Michael Gagliano and Marco Zannini were among the participants in the 2012 Master Designer Workshop at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, RIT. They were among the last persons to visit Massimo Vignelli and what follows is their personal tribute to him, composed after his passing on May 27, 2014.
It is very rare, for those of us with limited experience who first approach a profession, not to be fascinated by the concept of “Master.”
The greatness of the human species is based on our ability to pass on the stored knowledge in order to broaden collective lore and generate progress. During the Renaissance, those artists who achieved the status of “Master” would educate the most promising young artists and sculptors, who often ended up becoming masters themselves. The history of design itself is rich with examples: Peter Behrens, Mies van der Rohe, Shiro Kuramata, John Pawson, and many others who experienced an intensive relationship between Master and apprentice. AG Fronzoni was fond of saying: “My ambition is not to design a poster. My ambition is to design men.” For this reason he created his own bottega that abandoned the model of traditional schooling to embrace one based on intellectual exchange between Master and apprentice. A Master who is in tune with his apprentice is able to infuse an enormous amount of self-confidence, wisdom and knowledge. An apprentice who experiences such a relationship is fortunate because the Master’s influence creates lifelong change.
Our Master was Massimo Vignelli.
Our bond with Massimo grew at an incredible pace. It quickly went beyond a mere student/teacher relationship, transforming into a Master/apprentice relationship. We first met Massimo in 2013 when he was teaching a Master Designer Workshop in Rochester, New York. From the time we returned to Italy after our first meeting in the United States, three days couldn’t pass without a lengthy video call on Skype during which Massimo, between a joke and a smile, would show us his latest projects, tell us a multitude of anecdotes, stories, experiences, memories. He would always ask to see our work, always with that sparkle in his eyes that showed the lively brilliance of a man who focused his life successfully around his passion. During one of our final calls, even though he had been very ill, he took his Leica and asked us to pose for a photograph. “My Milanese designers!” he affectionately exclaimed after taking it. Every time we received a compliment from him, our hearts were filled with pride.
Many people who saw him from the outside imagined Massimo as some sort of mystic monk: austere, rigid, severe, a master of discipline and quiet immersed in his rituals. Some of that could be true, but at the same time nothing could be further from reality. When he entered a room, he filled it with his explosive personality. Extremely charismatic and empathetic, Massimo brimmed with an incredible joie-de-vivre that he kept until his very last days. The influence of his passion for design and his curiosity was so strong; it penetrated to our hearts and imprinted a unique sense of empowerment. We were informed and expanded by his thinking, and there was always intelligence and purpose in his observations.
Massimo was able to articulate his thoughts and ideas with beautiful words that transmitted the same focused power as his works; listening to him was a privilege. It was, above all, Massimo’s personality that made his work unique. It appears to be replicable, but anyone who studies it assiduously learns that is an illusory perception. The clichés most often associated with his work (such as the sole use of four typefaces, the use of only three colors, or the idea of a rigid and inviolable grid) are a superficial and often wrong perception about his discipline and visual lexicon. Starting in the 1960s with works such as the Galileo publications, the Sansoni paperbacks and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano identity, Massimo began to define his visual language, which was rooted in the principles of the International Style but also subject to a process of meticulous and continuous refinement. An identifiable maturity of language can be seen from the second half of the 1970s onwards, when his multiple influences merged harmoniously with his outstanding typographical craftsmanship.
A comparison between two Vignelli masterpieces, such as the 1966 Stendig Calendar and the 1976 Bicentennial Poster, shows the mingling of influences and the remarkable variety of approaches that was typical of Massimo’s mature language.This was Massimo Vignelli’s great contribution to design history: he was able to bring a breath of fresh air to modernist graphic design, releasing it from austerity and introducing a brand of intellectual elegance and purity that still fascinates designers to this day. It is not the minimalist compositions or the generous use of white space that made his work great, it was his ability to take those canonic elements and integrate them with the more eclectic side of his personality. He eschewed decorative narcissism and instead created a language that was pure in its complexity. Throughout his life, there was flexibility in the application of his own discipline; a masterful understanding that breaking the rules always requires the painstaking effort of creating new ones.
“If you can’t find it, design it,” he often said. This was a powerful lesson that he willingly shared with several generations of designers. The quintessential example was the Vignelli Associates office on 10th Avenue, which we only knew from photographs: a serene space, almost monastic, where the spatial experience and the feeling of calm were not created by trivial choices and a sheer reduction in the amount of elements, but rather by an extraordinary use of ordinary materials and lighting that made every single, little detail sing. His diagram for the New York subway, perhaps his most widely recognized design, was the objectification on paper of his principles of purity and simplicity, just like the Barcelona Pavilion was the objectification in marble and glass of Mies van der Rohe’s modern principles. Some would say that both were functionally lacking, yet both offer a rare expression of beauty.
