Massimo Vignelli

Memory of Massimo

Shortly after my arrival in New York in 2010, with their friend Tony May as my accomplice, I had the good fortune to meet Massimo and Lella Vignelli at one of their favorite places, the SD26 restaurant. While observing the design of this environment – the purity of its lines and the volumes that alternate and overlap as if in a musical score – I started to appreciate the unique stylistic stamp of Massimo and Lella. While he calls himself a modernist (and many consider Massimo one of the fathers of the movement), his clean essential style still manages to function like a man’s suit: the main purpose of architecture, according to Alvar Aalto. His modernism never turned into a rationalistic cage but was rather complicit with human life.

After that day I began to frequent Massimo assiduously. Our discussions were intense, even animated, over essential concepts of contemporary design. One such concept was Timelessness. Massimo felt that design has to leave behind the contingency of the latest fashion. It has to produce timeless forms, objects that are classical, not ephemeral but rather immortal. This is the idea we started to contemplate for a show inaugurated at the Italian Cultural Institute in late spring 2012. It was a small, simple exhibit of small, simple objects that epitomize the “timeless” work of Massimo, which is why it enjoyed the success of a large retrospective.

Massimo loved young people and their fresh creativity, which always reminded him of his own good fortune in coming to the United States while he was still young. This is why he was such a passionate backer when I spoke to him about my idea of creating an American foundation whose goals would include support for young Italian artists. He was happy to act as chair of the foundation and immediately became the proud guardian of his graphic “corporate identity.” Not long after I proposed that he organize a show of young Italian industrial designers at the Institute. In no time, Massimo and his staff had selected the ten best designers from a long list forwarded to the main Italian universities. The show, titled “Slow Design,” opened at the Institute in 2013. I can still remember the dedication and the passion with which Massimo engaged the winners (who adored him), providing them with advice, guidance, and warnings.

Design is one. The rest is styling or whimsy: the realm of the commercial, the contingent, the superficial. This conceptual division was the basis for his aesthetics, and it was on this basis that he decided to breakdown the prize for young designers in the later editions. His intellectual liveliness made him curious about everything, as exemplified in the analyses he was doing into the relationship between the mind and creativity. How the mind creates an object that is capable of dialoguing with its user. How the object is capable of expressing an attractive “affordance” toward the external. His creations, glasses, dishes, watches, et. cet. are the purest expression of this dynamic of supply and demand. We talked about writing a book together on these themes.

A year ago I laid down the challenge to him of working on a heterodox idea, namely, Slow Luxury. He was drawn to the theme, but in his rigorousness he could not accept such an oxymoron. How could something so intrinsically tied to the contingent and the ephemeral have the characteristics of slowness? Luxury and fashion are, in essence, linked to quick obsolescence. I thought otherwise. In a lively discussion at the Museum of Arts and Design, we decided to leave aside, for the moment, the concept of slow luxury and to focus instead on the relationship between the mind and luxury through the analysis of the dichotomy, “mind of luxury and luxury of mind.” Massimo unfortunately will not be with us in September at the Museum when we discuss the theme that he suggested.

I remember the wonderful moments we spent together. I remember his irony and wisdom. The dinners at my home and his fascinating discussions with Gian Enzo Sperone and Alain Elkann about the New York of Gianni Agnelli and Leo Castelli. His sweet playfulness with Lucia, my youngest daughter. The two galas for La Fondazione NY in 2012 and 2013 and his beautiful introductory remarks together with his close friend Richard Meier (dressed in a black suit designed and produced by Massimo), the honoree at the gala held at the Morgan Library.

My wife Caterina found his weak spot: candied ginger. Every time we saw him she gave him a packet. The last time I saw him, a few weeks ago, I brought him the usual packet and a bottle of Passito wine from the island of Lipari. So he could drink it when he felt better.

We all hoped to see him back in the driver’s seat, like he was two years ago. Today Massimo is no longer with us in his external form. But he will continue to be a timeless presence in our hearts and minds.

Riccardo Viale