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All Things Vignelli


Entrance to the Vignelli Center. (All photos Keelin Burrows)


Tour of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies
Rochester Institute of Technology

1 pm friday, october 23

Located on the RIT campus, the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, is the repository for the archives of husband and wife design team, Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Opened in 2010, the center serves as an exhibition and study space available to students and the general public. The collection largely came to the university due to the efforts of Roger Remington, the Massimo and Lella Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design at RIT, who honored the Vignellis’ wish to have their collection displayed and used as a teaching tool.

The tour was led by Jennifer Whitlock, Vignelli Center Archivist, and Katie Nix, Vignelli Center Program Coordinator. Nix gave a brief introduction to the Vignellis’ and their approach to design, situating them within Modernism. She emphasized their all-encompassing approach to design, as expressed through their proclamation “design is one.” The Vignellis worked within a set of beliefs and structures that were intended to solve design problems, such as function, access, and the achievement of beauty and elegance. They were concerned with principles of geometry and aimed to avoid trends in order to create a sense of timelessness in their design aesthetic. However, in retrospect, their work can arguably be seen within the ideological framework of minimalism.

The tour began in the first floor Benetton Galleries, which contained artifacts from the collection grouped into the following display categories: packaging; public graphics programs; transportation graphics; corporate identity programs; book, magazine, and newspaper design; and product design. On display were design materials for the iconic New York City Subway Map, packaging for international furniture manufacturer Heller and for the department store United Colors of Benetton, furniture brochures and catalogues for Knoll, early book designs from the 1960s for the Italian publisher Sansoni, and designed objects from silverware made by Calegaro for the Italian hotel Chiga (1979) to travertine toy building blocks made by Castiglione.


Trade books for Sansoni, various designs including silverware for hotel Chiga.

Through examining the array of sketches, style guides, pamphlets, ephemera, and objects on display, one could see how the Vignellis approached typographical design from the particulars of the individual letters and spacing to the incorporation of text as a formal design element into the larger compositional whole. Nix discussed how the Vignellis created a visual rhythm to the organization of text and information—referencing sketches and layout designs for the catalogue 40 Years of Design—highlighting how they presented compositional lines of text as distinct visual components of the overall design aesthetic. Other printed material (shown later in the study room) demonstrated, as Nix pointed out, how the Vignellis adapted historic fonts, such as Bodoni, creating their version of the design by elongating the extenders on the lower case letters, as well as their version of other fonts, as seen in “our futura.”


Examples of the Vignellis typographic designs.

The third floor consisted of gallery space with limited edition and production furniture designed by the Vignellis, as well as archival space for furniture prototypes and flat files. Each piece further emphasized their approach to design as a system, demonstrating how they incorporated different materials (glass, marble, steel, wood, leather, etc.) into each work, as well as how they designed within a system of a self-imposed grid. Guided by the modernist philosophy of form follows function, they created three-dimensional sculptures that implemented an element of play into the assembly process of the various furniture components. Even the gallery space, also designed by the Vignellis, had a grid superimposed into the floor patterning for arranging objects into systematic compartments. Amongst this display of pristine formalism, as expressed through pure shapes and colors, was not only a gestural nod to Euclidean geometry, but also paired down iconographic references to historical styles and aesthetics.


Vignelli’s geometric furniture.

The fourth floor contained the Helen Hamlyn Trust Study Room, as well as offices and more archival storage. Displayed across the long conference table were half the contents of one of 600 boxes currently on file for the Vignellis. These items provided a sampling of primary designs and research materials not on view in the gallery spaces, such as collateral for American Airlines, but also included design materials that related to many of the items on display in the gallery spaces, such as additional design ephemera for the NYC subway map and Fodor’s travel guides, as well as sketches and even clay models for the Chiga flatware on display. What was seen through this array of materials was how the design process unfolded for the Vignellis, or at least the narrative of the process that they chose to preserve. Whitlock noted that the systematization of the archive seems to suggest that the Vignellis started to think about preserving their legacy in the 1970s.

As Nix suggests, the design work of Massimo and Lella Vignelli was very intertwined—making it difficult to distinguish who did what. While Massimo has been given most of the credit, perhaps the availability of the archives and the exhibition space will provide an opportunity for further research into this dynamic collaborative that spanned over fifty years. How this collection will continue to expand and grow will be a testament to its sustaining relevancy and legacy.