, the Vignelli’s moved to New York, in order to manage a Unimark branch that specialized in developing corporate logos and designing the corporate identity for the business clients.

According to Massimo they intended to return to Milan after a short while, but that didn’t come to pass and they settled in New York for good.

In 1971, Massimo resigned from Unimark, in part because the design vision which he supported became diluted as the company diversified and increasingly stressed marketing, rather than design with Lella Vignelli, he established the offices of Vignelli Associates in 1971, and Vignelli Designs in 1978.

They continue to work from their New York office from which they created corporate identities for firms such as American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s, Cinzano, Lancia, United Colors of Benetton, Ford, Xerox, and the International Design Center New York.

Their work includes graphic and corporate identity programs, publication designs, architectural graphics, and exhibition, interior, furniture, and consumer product designs for many leading American and European companies and institutions.

Vignelli has had his work published and exhibited throughout the world and entered in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.

He is a past president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGl) and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AlGA), a vice president of the Architectural League, and a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). His many awards and honors include the AIGA Gold Medal, the Presidential Design Award, and the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design

The Vignelli’s works firmly within the Modernist tradition, and focuses on simplicity through the use of basic geometric forms in all their work

While working for Unimark, Vignellies redesigned the look of the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority with a new subway map and train identification sign system.

They replaced the previously chaotic typography with Helvetica and reduced the train routes down to solid color, while geometric lines organized the map and allowed signs to be clearer and more distinct.

While the map was replaced five years later, the seminal signs remain in use today (and the map itself has resurfaced for use in the MTA’s Weekender app, showing that perhaps the Vignellis were ahead of their time).

new york subway guide

Vignelli’s now-classic New York City subway map was first introduced in 1972, following his work on the signage system in the late 1960s. Inspired by London’s Underground map (designed by Harry Beck in 1933—which was inspired by electrical circuit diagrams) Vignelli simplified New York’s complex, twisting, winding subway system into a clean graphic.

A different color for each line, a dot for every station. No dot, no station. Very simple. The whole map is designed on a 45/90 degrees grid with geographic distortions to accommodate the lines,

subway updated 2008

Designed by Massimo Vignelli of Unimark International, in New York in 1970, the New York City Transit Authority’s brand identity has achieved cult status amongst the creative community. There are a few real world establishments that can claim to have the endearing longevity that the brand identity for the New York City Transit Authority has had and continues to experience.

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, says every time we take the subway we are entering “Vignelliland” .

ny subway

“ The first edition NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual designed by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark International. The manual was found in a locker beneath old gym clothes in the basement of Pentagram … ”



Their portfolio of design always followed Massimo’s Unigrid system — a method for design still practiced today.

NatlParks Vignelli Unigrid

With their training grounded in architecture, Vignellies established a vision of an organized, systematic structural approach early in their design careers.

The underlying structure of many of their endeavors in corporate identity, publication, book design, and interiors continues to be the a strictly grid-based design.

Lella & Massimo began exploring the grid structure early in their career in Milan by working on corporate entities and projects for various cultural organizations.

These early works allowed them to build a design style focused on dividing space within a modular grid that was subdivided rationally into distinct zones.

1991 vignelli typefaces

Breaking down the page into smaller intervals of space permitted a clear translation of complex informational material. Most of their designs utilize a limited color palette and use mostly five typefaces Garamond, Bodoni, Helvetica, Univers, and Century.

knoll logo

In 1967, Bobby Cadwallader retained Massimo Vignelli to create a new graphics program for Knoll.

Vignelli re-envisioned the corporate identity and graphics program, resulting in the Knoll logo in Helvetica and the introduction of Pantone Super Warm Red as the company color.

The resulting designs, based largely on a grid, provided the foundation for all basic communication needs, including stationery, business cards, stickers, tags, boxes, brochures and four-color ads for trade magazines and publications like The New Yorker, Vogue and Fortune.

As recognizable and successful as the work of his predecessor, Herbert Matter, Vignelli’s Knoll advertisements, price lists and branding efforts gave Knoll an international graphic identity that became the industry standard.

The work done for Knolll, in addition to giving Knoll it’s signature graphics, launched the Vignellis to international renown as premier modern graphic designers.

