One-on-one with Lella and Massimo Vignelli
A. Sue Weisler
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The Vignelli Center for Design Studies, officially dedicated during a ceremony on Sept. 16, bears the name of world-renowned designers Lella and Massimo Vignelli. The couple donated their archive to RIT. The center houses their archive and exhibits select pieces of their graphic designs, furniture, silverware, packaging and more in the Benetton Gallery. The Vignellis talked about this longtime dream come true during an interview with University News Associate Director Kelly Downs.
Question: What does this center mean to you?
Massimo: This is a dream that’s been in gestation for more than 25 years. This center is really a combination of the determination of Lella and myself and Roger Remington [Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design]. Roger has shown vision, courage and determination in making this dream a reality. The dream was not only the building and the archives, but also really our philosophy of the importance of design theory, history and criticism. This is RIT’s philosophy too.
Question: Why RIT?
Massimo: RIT started collecting the archives of modernist graphic designers in the mid 1980s. When it was my turn to decide where to leave our archive, RIT was the place. The Museum of Modern Art wanted our collection, as did The National Museum of Design, but it would have been kept in a storage space in the basement. Here at RIT, our archive will be used for teaching students and scholars about the theory, history and criticism of design. RIT is a living, teaching institution and that’s the difference.
Lella: This is the right way for designers to learn about history. To touch the pieces, to see our sketches, our process. That is very important to us.
Question: What do you believe will be the impact of the center?
Massimo: There is no other place in the world that has a design studies center like this. And the fact that it has our name becomes a banner because of our position in the industry worldwide. We receive e-mails from designers who say, “Wow, now we want to have an exhibition at RIT because your work is there.” So this center is great for the students, RIT and Rochester.
Question: Do you have a favorite piece?
Massimo: There are too many. The New York Subway map. The U.S. National Parks Service graphics program. It’s about the approach to design. The design discipline itself. Simple, straightforward. Not trendy. Timeless.
Lella: For me, it’s a different feeling because I’m not much for graphics. I came from a family of architects. I started working with material. I did offices and showrooms. And then I was asked to do a synagogue and some museums. I like this part of design.
Question: What do you hope students take away from your work?
Massimo: More responsibility. I hope that the designer will have more responsibility to himself, his design and society. Secondly, this notion of not following styles, but going into depth. If students study history, theory and criticism, then they will get to a design that is deeper than a shallow design, which is often done. We hope our legacy is to make better professionals, more qualified designers.
The Italian-born designers have designed corporate identity programs for Xerox, American Airlines, Bloomingdales, Lancia, Cinzano, Knoll and Ford Motors. Their product designs include jewelry, silverware, dinnerware and furniture. They have designed furniture for Sunar, Rosenthal, Morphos and Knoll.
Their work is exhibited around the world and is in the permanent collections of many museums. Massimo Vignelli is the recipient of many national and international awards including the 1993 American Institute of Graphic Arts Gold Medal and the 1985 U.S. President’s Design Excellence Award. In 2001, RIT awarded Massimo Vignelli an honorary doctorate degree and Lella Vignelli a President’s Medal. Both currently serve on RIT’s Board of Trustees. In 2003, the couple received the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement.