Photo by John Madere
If you think you aren’t familiar with Lella and Massimo Vignelli, you’re probably wrong. Anyone who has seen the maps and signs for the New York City Subway, the logos for Ford, Bloomingdales and American Airlines (1967-2013), or noticed the ubiquity of the font Helvetica, knows their work. The Vignellis worked together throughout their 57-year marriage, their strengths and weaknesses working in perfect compliment until Massimo’s death last year. Design is One, a documentary by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, took on the task of reducing the extensive careers and endearing personalities of the design world’s most influential couple to 79 minutes of film. The result is an accessible look into the Vignellis’ diverse resume in design, peppered with off-the-cuff philosophizing by the prolific duo as they look back on a lifetime of creative inertia.
Design is One does not call the viewer to action, pander to the emotions or bury the subject in its own artistic vision. Much like a designer, the film seems to realize that its primary duty is function, disappearing behind subjects who are thankfully articulate and charismatic enough to carry it. Mirroring the varied careers of Lella and Massimo, the film lacks discernible structure. Not necessarily linear or divided by medium, it is most accurately an impressionistic snapshot of the creative passion, celebrated innovation, design philosophy, and contrarian but loving relationship of the famous pair.
The working partnership of the Vignellis is at once contentious, adoring and above all, symbiotic. Lella, the MIT-trained architect and shrewd businesswoman has the less glamorous job of reigning in Massimo, the dreamer, the graphic innovator. As a pair, design is constant—a lifestyle rather than a 9-5 profession. “If you can’t find it, design it,” their motto echoes throughout the film, and true to it the couple even designed clothing and jewelry when they found their standards of utility and aesthetics unmet.
The scene that most concisely encompasses the Vignellis’ dedication to design is set inside their favorite project: the interior of St. Peters Church in New York City. Vignelli design in its purest form, the space is elegant, minimalist, and deceptively functional—seemingly unmoving pews can be rearranged for various uses, and steps open up to reveal additional seating. Lella and Massimo are visibly fulfilled in this space, as they look around with satisfaction and single out their favorite details. At one point, Massimo gestures to a high corner where he and Lella are to be entombed. As if it weren’t poetic enough to spend eternity together amid their own designs, Massimo explains that his name will not be inscribed in his signature Helvetica font, “Which everybody will expect,” he says. “The typeface for the church is Optima. In deference to the standards, my tomb will be in Optima, my name will be in Optima.”
For those interested in the delicate combination of beauty and utility or curious about the figures who contribute to our visual lexicon, Design is One is time well spent.
Images provided by Vignelli and Associates