This is the latest installment of our Designing Women series. Previously, we profiled the Swiss graphic designer Lora Lamm.
"If Lella doesn't like it, it goes in the basket" —Massimo Vignelli
Lella Vignelli, New York, 1980
The Vignelli surname probably doesn't need much introduction. Synonymous with punchy corporate logos, enlightened product design and a bold diagrammatic redesign of New York City's subway map, the name has come to signify the modernist design credo championed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli. Behind their sophisticated graphics, furniture, exhibitions, interiors, household objects, jewelry and even clothing was an indelible commitment to quality and to collaboration as equal partners. But throughout their long and prestigious careers, they both struggled to overcome the perception that Lella was merely playing a supporting role.
Lella and Massimo first met at an architectural conference in Milan while she was still in high school. Lella, who came from a family of Italian architects, went on to complete her degree at the University of Venice's School of Architecture, where she was one of just three women in the class of 1953. Massimo transferred to Venice to be with her, but never completed the program (he was later given an honorary degree from the school). They married in 1957 and promptly came to America, traveling widely and spending two years in Chicago, where Lella worked at SOM designing interiors and furniture, before returning to Italy and beginning their lifelong collaboration. In 1965, Massimo became a founding partner of Unimark International, and he and Lella moved again, this time to New York to oversee the company's fledgling office there. However, due to company policy against spouses working together, Lella was forbidden from holding a position, and instead worked behind the scenes as a consultant while Massimo became the public face of their designs.
Advertisement for Heller Compact Stacking Dinnerware, designed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli in 1964; the set won the Compasso d'Oro Award for good design the same year and is still in production.
Glass bakeware designed by Lella Vignelli for Heller in 1970
In 1971, they walked away from Unimark to start their own firm, allowing them to officially operate as equal design partners and collaborate at virtually all levels of the design process. At Vignelli Associates, Massimo was president and Lella CEO. He oversaw all of the two-dimensional work, like graphics, corporate identities and publications; she focused on their three-dimensional work, including designs for products, furniture, interiors and exhibitions. While they both carried heavy design loads, Lella also handled the day-to-day running of the business, provided critiques of Massimo's graphic design work and was a pragmatic force for the execution of the firm's projects. In the book Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision, former employee Michael Bierut says of their dynamic, "Massimo is purely about design—it is you, him, the project. Lella is a passionate pragmatist. She was the boss who called the shots on budgets, salaries, personnel—and she freed Massimo to drive his vision single-mindedly forward."
When they couldn't find a sofa they liked for their own home, the Vignellis designed the 1964 Saratoga Line for Poltronova. The modular elements allow for different seating combinations; the collection is still in production.
Lella Vignelli's stylish 1971 design for a bed supported on four brass cylinders, also for Poltronova
Lella, however, was often frustrated that her managerial and organizational capabilities tended to overshadow her contributions as a designer. Making matters worse, magazines often published the Vignellis' collaborative designs without giving Lella proper credit. (Massimo has recounted in interviews how he would try to open the mail before her, hiding any magazines that gave him sole credit for a design.) One of their strategies for combating the public perception that Lella didn't have an equal hand in the firm's designs was to start another business in 1978, called Vignelli Designs. As president of the new venture, Lella focused on developing royalty-based product designs for housewares, furniture and jewelry.
Pitagora theater-seating system for Poltrona Frau, designed by Lella Vignelli, 1995
Her product design work is recognizable for its simple, clear lines and geometric volumes, often with a modular component. This modularity also crosses over into her design for interior spaces, where it lends floor plans remarkable flexibility. It's impossible to do justice to all of Lella's work here, but some of her most crucial projects included furniture lines for Poltrona Frau and Poltronova; seating for Sunar-Hauserman and Knoll; tables for Rosenthal and Casigliani; interiors and furnishings for Saint Peter's Church in New York; store designs for Joseph Magnin and Barney's New York; a multitude of showrooms for companies like Poltrona Frau, Knoll, Artemide and Steelcase; and train-cabin designs for Great North Eastern Railways. Her product designs included successful lines for Heller bakeware, Sasaki tableware and CIGA Hotel's silverware, as well as an elegant suite of silver objects and jewelry.
Teapot for Faraone Silver designed by Lella Vignelli, 1996
Section drawings for the teapot, from the Massimo and Lella Vignelli papers at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies
Massimo passed away last year at 83, ending one of design's greatest love stories and collaborations; and Lella, who turns 81 next month, now suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is no longer able to continue her design practice. Before Massimo died, he published a book devoted to Lella's prolific work titled Designed by: Lella Vignelli, as both a moving homage and spirited plea on behalf of female collaborators: "For decades the collaborative role of women as architects or designers working with their husbands or partners has been under appreciated . . . At best the woman's creative input and professional influence was only vaguely accepted; often her contributions were dismissed and sometimes even forgotten . . . It is not holding a pencil with four hands that makes a partnership; it is sharing the creative act and exercising creative criticism which is reflected in the end result."