Massimo Vignelli (1931–2014)

Massimo Vignelli.

WHEN I MOVED to New York in 1994, I was introduced to Lella and Massimo by a mutual friend, photographer Nini Mulas. The year before, I had worked closely with Nini for over a month, elbow to elbow, 24/7, preparing an issue of Abitare on Los Angeles. Nini was one of the Vignellis’ most intimate friends. It goes without saying that Nini and Lella—both true art Amazons—did not mince words when it came to giving me frank and fierce advice on how to behave as a newcomer in New York—what to wear, how to behave 9 to 5, how to behave 7 to midnight and beyond, which art galleries to visit, where not to go, best and worst architects, best and worst designers, whom to invite for lunch and whom for drinks. . . . They were loving but also authoritative and definitive and impossibly stylish, dressed in black and gray and navy (the latter only occasionally). Massimo shared their chromatic penchants but liked to talk about beauty and design rather than about survival in New York. He was smiling, suave, and forgiving—at least so he was at home, over a dinner of risotto with Lella and his son Luca.

I was soon presented with a different side of Massimo at a symposium on graphic design organized by Illinois Institute of Technology professor Sharon Poggenpohl in Chicago. There, I had a chance to witness live one of Massimo’s famous diatribes denouncing the ravages that early digital designers—Emigre’s Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in particular, who created their own fonts on newly introduced Mac computers—had inflicted upon our field. He sure had strong opinions—and very, very strong words—for these young experimental designers. And he did not change his opinions easily. The querelle continued for many years, until it became the stuff of lore. Of course, time brought perspective and, movingly, Licko and VanderLans wrote Massimo a goodbye letter in which they said that “over time, we have come to realize that your critique was probably one of the most valuable replies to our work,” as reported by Julie Lasky in the New York Times.

MoMA and the Vignellis have had a close relationship for decades, through three generations of curators. To celebrate Massimo’s life, we recently installed one of our proudest acquisitions—a selection of their work for the New York subway system—accompanied by a post on the MoMA blog. The famous 1970 New York Subway Map sits front and center, just as it sits high among the great masterpieces of graphic-design history. Just like Harry Beck’s much earlier map of the London Underground, it was filled with rectifications and rationalizations that were a testament to Massimo’s belief in the universal communicative power of modernism—and of his faith in 90- and 45-degree angles. The waterways were light brown. Places were not where they should be. The map was too much: too straight, too brutal. Even New Yorkers could not cope with it (the map was retired in 1979 and replaced with one that was still abstract but less angular and conceptual), and perhaps they were right. Like a botched first-series stamp, it was a fundamental step towards final success, and it is a rare, precious artifact. It has now been brought back by the MTA—New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority—in their Weekender website, which helps people navigate the system in the days when most maintenance interruptions are scheduled. Here, its extraordinary pointedness and edge offer the perfect platform for a new digital interactivity. After all, there is poetic justice about the fact that the design of someone who was, at first, such a traditionalist turns out to be so well suited to an online format.

Massimo Vignelli’s work transcends all of the boundaries of graphic design—as it transcends those of architecture, design, and communication, for that matter. Only a few designers in history have achieved a level of influence that makes them, very simply, indispensable. I add my voice to the choir and ask, could you think of a world without Massimo’s contributions? So much of it would be visually mute, or at least dumb. And communication design would be much worse off, having missed the productive and polemical energy it gained from arguing against this giant modernist father. I am sad Massimo Vignelli has died, but more than anything, I am so glad he has lived.

Paola Antonelli is the senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.