Designer Massimo Vignelli, 1931–2014

Designer Massimo Vignelli (1931–2014), perhaps most famous for his 1970s design for the New York City subway map, died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 83, after a long illness. Vignelli’s work, notable for its “spare, Modernist vision,” according to an obituary in The New York Times, can be seen on book covers, shopping bags, furniture, corporate logos, and even a church in Manhattan. Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Barney’s all gave out Vignelli-designed shopping bags in the 1970s. His corporate clients included American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox, and Gilette. St Peter’s Lutheran church in Manhattan commissioned him to design an entire church.

Michael Bierut, a partner at design firm Pentagram said that Vignelli “more than anyone else, gets the credit for introducing a European Modernist point of view to American graphic design.”

The designer was born in Milan on January 10, 1931, grew up “enthralled by the city’s Northern Italian Renaissance architecture,” according to the Times. He studied art and architecture in Milan and Venice, eventually settling in the US. With his wife Lella Elena Valle, whom he married in 1957, he founded Vignelli Associates (later Vignelli Designs), in 1971.

When the MTA released his subway map in 1972, according to the Times, many subway riders complained because it represented subway lines as uniform stripes of various color as opposed to “the spaghetti tangle they are.” Another frustration was the fact that the map “ignored much of the city aboveground . . . and reduced the boroughs to white geometric shapes.” However, many design aficionados praised the map as “an ingenious work of streamlined beauty.” It later earned a spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection of postwar design. Although his map was replaced in 1979 with a more accurate geographical rendering in 2011, the MTA asked him to reinterpret it for an interactive map on its website, now known as the popular “Weekender.”

Massimo Vignelli's 1972 New York City subway map (detail). Photo: Via Designboom.

Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 New York City subway map (detail).
Image: Via Designboom.

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