We flew from Milan to New York to visit Massimo for a last time. On May 23rd, we spent two indelible hours with Massimo, hours filled with emotion. After everything he had given to us, it was time for us to give something to him; to share a personal goodbye as a sign of our tremendous respect. We were pleased to see that his home overflowed with letters. These carefully labeled boxes of correspondence from all over the world were words from people, like us, whose lives he had changed and influenced.
We were still in New York on the morning of May 27th when we received a phone call from our friend, Jan Conradi, with the sad news: “Massimo passed away this morning.” Later that day we visited his good friend, Richard Meier, whose architectural office is on Tenth Avenue, in the same building where the Vignelli Associates office was located from 1985 to 2000. After the meeting, we went down in the elevator. We thought about how many times Massimo must have stood in that same cabin with Lella; about how many times they were going home after a day spent working on exciting projects. That day, May 27, 2014, perhaps Massimo took another elevator instead, to a better place. His chair was ready at the table, and the greatest designers of history were waiting for him.
Around the world healthcare professionals and designers are collaborating to produce innovative solution to major challenges in the wellness community. The Vignelli Center will host Medicine + Design: Healthcare and Wellness Conference at Rochester Institute of Technology on November 7 and 8, 2014.
What is #AskAnArchivist day?
On October 30th, archivists around the world will take to Twitter to answer your questions about any and all things archives! This day-long event will give you an opportunity to connect directly with archivists to ask questions, get information, or just satisfy your curiosity.
The Vignelli Center for Design Studies, located on Rochester Institute of Technology’s campus in Rochester, New York, is home to the archives of Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
The archives contain a comprehensive collection of primary source materials along with many examples of their finished works including identity campaigns, products, and
two galleries and a study room. It is open to the public and welcomes all visitors.
The Vignelli Center’s annual Design Conversations lecture series provides the community with the opportunity to gain invaluable insight from design professionals.
Jan Conradi, author of Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision will speak at Rochester Institute of Technology about the Vignellis and Modernism.
Thought at Work is a 3-day design conference, taking place every October at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The conference annually bring together design students from schools throughout the US and Canada. The Vignelli Center for Design Studies will offer guided tours with an artifact presentation for attendees.
The Vignelli Center for Design Studies hosts and supports a variety of events that advocate for design excellence including lectures, exhibitions and workshops.
June 4, 2014. The Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT will host a major exhibit of graphic designer Pierre Mendell’s posters concurrently in both Bevier Gallery and University Gallery.
The exhibition opens August 25, 2014.
Massimo Vignelli passed away in New York on May 27, 2014.
Professor Michael Burke has been selected as the Vignelli Center Visiting Scholar. Herbert Bayer’s World Geographic Atlas, Die Neue Line magazine and Bauhaus Designers in England are topics included in his design roundtable discussions.
Uniform Wares founders Oliver Fowles and Patrick Bek will visit RIT on January 29, 2014 to deliver a Design Conversations lecture.
archive: vignelli, the Vignelli Center’s blog, features artifacts from the Massimo and Lella Vignelli papers as they are unpacked and processed at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. This blog will share the experience of processing a collection and the excitement of discovering never before seen sketches, models, products and documents.
R. Roger Remington, Lella and Massimo Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design, will speak at Rochester Institute of Technology on September 10, 2013 as part of the Vignelli Center’s Design Conversations lecture series.
August de los Reyes will visit Rochester Institute of Technology in March and lecture as part of the Vignelli Center’s Design Conversations lecture series. His lecture is titled Design and The New Modern: Three Things You Should Know.
The Vignelli Approach to Apparel Design: An Early Venture into Sustainability and Investment Dressing was presented at the International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) 2012 Annual Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii by Melissa Moukperian and Kristen Morris.
Walt Disney Signature has donated “Airline 009” by designer Cory Grosser to Product Timecapsule. The Airline 009 is inspired by a highly sought after Art Moderne product.
Lee Green, Vice President, Worldwide IBM Brand and Values Experience, will give a talk titled “Design Leadership at IBM” on Wednesday, November 7 in the University Gallery. Mr. Green is also an alumnus of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
AREAWARE, a New York City based manufacturer of functional and unusual everyday objects, has donated several new items to Product Timecapsule.
George Lois, a leader in the “Creative Revolution” in advertising during the 1960s, on which the popular TV show Mad Men is based, is donating a majority of his archive to Rochester Institute of Technology.