When Massimo Vignelli, one of the greatest graphic designers of the 20th century, was close to death in mid-May, his son Luca informed the whole design community—at Vignelli’s request—so we could say goodbye with our thoughts and with a letter. The world will have to move on without him. Still, the world—and especially New York—would not be what it is without Vignelli’s elegantly rigorous touch. Imagine the NYC subway left to meander down a designless track, loosely organized around a crowded and illegible map, or, even worse, marred by a haughty, serifed typeface instead of a clean, democratic Helvetica. Imagine a New York without the iconic “Bloomie’s” logo and its intersecting o’s, or its equally well-known “big brown bags” (that would be Bloomingdale’s, for you out-of-towners). Washington D.C. would be affected as well—no Metro to speak of, as Vignelli is the one that suggested the name. The effect would spread to the whole country: a crucial decade, 1964 to 1974, would be left without distinctive stackable melamine dinnerware in bright colors; and some American corporate staples—from American Airlines before the recent makeover, to Knoll—would not look as stylish, incisive, and as, well, American.
Massimo Vignelli, in tandem with his partner in work and life, Lella, is a pillar of MoMA’s history and collection, as well as a titan in the history of design. The Vignellis’ influence and friendship with the Museum spans three generations of curators, from yours truly, traveling back in time to Mildred Constantine, who had a crucial role in the adoption of good design by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that runs the New York City subway system.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Constantine, associate curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, was adamant about the importance of information design. She organized, among many other great shows, Signs in the Street in 1954. Constantine and Vignelli met in 1959, as jurors for the Chicago Art Directors Club annual competition. In 1965, Vignelli moved to New York to run the local office of Unimark International, the design company he had founded with, among others, Dutch graphic designer Bob Noorda.
Noorda had been responsible for the handsomely modern graphics of the Metropolitana Milanese in the early 1960s. In 1966, well aware of the masterful Milan job and Vignelli’s work as a designer, Constantine recommended Unimark to the New York City Transit Authority (now known as MTA New York City Transit). It was only in 1967, after an earlier false start, that the marriage was consummated. In that year, Constantine organized a public symposium entitled “Transportation Graphics: Where Am I Going? How Do I Get There?” at MoMA. She invited Noorda to speak, along with other great designers of the time, like Jock Kinneir, who, with Margaret Calvert, had designed the road signs used throughout the United Kingdom, and Peter Chermayeff (an architect, and son of designer Serge Chermayeff). Daniel T. Scannell, the head of the NYCTA, was also part of the gathering, and Constantine challenged him to pay close attention to design as a means to improve the efficiency and navigability of the system. Scannell came through, launching the full-fledged design program that ultimately became so intrinsically intertwined with the city’s identity as to signify it on the tourist t-shirts for sale along Canal Street.
The rest is history, starting from the first Unimark signage designs in black type on a white background (reversed out in today’s signage), to the 1972 subway system diagram that was panned by New York City’s straphangers for being too conceptual, rectilinear, almost brutally abstract in its geography, only to be held up as a paragon of great design today, decades after its replacement in 1979. In 2012, the MTA again called on Vignelli, this time to design the Weekender—the reductive map indicating changes in service due to maintenance on Saturdays and Sundays—and is currently offering a 2012 Vignelli-designed full-system diagram as an option on its downloadable app.
In 2004, MoMA acquired the original c. 1972 diagram, the 1970 graphics standards manual indicating how signage and station information was to be designed and implemented, and three porcelain and enamel signs specially produced for the Museum by the MTA NYC Transit’s director of signage John Montemarano in high fidelity to the originals (“certified” by the Vignellis together with Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA’s Art for Transit program). The Museum’s collection already held many works by Lella and Massimo Vignelli—ranging from their distinctive graphics to furniture and objects—but would never really be able to represent them without one of their most influential and enduring projects. I was lucky enough to be part of the acquisition process and therefore had a chance to see them in action and in their element—directly plugged into the system that keeps New York City going. This is how MoMA chooses to remember Massimo Vignelli, up there with the champions that gave the city its image and place, and down here in the subway with the people that give the city its character.