Lella Vignelli

We publish Massimo Vignelli’s passionate and moving homage to his beloved Lella, written for Domus last April, at a special moment in their life. His comment includes profound reflection on the relationship between women and men in the workplace.

Massimo Lella Vignelli
Originally published on Domus 980 / May 2014

For decades, the collaborative role of women as architects or designers working with their husbands or partners has been under appreciated. Fifty years ago, it was standard practice that the head of the office was the man and the woman partner had a subordinate role.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Top: graphics for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1974. Above: silver jewellery for San Lorenzo, 1972/75
At best, the woman’s creative input and professional influence was only vaguely accepted; often her contributions were dismissed and sometimes even forgotten. Even some of the most famous partnerships – Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, Alvar and Aino Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, and many others – were murmured about but not openly recognised as such. Female architects have often been relegated – by assumptions, by the media, by ignorance or arrogance – to supporting roles, even when they shared the position of partners. In the last 30 years, some professional women have become celebrities on their own, but that phenomenon is still in its adolescence. In Italy, some grandes dames of design – Gae Aulenti, Anna Castelli Ferrieri, Cini Boeri – have earned recognition on their own merits, but the list is quite short. Too short.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Cover of the book Designed by: Lella Vignelli
In June 2013, Architectural Record, an American magazine, noted that even now, when 40 per cent of the architecture students in the United States are women, only 17 per cent of partners and principals of architectural firms are women. New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition, “Designing Modern Women 1890-1990”, in October 2013. It showcases a diverse range of works created by women, including some of Lella’s work, and acknowledges that “modern design of the 20th century was profoundly shaped and enhanced by the creativity of women”.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Artemide showroom in Miami, 1985
This book is a demonstration of the work of Lella Vignelli, a strong and successful professional woman, and I hope it provides inspiration and incentive for young women who are shaping their careers. Times are changing...
The supporting role of the woman architect has often been created by macho attitudes of the male partner. Most of the glory went to the men (not accidentally) while the women, as partner architects, found that their role was dismissed or totally ignored. This was true even in Lella’s family, where nearly everyone was an architect. Her brother Gino Valle was acknowledged for his architectural work, but his collaboration with his sister Nani Valle – a talented and conscious professional in her own right – was often dismissed.

Massimo Lella Vignelli
Glass bakerware for Heller, 1970
Lella and I were affected by these standing mores early in our careers. It is why we purposely built the notion of the two of us as a brand, but it took time for the others to see and understand this. The architectural and design press had a bad habit of crediting only the man, forgetting the woman partner. For many years, our Vignelli office sent photographs of projects – with proper credits – to the magazines, but too often we would see the published material crediting my name only. This created a constant scene of embarrassment and frustration, to the point that I threw publications away to avoid unpleasant confrontations with Lella. Eventually we became more known and then Lella’s name began to appear properly credited, but it took a long time. Most of the time, the issue of properly assigning credit is generated by a misunderstanding of the role of the partners in a collaboration.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Silver jewellery for San Lorenzo, 1972/75
Collaboration between designers and architects exists when the partners share a common cultural, intellectual platform. It is not holding a pencil with four hands that makes a partnership; it is sharing the creative act and exercising creative criticism which is reflected in the end result. A partnership, in life and in the profession, should be based on mutual respect and appreciation for each partner’s talent, sensibility and culture. No partnership can exist, or last, without this fundamental basis.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Interiors for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1974
Lella and I have been partners, lovers, a married professional couple for more than half a century. From the beginning, our relationship has been bonded by our mutual passion for architecture and design. From the beginning, Lella had a strong visual sensibility and a precise understanding of our projects. When we first began, many of our projects were in graphic design, and although that was never her focus, she had the invaluable capacity of understanding my interpretation of a project and an ability to quickly evaluate its merits or demerits. With a forceful lucidity she has always pinpointed what was right or wrong in all of our work, always explaining the reasons why. In a similar way, I would express my critique of her work, suggest variations, express my appreciation or disagree with her, but always we discussed how we could make the work better. That is what made it a partnership. We had complete trust in each other’s judgment, even if sometimes the discussions were quite animated.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Poltronova, Saratoga line, Italy, 1964
In nature’s pairings, the males of a species can more freely come and go, while the females are committed through gestation, delivery and raising the offspring until ready to be self-sufficient. Similarly, it should be no surprise that in a professional partnership it is often the woman who carries the project through the multiple stages of development and implementation, assuring that every detail has been carried out according to the original intentions. I think that men tend to chase new projects and then reconvene with their partner to start the creative process once again. Our collaboration reflected this kind of structure, where we had complementary and stimulating roles. Many of the projects in this book were completely Lella’s, from beginning to end, and others were done by me in strict collaboration with Lella.
Massimo Lella Vignelli
Furniture for executive offices for Poltrona Frau, 1988
Always, we were aware of and involved in each other’s work. Lella often said, “Massimo is the dreamer, I am the realist. He flies high, and sometimes I have to pull him down.” In any case, the end products have always reflected our mutual way of understanding and approaching design problems. Both of us despise obsolescence in design; we consider it an irresponsible attitude towards the user and towards society. We detest a wasteful culture based on greed, and we detest the exploitation of the consumer and of resources; we see this as an immoral attitude. We have shared these principles from the beginning of our life together. Lella’s sensibility towards natural materials, textures and colours is quite apparent in her work. Linen, wool, silk, woods and silver are often the foundation of her creative palette. Her clothing design also reflected the same approach, based on sober values and thoughtful intelligence. Lella’s work, and her life, has been a fantastic blend of logic and playfulness, spirit and pragmatism, down-to-earth logic and idealistic vision.

Massimo Lella Vignelli
Exhibition set for Knoll International at the Louvre, Paris, 1972
There is no doubt that graphic design was the most visible side of our partnership, but our involvement across the whole field of design is what built our professional image. In that, Lella’s role is significant. Our borders within design were often blurred, and we liked to keep it that way. The incipient loss of her memory and words, caused by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease, forces the end of a most significant and fruitful collaboration. It is the end of one phase, perhaps the best of our lives, and the beginning of another based on sheer love and admiration – love for the marvellous woman who has deeply enriched my life in every possible way.

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram