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Artnet Design


by Brook S. Mason
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With the debut at the Italian Cultural Institute of “Timelessness,” June 4-July 13, 2012, a gem of a show devoted to the designs of Lella and Massimo Vignelli, the spotlight is on that duo’s oeuvre from the 1950s until today. While the work on display represents just a sliver of their prodigious, multidisciplinary output, this 18-example exhibition reflects the considerable reach of their practice. Both trained in architecture, they produced signage for the New York subway system, Bloomingdale’s ubiquitous brown paper bag, the Ford Motor Company corporate identity program (for which they received $1 million), a slew of dinnerware as well as lighting, and the Manhattan restaurant SD26, which is situated just north of Madison Square Park.

All of the work on view comes from the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Artnet Magazine sat down with Massimo Vignelli, 81, to learn the essentials of their philosophy.

What is at the core of your work?

Trends in design like the Memphis movement popularized by Ettore Sottsass are here today gone tomorrow. For us, design must be ethical and timeless. So we aim for our designs to bring a certain elegance to the masses, to the public.

With your designs ranging across such far-reaching and multiple specialties, which designers do you believe are pivotal models?

Mies van der Rohe along with Ray and Charles Eames for their simplicity.

Why fashion?

If you cannot find it, design it. So we set out to design clothing and Barneys retailed it. We still wear our designs today. The same for the jewelry Lella designed.

What was been the key to your success?

Luck, luck, luck. Our first client here was Knoll. How lucky can you get? From there we went on to the MTA subway map, American Airlines corporate identity program, George Nelson and more.

How has your studio changed over the years?

In the early years, we had offices in London, Melbourne, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit and Copenhagen. BC -- before the computer -- our staff numbered well over 40. These days, after the computer, AC, that figure has been reduced to three. Now, one person does the job of ten.

To what degree are your books now on the internet?

The problem of published books is that they don’t have wide distribution. Our Vignelli Canon is online is that everyone can download it.

Why did you choose the Rochester Institute of Technology to house your Vignelli Center for Design Studies?

We were not interested in our work ending up in a museum basement but rather to have it serve as a teaching tool. Two floors contain our archive of 240 boxes and examples of our work, including furniture. Workshops are held so students can learn about our design process.

While both you and Lella trained in architecture in Milan and Venice, what drew you to settle here in Manhattan exactly 47 years ago?

I hate provincialism. The multitude of cultures is what gives New York its vitality and energy and we wanted to be part of that.

What do you and Lella collect in your home, which is located just blocks from the institute?

I like Josef Albers and Ellsworth Kelly but I can’t really afford them. Instead, we live with a monumental Roy Lichtenstein tapestry, which covers an entire 10 by 15 foot wall. And we live with our prototypes.

What would be your wish list for your next design project?

The Vatican.

“Timelessness,” June 4-July 15, 2012, at the Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.