The towering Modernist designer Massimo Vignelli, whose approach brought streamlined, sometimes divisive, clarity to major brands and the NYC subway system, passed away today in Manhattan at age 83.
Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, who worked for Vignelli and his wife Leila, told the NY Times, "Massimo, probably more than anyone else, gets the credit for introducing a European Modernist point of view to American graphic design."
While he helped with logos, typography and furniture for companies like American Airlines and Bloomingdale's that endured for decades, Vignelli is most known for his contribution to NYC's subway map. In 1972, the MTA released Vignelli's design, which upset some and thrilled most design fiends. The Times wrote in 2012:
No sooner had the Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced a new map of the New York subway system on Aug. 7, 1972, than complaints flooded in. Many stations seemed to be in the wrong places. The water surrounding the city was colored beige, not blue. As for Central Park, it appeared to be almost square, rather than an elongated rectangle, three times bigger than the map suggested, and was depicted in a dreary shade of gray.
The map was, indeed, riddled with anomalies, but that was the point. Its designer, Massimo Vignelli, had sacrificed geographical accuracy for clarity by reinterpreting New York’s tangled labyrinth of subway lines as a neat diagram. Each station was shown as a dot and linked to its neighbors by color-coded routes running at 45- or 90-degree angles. Mr. Vignelli had used his design skills to tidy up reality.
Design buffs have always loved his map for its rigor and ingenuity. When the future graphic designer Michael Bierut made his first trip to New York in 1976, he took one home to Ohio as a souvenir. But many New Yorkers were outraged by what they saw as the misrepresentation of their city, while tourists struggled to relate Mr. Vignelli’s design to what they found above ground. In 1979, the M.T.A. bowed to public pressure by replacing his diagrammatic map with a geographical one.
The 1972 subway map is in the collection of the MoMA and Vignelli designed a special, limited edition 2008 update of the subway system to raise money for the Green Worker Cooperative. And while the MTA still uses geographically accurate subway maps these days, Vignelli's design is used for the MTA's Weekender subway map and, most recently, the Super Bowl 2014 transportation map. Vignelli and Bob Noorda also created the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, which is still used.
On May 9, Vignelli's son Luca asked that letters be sent to his father because he was very ill and would be "spending his last days at home" on the Upper East Side. The Wall Street Journal reports, "Fans responded immediately, sending well-crafted pieces of mail—from simple handwritten letters to intricate folded designs, all inspired by Mr. Vignelli's clear style—to his Upper East Side home. Devotees also shared their work on Twitter, using the hashtag #dearmassimo." Beatriz Cifuentes, vice president at Vignelli Associates, said, "Massimo is delighted to receive the letters, and overwhelmed by the amount of love and admiration, from people very close to him to total strangers."
Bierut wrote about his start with Vignelli on Design Observer at age 23, "I was already at my desk on my first day of work when Massimo arrived. As always, he filled the room with his oversized personality. Elegant, loquacious, gesticulating, brimming with enthusiasm. Massimo was like Zeus, impossibly wise, impossibly old. (He was, in fact, 49.) My education was about to begin."
At Vignelli Associates, I was immersed in a world of unbelievable glamour. If you were a designer - even the lowest of the low, like me - Massimo treated you with a huge amount of respect. Everyone passed through that office. I met the best designers in the world there: Paul Rand, Leo Leonni, Joseph Muller-Brockman, Alan Fletcher. And not just designers. I remember one time Massimo was working on a book project with an editor from Doubleday, and he decided to give her a tour of the office. He brought her to my desk and introduced me. It was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Mrs. Onassis, this is one of our young designers, Michael Bierut,” said Massimo. “It’s an honor to meet you,” said the former First Lady. I think I just said, “Guh, guh, guh.”
From Massimo, I Iearned that designing a book wasn’t about coming up with a clever place for the page numbers. He taught me about typography, about scale, about pacing, about refinement. I learned to think of graphic design as a way to create an experience, an experience that was not limited to two dimensions or to a momentary impression. It was about creating something lasting, even timeless.
The Times' obituary ends with this anecdote: "Mr. Vignelli said the job he would have liked was developing a corporate identity for the Vatican. “I would go to the pope and say, ‘Your holiness, the logo is O.K.,’ ” he said, referring to the Christian cross, “ ‘but everything else has to go.’"
UPDATE: The MTA has released this statement, "Massimo Vignelli’s contribution to improving the way New Yorkers find their way around the subway system is hard to overstate, and it will endure for a long time to come. He is perhaps most well-known for defining a new look for the New York City Subway map that has been admired and replicated around the globe. But he also designed the graphic standards used to this day in signs throughout the subway system. His contributions are being repurposed for the digital age, as the Vignelli map is now the base for the MTA’s new Weekender app and website.”