Massimo Vignelli once described the Knoll assignment as “the most exciting, rewarding” of his professional career.

knoll identity (3)


knoll identity (1)


knoll identity (2)

knoll design book (1)


knoll poster (3)

knoll poster (1)

knoll graphics (4)

Perhaps the greatest measure of the program’s success is the extent to which it continues to inform the company’s public identity to this day.

Additionally, Vignelli Associates contributed two furniture designs to the Knoll portfolio: the Handkerchief chair in 1983 (designed together with David Law) and the Paperclip table.

Using compression molded plastics, they conducted a fabrication and design investigation that lasted 5 years, and ultimately captured the lightness and organic ease of a handkerchief drifting in the wind.

handkerchief chair 2

The firm introduced the Paperclip table in 1994 as a complement to the Handkerchief.

Echoing the bent wire base of the chair, and the overall visual lightness achieved by the signature seat, the designers were able to translate the essence of what made the Handkerchief so elegant to the Paperclip Table.

Massimo Vignelli:…. “We wanted to give these chairs their own table: same lightness, same feeling, same uses.”

paperclip table

massimo vignelli

vignellis 2

Leaders on the front-line of the design profession, the Vignellis continue to be mentors to other designers.

vignelli centre for design studies

Massimo and Lella Vignelli agreed to donate the entire archive of their design work in 2008 to the Rochester Institute of Technology, near Rochester, New York.

The comprehensive archive of graphic design, furniture and objects will be exhibited in a new building designed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli, known as The Vignelli Center For Design Studies.

The building, which opened in September 2010, includes among its many offerings exhibition spaces, classrooms, and offices.

“Under the direction of R. Roger Remington, the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design at RIT, the center will foster studies related to Modernist design with programs and exhibitions on our work as well as other related subjects. The first one of its kind and size, The Vignelli Center will position RIT on the international forefront of design studies. Lella and I are delighted to see our dream taking shape.”



About Lella and Massimo Vignelli

vignellis 2

Lella Vignelli (b. Italy, 1934)  /  Massimo Vignelli (b. Italy, 1931)

Massimo and Lella Vignelli both studied architecture before founding the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in 1960.

lella_massimo 1957

In 1971 they established Vignelli Associates, a vehicle for focusing on projects that incorporated their industrial, furniture and graphic design talents.

Their diverse portfolio includes corporate identity work for IBM, American Airlines, and Bloomingdales as well as signage for the New York Subway system and Washington, D.C.

In 2003, the couple received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.




poster 4



The Vignellis, Benevolent Dictators of Design

By Steven Kurutz  /  October 17, 2012

Massimo Vignelli isn’t interested in designing a penthouse for a corporate titan. “We like to do design that affects millions of people,” he said, referring to Vignelli Associates, the firm he and his wife, Lella,founded more than four decades ago.

The Vignellis, Italians who moved to New York in 1965, have succeeded wildly in that regard. Their corporate logos for American Airlines, Bloomingdales and Ford are still among the most recognizable in the business world. The signs directing New York’s subway riders also bear the Vignellis’ imprint (and Mr. Vignelli’s signature typeface, Helvetica).

Then there are dishes, office interiors, books, furniture and countless other products the couple have designed for Knoll, Heller and other companies, all carrying their clean lined aesthetic.

A new documentary, “Design Is One: Lella and Massimo Vignelli,” directed by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, traces the couple’s influential partnership. The film premieres tonight to kick off this year’s Architecture and Design Film Festival in Manhattan.

While design students will come away quoting Mr. Vignelli’s stiff – necked pronouncements (“From a bad client you get a worse client”), the film is all the more poignant because since its completion Mrs. Vignelli, 78, has grown increasingly ill with aphasia and is no longer able to work.

On a recent afternoon in the couple’s chic, black and white East Side apartment, Mr. Vignelli, 81, schooled a visitor on bad clients and what makes good design and talked about how the partnership has changed since his wife’s illness.

You tell design students not to work for a bad client. What in your view is a bad client?

A bad client is a client that doesn’t understand the role of the designer. Designers are like doctors. When you go to the doctor, you don’t tell the doctor what you want — you ask the doctor to give you what you need.

Shouldn’t the client have a say in the design they’re paying for?

Sometimes you might have alternatives. But we usually do not give alternatives. Period. We go through the alternative s ourselves. Because then the client is going to say, “We like this top and that bottom.”

The film really showcases your long working partnership with Lella.

