It is everywhere, all around us, the most omnipresent component of the zeitgeist, the silent art, hidden in its ubiquity, immeasurable in its importance. Those possessing the right eyes hail Design with the same fervor as painting, sculpture, poetry. Aided by its permeation of life, Design holds a distinction as the art most likely to be confused—or conflated—with the Holy Spirit.
You’ll hardly be surprised to learn that Design touched every aspect of this review: the chair and desk, the laptop, the layout of the word processor, the layout of its final appearance in Paste and, of course, the book itself. Any sign you have trusted and followed, any couch or bed or countertop or washing machine you have fucked upon, any magazine or book you have read … Design got there first. The fixtures that light your home, the modes of transportation that move you through the milieu, the monument that will mark your grave: all designed. The only possible escape would be to throw one’s self, naked, into the surf, shaking off the shore until you saw nothing but sea and sky and cephalopod. (Even then Design would not be absent, merely lying fathoms below, sunken and full of ghosts.)
Ubiquity breeds either worship or indifference. In our time, Design worship holds sway. Was not one of our most critically hailed albums of the young decade, Kanye West’s Yeezus, inspired primarily by a Le Corbusier lamp? The halls of the Driehaus Museum blossom and bud, its voluptuous curves and shimmering nacre lit by the prismatic hues of Louis Comfort Tiffany. The Internet provides to many millions of surfers many millions of finely designed websites (and many millions more heretical abominations).
Even picking out one’s Tumblr theme invokes Design … touched upon, weighed, Design engaged in a way the general public never engaged with Design before. (For the record, my theme offers homage to Saul Bass, the famed graphic designer perhaps best remembered for movie credit sequences and corporate logos like United’s “tulip” and AT&T’s striated blue orb.) The great pendulum—and this would assuredly be a most beautiful pendulum, ebony pivots and rods with a brushed steel bob—swings toward worship and the Temple of Design, and no temple would ever look better, architecture being Design and all.
A temple needs deities. A temple needs scripture.
Massimo and Lella Vignelli, paragons of modernism, of the clean, resounding, simple and beautiful, may be as gods, according to Jan Conradi’s biography/gospel Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision. Conradi, who also designed the book, is a professor of the form at Rowan University. The author met Massimo in 1987 while researching a graduate thesis.
The book is thick with the language of worship. The mission of Unimark, the seminal design firm the Vignellis helped found, existed, in Massimo’s view, to “spread the gospel of functional design.” Greg Smith, a designer in the Detroit office (a ‘60s anachronism; can you imagine a hip, influential firm opening offices in New York, Milan, Chicago and Detroit?), recalls Massimo as “the big hero; some referred to him as the ‘Design God.’”
The Vignelli role in Unimark, kept hermetically separate from the business side, may be summed up in Massimo’s dismissal of MBAs and Madison Avenue types as “the philistines talking about money in the temple of design.” Behold, the kinds of stances icons are meant to take, those that instill genuflecting remembrances in colleagues, friends and creative progeny.
And what icons! Vignellis lived in the sky (American Airlines), and in the ground (the MTA subway map-cum-modern art, darling), and in our hands (the Little Brown Bag). Their words became our words (the Vignelli aesthetic drove the predominance of the Helvetica type font). The designs happen to be—as the couple always maintained, and as Conradi’s book tautologically makes mention—timeless in their simplicity, extraordinarily beautiful, beautiful, in this century as they were the last, as they will be in the next, ad infinitum.
The Vignellis designed logos and identities and various other two-dimensional commissions that come to mind whenever one mentions “graphic design.” They also dreamed up furnishings and house wares and buildings and interiors. They were Designers, for god’s sake, designing sundry and all, creators on a deific scale.
Modernism, in the Vignelli’s hearts, minds, and results, was more philosophy than art form. Conradi does not shy away from the opinionated stances bred by such thinking, particularly from Massimo, who declared, “Critics of modernism misunderstand. It is not a style issue, it is a moral issue.” The Vignellian modernist seeks to make order from chaos, to comfort and guide and inform, and to do so not at the sacrifice of style, per se, but certainly without the vulgar, solipsistic, perverse yearnings of the aesthete.
We find other remarks as liturgical as critical. Conradi quotes industrial designer George Nelson: “It is not a good thing for a designer to become a pimp”—a pimp! Pornographer! Trading in things which shine selfishly, glimmer needlessly!—“ … Creating new and unnecessary appetites for the marketing departments of the eternally hungry big corporation is not a dignified or even useful activity.”
