Last May we lost one of the pillars of the design community, Massimo Vignelli; this week we would have been celebrating his 84th birthday. Alongside Lella, his wife of many years, perhaps no one else better exemplifies the Modernist edict. Awarded the AIGA Medal in 1982, the couple and founding partners of Vignelli Associates were recorded for posterity in the 2012 documentary, Design is One.
Massimo took great pride in his adherence to a “less is more” philosophy. Although he considered the use of as many as four typefaces, his oeuvre is mainly composed of two: Helvetica and Bodoni. He redrew the latter to Helvetica proportions and renamed it humorously “Our Bodoni” (a nod to the well-known “Bauer Bodoni”). Likewise, he primarily employed a single Pantone color called “Warm Red.” Along with his reverence for the grid, these elements appear throughout his 50-plus year career. One would think that this reductive approach would be anything but personal, but his faithfulness to them created an identifiable, timeless style that is unmistakably his.
His identity and way-finding program for the New York City subway system, established in 1972, has guided millions of travelers through the labyrinth of the underground and elevated system for several generations (you can now buy it as a print, too, thanks to SuperWarmRed Designs). Aside from Milton Glaser’s “I Love New York” logo, nothing represents the city better. When his subway map—which Vignelli explained was not actually a map but rather a diagram—was replaced in the ’90s, so many travelers complained of getting lost that Massimo’s design was quickly reinstated. Likewise, visitors to the United States National Parks can still find their way thanks to his informational brochure and map system, which made great use of, yes, Helvetica Bold reversed out of a rectangular black panel. He also applied his minimalist aesthetic to books by architect Richard Meyers as well as identities for IBM, Bloomingdale’s, American Airlines, and furniture manufacturers Knoll and Heller.
All the more why today’s example from the AIGA Design Archives is surprising. For this poster (above), created for our country’s bicentennial in 1976, Vignelli stepped well beyond his usual boundaries. Employing collage, he created the American flag out of the many foreign language newspapers that were regularly available throughout the city, The Forward, El Díario, il Progresso, and Nordisk Tidende, to name a few. According to the Archives, this poster represents not so much a melting pot (touted to children of my generation as the ultimate goal of this land of immigrants), but “a lively interaction of the different ethnic groups that make the United States.” On this collage there’s no Helvetica, Bodoni (“Ours” or otherwise), or Warm Red in sight.
There no doubt this poster was heartfelt. An Italian immigrant himself, he emigrated to the United States alongside Lella in 1966. Greatly influenced by the Swiss modernist movement of the ’50s and ’60s, he brought refined European sophistication and sensibility stateside. Like so many European émigrés a few decades prior, Vignelli widened our understanding and appreciation of the importance of design in our everyday lives. A lively interaction, indeed.