For over 50 years, Italian-born husband-and-wife team Massimo and Lella Vignelli collaborated on a variety of now iconic design projects spanning the product, print, interior, exhibition, and industrial arenas.
Massimo Vignelli was born in Milan in 1931. He studied architecture at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan from 1948 to 1950, before going on to study at both the Politecnico in Milan (1950–53) and the University of Venice (1953–57). While still a student, he designed lighting for renowned Murano glassmaker Venini.
Lella Vignelli (née Valle) was born in Udine, Italy in 1934. She studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge from 1955 to 1958, and, before returning to Italy, worked as a junior designer for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 1962, she graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Venice.
Having married in 1957, the pair established the Lella and Massimo Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in Milan in 1960, focusing on office accessories, home products, graphics, and furniture. The studio’s clients included Pirelli and Olivetti, among others. In 1965, the Vignellis moved to Chicago and founded, along with six other designers, Unimark International (1965–71), which specialized in corporate graphics. Clients included the likes of American Airlines, Knoll, Bloomingdales, Ford, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Notably, Massimo’s prolific print work championed the Helvetica typeface, encouraging its eventual widespread popularity in the US. In 1971, the couple established Vignelli Associates (known from 1978 on as Vignelli Designs) in New York. They continued to work together until Massimo’s passing in May of 2014.
The Vignellis can be credited with helping to bring contemporary Italian design to the US. Their shared aesthetic celebrates balance, elegance, and simplicity, and embraces the notion that a designer should be able to design anything and everything. Notable projects include, among others, the stackable Knoll Handkerchief Chair (1982–87); colorful, molded melamine Heller Stacking Dishes (1964); and the 1972 New York City subway map. In addition to their design work, both have taught, lectured, written, and served on a variety of juries and boards throughout their careers. Their work has been exhibited internationally in a variety of exhibitions, including, in 1980, a retrospective at New York’s Parsons School of Design. In 1982, the Vignellis were awarded the AIGA Gold Medal. In 2008, the couple donated their complete design archive to the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York; the archive is now housed in a 2010-erected building of their own design, the Vignelli Center for Design Studies.