I was the guy with the pencil most of the time. Lella had a very good critical sense. So she would come and say: “It’s good. It’s bad.” Or it would be an interior job and she would take over and take care of the whole thing. It was a great partnership because she had a very great sense of criticism, up until a couple of years ago.

How has your approach changed since you no longer have that counterbalance?

I don’t have it. I just don’t have it. But we’ve lived all our life together. There is a symbiosis that happens after a while, so now I perceive her in a symbiotic way. Whatever I do reflects, somehow, both aspects.

Does a well designed product need to be functional or attractive?

Both. There are many ways of making a knife, and more or less all knives cut. But some knives cut better, and some knives not only cut better but are beautiful objects. Integrity is beautiful. Things that are ugly, it’s because they have no integrity. And this is true in people and it’s true in design. A beautiful girl could be terrific, but her eye will show her shallowness, let’s say. And if you get her, you made a mistake. Which is exactly like buying an object that has function but not integrity. That is the way it goes, you see.

Is every object in your home well designed?

I wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t well designed. I wouldn’t spend the money.

Is there anything you would like to design that you haven’t?

The corporate identity for the Vatican. I would go to the pope and say: “Your holiness. The logo is O.K., but everything else has to go.” Not that I haven’t tried. I’ve tried, but unsuccessfully.

massimo vignelli 2

massimo vignelli 3

massimo lecture



Looking Back, Thinking Forward: A Narrative of the Vignellis

by Jan Conradi /  18th Sept, 2010

Lella and Massimo, circa 1957

He is an extrovert. Gregarious, outspoken, delighted to work the crowd that is usually equally delighted to be in the room with him.

She is poised, quieter, more reserved, less comfortable with the spotlight though no less deserving of its shine.

Together they are confident in their choices, earnest in their vision, and determined to create something lasting in a profession that is too often ephemeral.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli. It is intriguing to think that with a lifetime of effective design solutions, diverse clients, international recognition and professional visibility, the Vignellis are hitting their stride with perhaps their most important work of all. We could say that the Vignellis have now become their own client as they are documenting their wealth of experiences, connections, thoughts and pathways.

They are branding it with a building as the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT, setting it typographically in the Vignelli Canon, living it in Roberto Guerra’s documentary Design is One — The Vignellis.

Massimo always talks about the search for meaning and the search for understanding, culminating in the search for the way to convey this to others; now we can see and experience how they do this for themselves.

Their work — publications and packaging, furniture and products, showrooms and architectural interiors, identity programs and transportation graphics, and more — has been well-documented.

The tangible artifacts, interesting as they may be, offer only a snippet of a larger story. Instead, looking at the Vignellis career trajectory illuminates meaningful realities in design practice.

The Vignellis have been where many designers would like to be. A few times they’ve stumbled, more often they have been dramatically successful.

There is much for students to learn and their focus now is on the students, on the learning, and on the future.

Challenge and Stimulation

The Vignellis have always worked as a team. As a young couple continuing their studies and setting foundations for their lives and careers, they faced timeless questions: What have I learned? What are my capabilities? What challenges are big enough? Are there any that are too big?

They established a successful office in Milan, living a life that balanced work and play in a country that they loved, but they gave it up when Massimo became a founder of Unimark International in 1965.

They were twentieth-century immigrants, arriving on the dock with furniture, suitcases and trunks, just like previous generations.

The fear of the unknown scares people even if the move is simply to a job around the corner.

How many of us would make an international leap, tackling language and cultural differences?

“You can leave Milano very easily when you are coming to New York; it was an easy trade,” said Massimo. “We were very successful in Milan and we kept bouncing our head against the ceiling. After awhile there was no more stimulation in being at the top. We were looking for a higher ceiling. It can be hard…. The first two years you feel homesick. You have no friends, you are in a new place, even the food is different.”

Balance and Perseverance

How do I blend my personal and professional life? How do I balance family and work responsibilities? How do I believe in myself when others are doubting? How do I progress when obstacles are placed in my path? Are the answers different if I am a woman?

“When we first came over [to the United States] in September of 1957, we were still on honeymoon and we’ve been that way for many years,” said Massimo. Like most young couples, they sought independence, breaking away from their families to define themselves as individuals and as a couple. “The greatest part of our work has been growing together,” Lella said. “You must have the same sort of preferences. This is good with us, we are complimentary, we balance. In a relationship, it is important that you don’t let yourself be taken over. We do our own projects but we listen to each other.” She laughed. “I am practical, Massimo is creative but he is disorganized.”

