AIGA | Essays

Lella and Massimo Vignelli: The 1982 AIGA Medal

Massimo & Lella Vignelli, photograph by Barry McKinley

In 1982 Massimo and Lella received the AIGA Medal for their many contributions to the design world. Below is an article which originally appeared in the 1983 issue of AIGA Graphic Design USA commemorating their accomplishments. It is republished here with kind permission from AIGA.

1982 AIGA Medal

The Vignellis, Massimo and Lella, stand at the peak of their profession. During the past 20 years, their design output has been prodigious in quantity, far-ranging in media and scope and consistent in excellence. Equally important is the influence they have had and the difference they have made. Their work has led by example. They have contributed to design as individuals. For their accomplishments, Massimo and Lella Vignelli have been chosen to receive the AIGA Gold Medal for 1982 — the sixty-second such award in a distinguished series that began in 1920.

Upon the occasion of the major retrospective of the Vignellis’ work exhibited at Parsons in 1980, The New York Times critic Paul Goldberger characterized them as “total designers.” They and their office have indeed done it all: industrial and product design, graphic design, book design, magazine and newspaper design, packaging design, interior and exhibit design, furniture design. Massimo and Lella work together in two ways: he concentrates on what they call the “2D”; she handles the “3D”. He’s the visionary: “I talk of feelings, possibilities, what a design could be.” She the realist: “I think of feasibility, planning, what a design can be.”

The Vignellis were both born and educated in the industrial, more-European north of Italy, he in Milan and she in Udine, 90 miles away. Massimo’s passion was “2D” — graphic design; Lella’s family tradition and training were “3D” — architecture. They met at an architects’ convention and were married in 1957. Three years later, they opened their first “office of design and architecture” in Milan and designed for Pirelli, Rank Xerox, Olivetti and other design-conscious European firms. But their fascination with the United States, which took root during three years spent here after they were married, eventually grew strong enough to lure them away from Italy permanently. “There is diversity here, and energy, and possibility,” recalls Massimo, “and the need for design.” He cofounded Unimark in 1964, which ballooned and collapsed as the corporate identification boom of the late 1960s hyperventilated, then ran out of breath. In 1972, their present office was formed: Vignelli Associates for two-dimensional design, Vignelli Designs for furniture, objects, exhibitions and interiors.

Not only do the Vignellis design exceeding well, they also think about design. It is not enough that something — a chair, an exhibition, a book, a magazine — looks good and is well designed. The “why” and the “how,” the very process of design itself, must be equally evident and quite beyond the tyranny of individual taste.

“There are three investigations in design,” says Massimo. “The first is the search for structure. Its reward is discipline. The second is the search for specificity. This yields appropriateness. Finally, we search for fun, and we create ambiguity.”

Vignelli design, in both three dimensions and two, is highly architectural in character. Massimo’s posters, publications and graphic designs seem to be built in stories, separated by the now-familiar, bold, horizontal rules. Basic geometry is respected. The investigative design process moves from the inside out: “The correct shape is the shape of the object’s meaning.” The Vignelli commitment to the correctness of a design has taken their work beyond the mechanical exercise of devising a form best suited to a given function. They’ve always understood that design itself, in the abstract, could and should be an integral part of function. More than a process and a result, design — good design — is an imperative. “Everything has its own order,” they’ve said. “You can’t take a piece of music and scramble the notes. You can’t take a piece of writing and scramble the words. You can’t take a space and scramble the chairs around.“

Both in the example set by their work and by their personal commitment of time and energy, design has no advocates more passionate or effective. Both teach, write, lecture, serve on juries and boards, contribute their talent and cast to worthy causes. Unabashedly urban and urbane, their participation in the world of design is enthusiastic, inquiring, generous. The Vignellis are true believers: “When we were young and naïve, we thought we could transform society by providing a better, more designed environment. Naturally, we found that this was not possible. Now, we think more realistically: we see a choice between good design and poor or nondesign. Every society gets the design it deserves. It is our duty to develop a professional attitude in raising the standard of design.”

That sounds serious, and the Vignellis are serious about design. But it is seriousness of purpose conveyed most often through exuberance. When either Massimo or Lella says the word “design,” it is pronounced with a capital “d”: “Design.” As individuals and professionals, their commitment to design and their accomplishments in design have rewarded them well. The Vignelli office continues to thrive and assignments come from an ever more diverse range of clients. Graduates of their firm have set out on their own and established well-respected practices. Only a few of the best and brightest are hired out of the schools each year. Their calendars are crammed; their pace formidable.

“The reward?” asks Massimo, paraphrasing the question. “Why, the reward is to do all this!”

Originally published in AIGA Graphic Design 4, eds. David R. Brown, Wylie Davis, Rose DeNeve. Copyright 1983 by AIGA.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History

Comments [1]

I remember in the 80s watching a debate between Massimo Vignelli and Paula Scher at Cooper Union — this was the high point of the era when Swiss minimalism was very much out of style, so punky Paula was having a field day defending all things kitsch. At the time of course it seemed like both parties were from different planets but alas in retrospect I've come to realize that they're just both different sides of the design coin. And ironically all the kids today worship Swiss and I do admit that in my heart I yearn for the 70s subway map!
Michael Pinto

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