Massimo, more outspoken than his wife, railed against what he considered the obscene avant garde, armed and causing upheaval with new technologies. These included the nearly unlimited type styles able to be loosed upon society by computers. His rhetoric seems to consider those who used these faces as jihadists, bringing their twisted passion to attack legibility and centuries of typographical knowledge, custom and practice. He considered the style-championing magazine Emigre an “aberration of culture,” a peddler of “junk” and “noise” and a proponent of “deformation.”
Such adherence to bygone modes stems from the Vignelli belief in athanasia. It holds that the proper Design will only be supplanted when circumstances beyond its control render it obsolete. The pursuit of the new for newness’s sake amounts to folly. (A very European attitude.)
Lella came from an architectural family outside of Venice, Massimo a broken home near Milan. Both had their lives interrupted by the rise of Mussolini. After WWII, the pair embarked on their educational and professional lives. Lella proved studious and well organized—these traits would serve her and doom her, leading her to run business affairs at the expense of her own practice. Massimo bounced in and out of institutes before finding art school. The couple met at an architectural conference on Lake Como in 1951. In the years that followed, Massimo would drop out of school—he had transferred to Venice from Milan, for the stronger program and proximity to Lella, just out of high school—and soon both would meet some of the most prominent designers and architects on the Continent. Among them? Le Corbusier, whom they gave, post-lecture, a private guided tour of Venice, and Giulio Minoletti, with whom Massimo helped to design the interiors of the Andrea Doria. (Design lies even at the bottom of the sea, remember?)
A visit to America inspired the couple. They saw American Design’s opportunities and, just as importantly, its abysses. The Vignellis went home obsessed with a massive need for quality Design. Unimark eventually formed.
Conradi traces Massimo and Vella’s lives from the old country to Massimo’s passing, paying particular attention to Lella’s complicated role in the relationship. Resisting the social constructs of the day pushing her toward a supporting, quasi-unofficial role, Lella instead assumed the mantle of leadership, quietly at Unimark and overtly at Vignelli Associates. In addition to her highly respected interior and industrial designs, she also handled the less glamorous but equally important business aspects of the firms. The influence of her success on the women in her employ stands as one of the most underrated triumphs of her age.
Conradi infuses the historical account with thorough, and thoroughly annotated, interviews and correspondence. The author’s wealth of first-hand sourcing, informative and definitive, if not quite exhaustive, paints a full-spectrum portrait of the couple … it also lends a certain pragmatic dryness.
What signs of life the book does possess arise, fittingly, when Conradi touches upon the work. The Design. Aside from the glowing testimony of those the Vignellis touched and who respected them—Conradi included—a reader must be satisfied with spirited descriptions of office interiors and furniture. This may not be much of a burden for congregants in the Temple of Design, but it won’t win many new disciples. The dearth of pictures reveals Two Lives as being written primarily for the already-converted.
The mostly unadorned prose also offers a kind of literary analogue to the Vignelli way. Each sentence, each line, each quotation fits together, hinting at the rule-heavy, detail-light, informative modernist style. An incredibly unwieldy reliance on name-first quotations (e.g., “Singer said, ‘That showroom was a great collaboration …’”) seems almost disfiguring, given the context.
As it must be, Two Lives, One Vision arrives beautifully designed, luxe, on glossy stock, with minimal use of photographs. (I cannot now look at my reviewed copy, dog-eared top and bottom, scored with ink, and not feel very real shame … the shame that I had not used in my vivisection one of my special book pens, whose slightly protuberant design is offset in its ugliness by the realization that, ¬with a twist of the swollen thorax, one can leave a flag mark without scarring a page.)
Vella and Massimo designed the interior of St. Peter’s Church in New York City. Massimo’s ashes now lie there, appropriately. To denote St. Peter’s transformation from a secular space to a holy one, the Vignellis created a processional cross that could be placed upon a stand. That microcosm symbolizes all that Vignellian modernism embodies—simplicity, pulchritude, integrity, endurance. Icons begat literal icons.
The Temple of Design is made sacrosanct by type, 80 lb. Huron Gloss, shining as the host, bearing the good news in Helvtica Neue.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, Sports on Earth, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News and Newcity, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.