“Lella is my brake, my reality, I could not have done this without her,” said Massimo. He laughed too.

Sometimes their partnership was tested, notably when married couples were once discouraged — and often forbidden — to work together in American offices.

Unimark too had an official policy against working couples. It was only partially applied for the Vignellis but there was still disparity: Lella’s work was contractual while Massimo held a very public role as a founder and Design Director.

Lella might have been responsible for a project but her presence was somewhat suspect to construction workers on project sites. A mix of exasperation and bitterness is still apparent as she recalls those times.

“‘Oh Sweetie, what are you doing, hanging around? We have questions, send your husband,’ they’d say. I was critical when their work was sloppy and they resented that,” she said. In that era, it was harder for a woman to gain respect and cooperation, simply because she was a woman.

Balancing professional goals and a job with the demands of home and family often was, and is, complicated for women. Men are not immune to these issues, but typically women bear the brunt of work and worry for the family.

Lella was no exception as she mothered their two young children, managed the household, kept a watchful eye on business records, and still maintained her own career.

“It wasn’t that easy,” she said, “I wanted to focus on my work, but I couldn’t totally. Many times I didn’t trust myself; I was tired, I couldn’t think straight.” Lella worries as their daughter, and other young women, face many of the same concerns.

Looking at Lella’s accomplishments proves that perseverance pays off. “Now is the best time of my life,” she said a few years ago. “I am doing the showrooms; they please me. I am traveling — I have less responsibilities with home, with cooking, with record-keeping. I am in control of myself. Being older helps too.”

The Vignellis often interrupt each other as they finish one another’s sentences or elaborate on a thought. It bothers them both, and it is something they continue to work on, but the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. On the plus side, it is a sign of their constant sharing of information. Their big ideas are developed together, and they are fully understood by both partners.

Standards, Superficiality and Recognition

Is it better to be safe or should I take a risk with something new? Should I strike out on my own or continue working for others? What sort of work do I want to do? What compromises am I willing to make? Is there a design imperative I must follow?

In 1971, Massimo left Unimark and Vignelli Associates was opened in New York. The Vignellis were happy to again operate as partners and the experiences with Unimark framed their business.

“No middle managers, no focus groups!” said Massimo. “Not so commercial!” said Lella. Even then the equality of their partnership was not always recognized. In early days, work was often a collaborative effort but many publications edited the credits, citing Massimo only. Lella was justifiably angry about this.

“I’d go to the office in the morning and look at the mail,” said Massimo. “Any magazine that would show just my name [as designer], I’d make it disappear.” Now they laugh at those memories.

Time solidified their design process and their reputations as the Vignellis maintained a steadfast insistence on the validity and value of their approach.

“We work through a process; it is the backbone of our methodology,” said Massimo. They have openly criticized others deemed less thorough or thoughtful. “There is a process of thinking: examining, sifting, digging, exploring until you get down to the thing that is just right. Sometimes I discover by happenstance, but a lot of people get seduced by happenstance and that is a very different thing. That is the culture of the found object as opposed to the culture of the designed object. It is not that it is a wrong way of working, it is a different way of working.”

Massimo made the previous statement in 2006.

In 1993, he challenged a leading American designer saying, “I see your sense of cultural responsibility being taken over by your desire to be different at any cost… In our culture and society, typographical refinement and design responsibility still have a long way to go. I know your intent is more noble than it looks and I respect it, but the form it takes is highly irresponsible since it breeds shallowness in the name of newness.”

Vignelli tirades against sloppiness, against superficiality, against post-modernism, became legendary.

In 1992, Massimo blasted Emigre as “A national calamity. An aberration of culture,” though just a few years later he enthusiastically collaborated with Licko and VanderLans. Massimo didn’t always rant and he could often be poetic in expressing the mood of the day. In 1982 for U/lc, he eloquently summed up three decades of design: “If the Sixties stressed the concept of discipline, and the Seventies that of appropriateness, the Eighties were finally intrigued by the pleasures of ambiguity.”


Have they mellowed over time? Lella speaks of their obsession with perfection and the importance of building from an intellectual platform. That has not changed. They are passionate in their commitment to design and consistent in their condemnation of trivial styling and planned obsolescence. The potential for explosiveness remains toward those whose attitudes and applications are deemed less respectful. It doesn’t take much time with either of them to see this, as noted by a student in the 2010 Dialogues in Design workshop: “Massimo can get aggressive with someone who does bad work, but his profession is his life, so it makes perfect sense if he reacts to protect it. He doesn’t compromise.”

