Remembering Bob Noorda

We remember the recently departed graphic design maestro with the words of some of his closest friends and colleagues: Massimo Vignelli, Mauro Panzeri, Franco Mirenzi and Maurizio Minoggio

«Back in the early ’60ties Bob Noorda was the designer in Milano with whom I wanted to be associate. His famous work for Milano's Metropolitana was of the highest standard. We started our friendship by driving to Venice every week to teach graphic design at the School of Industrial Design. That experience and that closeness cemented our friendship and in 1964 we decided to join our offices and that is when, with some other friends in Chicago, we started Unimark International. For a year we worked together at the same desk each one of us on his own projects, exchanging all the time our impressions of them. When I left for the States, I left all my Clients in his hands and he took great care, without losing anyone of them. In the following years we worked on some projects together, one was the signage for the New York Subway. I remember when Bob came to New York and spent everyday underground, in the Subway, to record the traffic flow in order to determine the points of decision where the signs should be placed. I also remember how we decided all details, from typeface to type spacing, from color coding to implementation. Bob Noorda had a very systematic mind, it was a pleasure to see how logic will prevail over emotional issues in order to deliver the best possible solution. His work was extremely civilized, his Dutch origin reflecting that culture and bringing a quality of spareness and essentiality to all his projects. His elegant figure and gentle manners were opening all doors of the Milanese society, giving him access to the best Clients. His manners were polite, subdued, what we use to say, those of a real gentleman. His design reflected his character in every detail. His excellent sense of typography could be seen in all the endless list of publications designed by him trough the years. Married to a prolific designer, Ornella, she was a complementary presence in his life, bringing a witty and fresh component to his sober style. When Unimark closed its US offices, Bob kept the Milano office going on, eventually under his ownership for many more years. Bob Noorda was a designer who contributed enormously to the recognition of our profession, a noble person to whom we designers are all indebted. His example will remain a beacon for all of us». Massimo Vignelli

«Two years ago, Bob Noorda gave me a small book about him in Dutch when l went to ask him to take part in an exhibition on the 1970s, of which I was curating a section on graphic design. The cover shows a b/w profile portrait of him, a close-up of his face with, above it, his dedication, which I really had to force out of him. I found it in my bookcase the other day and placed it on my desk to keep me company when I heard the news. I showed it to my assistants and told them how I met him, the work we did together in his studio, how readily he came out with his kind but shy laugh, how little he had to say and how he was also a bit of a teenager, with his forelock and blue eyes, how deaf he was (when it suited) and how much he smoked. That is how I remembered him, speaking out loud in my office, filled with memories and emotion. I also told them that he could handwrite Bodoni text, in Roman type and italics – and they were all amazed». Mauro Panzeri

«I knew him for many years, from the mid-1960s. I became his colleague first (and then his partner) when I started working in the consultancy he had formed with Vignelli and other international designers. I focused on industrial design and interior architecture and we worked in groups, driven by his enthusiasm and great sensitivity. Bob was one of the first to introduce the coordinated image into Italian industry - everything had to refer back to a single design concept. He was exciting to work with and any problem was solved with calm. He had a simple and playful approach. Extremely clever and ingenious, you always learnt something new when you discussed a job with him. The exchange was mutual because he appreciated other people’s good ideas, which were expressed freely. His generous nature was apparent even during the recent controversy on the underground, which greatly saddened him. His first thought was to safeguard Albini’s and his design, not so much out of vanity but to make sure the city conserved important signs that have become symbols of Italian and Milanese design. He understood the need for some adaptations, but if carried out sensibly and in agreement with those who had until recently looked after it so admirably. I worked with him until 2000, when the Milan practice was dissolved, almost from the beginning of my career when he was 40 years old and a brilliant young man. After all those years, his youthful behaviour, appearance and spirit had never left him». Franco Mirenzi

«For us young graphic design students at the start of the 1980s, Bob Noorda was a legend. He was famous - a star. We knew his personal history - it was already history - and his designs. Then I got to know him in person. He came to teach at the European Design Institute, where I was studying. His first class was a lecture in a big hall. He arrived with a carousel of slides under his arm and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He apologised for not speaking Italian well - as he came from the Netherlands - and then presented images of his historic designs with great simplicity and modesty. It was amazing and everyone loved it. He sat among the students and projected his slides, explaining his work with an elegant nonchalance. I learnt later that this was a distinctive character trait of his: he never placed too much importance on things, or on himself. He approached life and people simply - with a light touch. I realised that this simplicity was a kind of conquest: it had been achieved by the rigorous, ruthless elimination of anything he thought useless. His simplicity was wisdom. He asked me to work with him while I was still a student. I was amazed by the freedom he gave me right from the beginning to develop projects. His guidance was understated, his teaching quiet and effective. Our relationship continued - from the lecture halls to the offices of Unimark and the historic headquarters in Via Santa Maria Fulcorina, as well as outside the office. Although he appeared absent-minded, he was in reality a quiet, acute observer. He combined this with a great depth of character and a highly distinctive personality, and this marked his designs: it gave them strength and stamped them with his own highly recognisable style. He understood a communications designer's social responsibility, and was very aware that his work had left its mark on his country and beyond. He thought that his work was important - but not from personal vanity. The importance was reserved for the quality of his designs, which always brought together functionality and beauty. I would not use "professionalism" to describe his way of working since to use the word for a master like him would be facile and, above all, limiting. It does not express his gentleness and humanity. As he had that first time, he always apologised at the beginning of a public lecture for not speaking Italian well - as he came from the Netherlands. He apologised again at the start of the lecture he gave on receiving an honorary degree from Milan Polytechnic in March 2005. He was in Milan for more than fifty years and felt at home there, but he loved to remind people that he came from the Netherlands. It had become a habit of his - in any case, his apologies for not speaking Italian well hid something. Perhaps he wanted to apologise to the public because he thought he didn't deserve his fame. It was a furtive way of reaffirming his modesty – with that elegant nonchalance of his». Maurizio Minoggio

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