The text has been published on Domus 835 / March 2001, photographs by Mario Carrieri on Domus 677 / November 1986.
Nothing could ever quite prepare you for your first visit to Massimo Vignelli’s office on Manhattan’s far west side.
475 Tenth Avenue is a lone white building in a curiously desolate part of New York City. At fourteen stories, it looms over the parking lots, garages, train yards and vacant lots that surround it. Boarding the elevator, you might be reassured by some of the stops on your way to the penthouse floor. You’d pass Gwathmey Siegel & Associates on three, Richard Meier on six.
As the door opened and closed, you might glimpse architectural models in glass vetrines, pristine drawings in simple frames and wonder: might this unprepossessing address actually be a design mecca? But the last stop on the fourteenth floor was different. White doors in a mammoth frame would swing wide to admit you to a reception area that had no models under glass, no drawings on the wall. Instead, a featureless, utterly uniform gray floor and white, white walls. A spray of apple blossoms in a cylindrical vase on a round steel table.
There were many potential clients who at this moment would realize that Vignelli Associates was not for them. They would make their visit as short as politely possible.
But there were always a few who stepped over that threshold and felt as if they were home at last. They would linger over every detail in their tour of the 15,000-square-foot space: the Donald Juddlike cubic wooden workstations, the block-long wall of corrugated galvanized steel, the cubic volume of the intimate library, the James Bond effect of the pyramid-shaped skylight that could be silently closed with the touch of an invisible button.
If you were there to see Massimo, your tour would end in his office. Sitting before the giant steel plate that served as his desk, with walls clad in beeswaxrubbed lead panels to your right and a staggering view of the Empire State Building to your left, your gaze would come to rest, inevitably, on the only things on the table: a single black mechanical pencil resting upon a stack of blank, white paper.
I worked for Massimo Vignelli for ten years. Like everyone else in the office, I had my own copy of that pencil, even down to the mandatory thick 6B lead. Massimo wouldn’t have had it any other way. Unlike many designers, he didn’t mind being imitated. On the contrary, he prided himself on creating solutions that could be replicated, systems that were so foolproof that anyone could do them. I sometimes suspected that he had a secret (or not so secret) desire to design everything in the world. Since that was impossible even for a man of his substantial energy, he decided instead to enlist an army of disciples to design the world in his own image.
There were days when it almost seemed possible. You could fly into New York on American Airlines, find your way to the New York City subway, shop at Bloomingdale’s, dine at Palio, and even worship at St Peter’s Church and never be out of touch with a Vignelli-designed logo, signage system, shopping bag, table setting or pipe organ.
With his wife, Lella, some longtime collaborators like David Law and Rebecca Rose, and an ever-changing but surprisingly small group of designers, interns and acolytes, Massimo managed an output that would put offices ten times the size to shame.
Always optimistic, never cynical, Massimo had a hunger for new design challenges and approached every job as if he had never done such a thing before. Even creating something as simple as a business card (and a Vignelli-designed business card was nothing if not simple) would require sketch after sketch as Massimo tried to coax a few trusted elements and a famously limited palette of typefaces into some surprising new form.
And when the pieces finally came together, inevitably no one would be as genuinely delighted as Massimo. And what form of salesmanship is as effective as genuine enthusiasm? That passion is what many of Vignelli’s critics miss when they group him with a generation of designers dedicated to a sterile brand of modernism. To be sure, he has always argued for functionalism and clarity. But the rationalism of modernism requires absolute self control, and in fact makes a fetish of a certain kind of self denial.
Instead, Massimo’s signature gestures – the expressionistic black stripes in the print work, the surreal contrasts of scale in the architecture, the inevitable intrusion of sensuality in the product design – were utterly intuitive, almost indulgent, and clearly as impossible for him to resist as breathing.
Later in his career, Massimo had begun designing clothes, simple ensembles in black and neutrals that someone once said made him look like “a Marxist priest at a pajama party”. I repeated the quip for years until I realized what a perfect description it was of his singular combination of doctrinal rigor, religious fervor, and joy.
The lease on that space at 475 Tenth Avenue finally ran out at the end of last year, and the astronomical rent increase was impossible to support. Massimo and Lella decided the time had come at last to close the office and to work out of their home. I was summoned last October to collect some things I had forgotten when I left Vignelli Associates ten years before. Stepping into that office was – as it always was for me – a homecoming.
The packing up had been underway for weeks, and the office was almost empty, although the difference between empty and full would have been hard for many to detect. The Vignellis were already gone, busy making their home office into a place that could inspire awe in another generation of clients and acolytes. Massimo’s office was empty, but the black pencil and white pad of paper were in their customary place.
I picked up the pencil to leave a note and the familiarity of the sensation shocked me: I had switched to easier to find (and easier to lose) cheap black pens a long time ago. And when I looked at what I had written, I noticed something funny about the handwriting. It looked just like Massimo’s.