Time Marches On

How do I cope with change? With loss? What will be my legacy? What have I learned and how can I share it with others?

Speak with the Vignellis about good people, and they’ll recite a long list of great designers, sensitive typographers, fine project managers who came through their offices. Good people often have other opportunities and their leaving is difficult but that too is a part of the business of design. Sometimes the leaving was traumatic, especially given Massimo’s emotional expressiveness, but eventually all was forgiven and warm relationships continued. “So many grew up in our office,” said Massimo. “I am happy to hear the positive mentions of their time with us and its formative effect on their careers.”

In 2000, the lease expired on their Manhattan office space. The resulting downsizing set people free as Vignellis then intertwined their personal and professional lives even closer by moving their office into their home. In the years since there have been many experiences, good and bad.

There were losses, particularly David Law, who passed away in 2003.

“David was a tremendous loss,” said Massimo. “Like Lella, he was my partner and of all the people we worked with, I was closest to him. We drew the same; I could not distinguish between our drawings and I’d have to ask him, did I draw that, or did you? Finally I had to put a mark on my work so I could tell.”

There have inevitably been some changes for both of them in recent years and they’ll admit to slowing down a bit (maybe), but together the Vignellis seem to be unstoppable. They are the Energizer Bunnies of the design world.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli, Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT, September 2010

So we reach September 2010, and dedication ceremonies for the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT in Rochester, New York. The Vignelli archives will reside alongside those of design pioneers Will Burtin, Alvin Lustig, Lester Beall, Cipe Pineles, William Golden, and many others.

To understand the progression of American design, “you need time, you need perspective,” said Massimo. “The only time you get the proper perspective is after seeing both the impact [of your work] and historically what role it played. The archives — where students can see the whole thing — there is nothing comparable, no slide that can compare to the real thing. It is not that the slide isn’t great but it is also the context.” The continually expanding archival collections at RIT will be a tremendous resource for students and historians for generations to come.

massimo lecture 2

The time for tirades has mostly passed to be replaced by the time for teaching. For now the Vignellis are continuing to solve design problems and they are conducting workshops, critiques and lectures around the world. A print version of the Vignelli Canon will be released this month by Lars Müller Publishers. “Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best,” it says in the Introduction, and now Massimo and Lella are sharing their knowledge with all of us.

The Vignellis are excited, proud, and as the dates of the dedication ceremonies approach, they are just a bit emotionally overwhelmed by the significance of this event in Rochester. No matter what individual design approaches we might follow, the rest of us should be inspired by their lead.

massimo vignelli quote



About Kathy Brew & Roberto Guera

kathy and roberto

Kathy Brewand Roberto Guerra have been working together on arts and social issue documentaries over the past 15 years with a particular focus on representing the vision and contributions of creative people to larger audiences.

They are interested in the interface between art and reality, and in how artists respond to issues of our times.

Besides Design is One, they have several other documentary projects in progress/near completion.

Double Take: The Art of Seward Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, who was fired years ago from the family business and took up art instead.

Beauty Behind Bars, about a Peruvian women’s prison where a beauty contest takes place each year amidst the backdrop of the international war on drugs.

Dutch/Peruvian, about two Dutch artists — Lika Mutal and Gam Klutier – who’ve made Peru their home, and how that unique place has influenced their work.

Going Gray, a look at going/not going gray and how this reflects on current attitudes about aging.

Short films on Chinese contemporary artists, part of the Observer Observed series for The Joy of Giving Something, Inc.  Wang Qingsong / Lin Tianmiao & Wang Gongxin / Danwen Xing

ID/entity: Portraits in the 21st Century, commissioned by the MIT Media Lab in conjunction with an exhibition presented there and at The Kitchen

Penetration and Transparency, a multiple-channel installation created in collaboration with artist Mierle Ukeles, about the Fresh Kills landfill that was presented at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, among other venues

Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution, a video produced in conjunction with an exhibition at the time of the mapping of the human genome, featuring the work of many artists as well as the voices of many scientists

Guerra and Brew also independently produced segments for Public Television, WNET’s City Arts and Egg, and received two Emmy awards for Outstanding Fine Arts Programming.

Prior to working together, they each have an extensive background in film making.

Share your thoughts