Let’s face it. When it comes to design and style, few countries can top the Italians. If you’re looking for proof, look no further than Lella and Massimo Vignelli. Even if you are not familiar with their names, I bet you’ve seen their work.
For over fifty years, this Italian couple has affected the lives of millions of people through their innovative and minimalist designs. They created everything from logos and buildings, to chairs, dinnerware and watches. Blurring the lines between graphic, industrial, architectural, clothing, packaging and furniture design, the Vignellis have done it all. Their work has earned them multiple international design awards and is often displayed in museums all over the world.
Design Is One is a documentary by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra which profiles this amazing duo who have been married for over fifty years. In the film we learn that Leila is a “bulldog” while Massimo is a “puppy”. He is a dreamer and she is a realist. He is a master of graphics and she is the architect. He wonders what “could” be done while she wonders what “can” be done. Together, this charming couple have brought their Italian design sensibilities to New York back in 1971 and in turn to the rest of the world as well.
Through personal conversations with Massimo and Lella, we learn about their intensely collaborative creative process, the stories behind their most iconic designs, and how they got the inspiration. Massimo and Lella have never stayed from their original philosophy – that the function of design is to make the world better.
“Everything that surrounds us has been designed by somebody. And most of the time – badly. ” says Massimo “So we felt a tremendous compassion about changing that situation.”
In 1965, Massimo famously introduced the “Helvetica” typeface to the US. The font is so ubiquitous now, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t always so. In the film, he makes it clear that there are too many fonts these days and there are only about six font types worth using in graphic design. Over the years, Massimo and Lella tackled many design dilemmas for the world’s most famous brands such as creating Bloomingdales’ famous double “O” logo, the corporate logo for Ford, the catalog for Knoll furniture and so much more. Forty years ago they famously designed the American Airlines logo. It was the first logo to use two words and two different colours. The logo is still being used which is a testament to the timelessness of their designs, because today, companies “re-brand” on a regular basis.
“If you can’t find it, design it” – Massimo Vignelli
It’s fascinating to hear Vignellis speak about some of their creative challenges. Such as the time they were approached by the New York Transit Authority back in 1972. New York City had just unified all the independent subway operators into one giant system. The operators’ varying hand-made signs had to be unified and one main map created. As anyone who has used the New York subway system knows, creating a map of the route is no small venture. Brilliantly, Vignellis created a map that was totally unrelated to what was above ground. True to their minimalist philosophy, their design was simple and colour coded and included only what was absolutely essential. It was such a breakthrough design, that a copy of it is on display at the MoMA. Each time anyone hops on the New York Subway today, all the signage they see inside is also the work of the Vignellis.
This prolific couple designed much more than graphics. Often, their design inspiration would come from their own practical needs or desires. When Massimo wanted simpler and comfortable clothes, he created a fashion line. When Lella wanted to design some jewellery, she got inspired by Queen Elizabeth I and presto – a gorgeous metal necklace in the shape of the Elizabethan collar. They even designed the interior of Saint Peter’s Church at Citicorp Centre where Massimo plans to be buried.
The film also includes interviews with luminaries from the world of design – such as architects Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman and graphic designers Milton Glaser, Michael Beirut, and Jessica Helfand, among others – who speak about the Vignellis’ work from their perspective as peers and fans.
Design Is One is a loving portrait of this innovative couple and a true homage to their body of work as well as to their warmth and humour. What’s a wonderful reveal is their outlook on what design is and isn’t. Massimo believes that every society gets the design they deserve and that no matter how desperate you are, you must never accept to work with a bad client because the next one will be worse. They truly understand that design is not art. It’s about providing what is needed in way that’s simple, clear and functional. The Vignellis are not trying to be artists. They create designs with a utilitarian purpose – to provide comfort or legibility. Yet by doing so, they have achieved the kind of timelessness and large-scale impact that few traditional artists could ever recreate.
DESIGN IS ONE: Lella & Massimo Vignelli” opens today at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.