Remembering Massimo Vignelli, modernist master

How many designers can claim that their work directly affects upwards of one million people each day? Massimo Vignelli can count himself among the few: his design for the New York City subway signage has become an iconic part of the metropolis’ visual fabric, sure to live on even now that its creator has passed away.

Let’s take this opportunity to review the life work of this artistic giant, which ran the gamut from branding to furniture design and continues to inspire creative people the world over.

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The Stendig Calendar

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Photo: Andrew Bonamici (via Flickr)

Vignelli, a true modernist, believed in radical simplicity and the grid as the ultimate basis of graphic design. Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in his Stendig calendar of 1966, which the Museum of Modern art quickly purchased for its design collection.

American Airlines

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American Airlines: Maryellen McFadden (via Flickr)

In 1967, Vignelli’s design firm, Unimark International, got a pretty epic commission: designing the logo for American Airlines. Vignelli created something strikingly simple – two As, one red and one blue – to indicate the company’s gimmick-free professionalism. The client insisted that Vignelli incorporate a little more American symbolism, so he added the geometric, X-shaped eagle.

Knoll

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Knoll International poster: Maryellen McFadden (via Flickr)

American Airlines may have been Vignelli’s biggest commission of 1967, but his personal favorite was for another design entity: the furniture company, Knoll. Knoll hired Vignelli to create its entire graphic identity, from logo to stationary, to brochures, to advertisements. All components were based on the grid.

New York City Subway

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Photo: Dom Dada (via Flickr)

In 1972, Vignelli designed a subway map and signage system for New York City’s complex subway system, which connects four of the five boroughs. The map was divisive. Colorful and based on right angles, it greatly distorted the actual dimensions of New York City and the path of subway lines in the name of clarity.

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NYC subway map: Ilona Gaynor (via Flickr)

In 1979, the city decided to replace it with a more geographically accurate one. However, the design community has always maintained Vignelli’s version to be the best. Perhaps conceding to this to some degree, the city brought back Vignelli’s version in 2011 for its new “Weekender” map, which displays service changes on weekends.

Vignelli’s memorable signage, which employs the typeface Helvetica, has never been changed.

Heller ware and the Handkerchief Chair

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The Handkerchief Chair: Maryellen McFadden (via Flickr); Heller cups: designmilk (via Flickr)

One of Vignelli’s famous sayings was “if you can design one thing, you can design everything.” True to this, Vignelli did not limit himself to just graphic design. With his wife Lella, he opened Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in 1960 for his work in product design.

Among their most famous products are the Heller Stacking Dishes (1964) and Handkerchief Chair (1983).

Our Bodoni

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Photo: jessica mullen (via Flickr)

While the number of available typefaces increased by many thousands during his lifetime, Vignelli saw no need for more than a few. In 1989 he created Our Bodoni, a variation on Bodoni that matches the dimensions of one of his other favorite typefaces, Helvetica.

What are your favorite Vignelli designs? Share in the comments!

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