Lella Vignelli was an eminent Italian Architect and Designer. She was born in Milan in 1934 and passed away in 2014. She went to the School of Architecture of the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice and received a scholarship to continue studying at the MIT School of Architecture. She worked as a designer at architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. She married Massimo Vignelli in 1953. This power couple made significant contributions to the graphic, industrial, and furniture design industry.
She collaborated with him on every project and established the Massimo and Lella Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture, specializing in interior, furniture, exhibition, and product design. They also co-founded Unimark, one of the largest design and marketing agencies in the U.S., in 1965.
After quitting Unimark, they established Vignelli Associates which gained immediate popularity. The 2003 National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement, the AIGA Gold Medal for 1982, the Architecture Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005, and the Compasso d’Oro award in 1964 and 1988 were bestowed on them. “The legendary husband-wife design team,” “first couple of modern design” and “lifelong collaborators” are a few of the commonly used titles that resonate with their bond.
Lella Vignelli’s area of expertise had no bounds. She seamlessly engaged in interior, product, and furniture design especially for offices and showrooms, exhibition design, jewellery, and clothing design, silverwork, advertising, identity, packaging, architectural graphics, publication design, magazine and newspaper design, and environmental design. She has worked in the American and European markets. She bagged some remarkable undertakings from leading firms and manufacturers.
Even though they worked as a team, Massimo was more celebrated than Lella by the public. Had her work and capabilities been acknowledged by the public, she could’ve served as a role model in the field of design and business to generations of women. Despite being subjected to sexism, she braved the storm to establish her own throne. She was an active victim of this socially prevalent issue. One can tell that she is a determined and valiant designer who made her own place in this industry and inspired women architects and designers around her. Her passion and drive towards design ideas compelled her to overcome profane social obstacles.
Being born into a family of architects, she was always under architectural influence. Lella Vignelli’s philosophy has always been “If you don’t find it, design it”. Having trained under the European architectural program, the European influence and the minimalist touch were prevalent in her designs. She introduced the Italian contemporary style in the US. Her practice of exploring and experimenting with extreme disciplines attracted elite clients. Massimo and Lella created New York City’s iconic subway map, Bloomingdale’s department store graphics, chairs for several furniture manufacturers, and the interiors of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.
“Design is one” was her mantra. She believed that if one can design one thing, he/she can design anything. A designer should be able to design everything. A multidisciplinary approach fuses all ideas to give birth to an overarching idea that identifies with the given project. This idea of oneness is evident in her personal and professional life. She strictly adhered to incorporating design in the production process instead of adding it as a superficial layer.
Lella Vignelli used a modernist philosophy of designing. An ingenious use of spaces and materials, durable designs, functionality, and clear communication are a few aspects of the same. She perceived her designs and judiciously organized methods to clean up the dirt in this society which explains the minimalistic attribute of her design philosophy. Her attention to detail, elegance, and sharpness helped the company sustain itself. The end result has to have a consistent meaning to it.
She has always emphasized the significance of adding meaning to her work. “Design should be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable, but also visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and timeless,” said Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
Her work can be characterized by clean, bold lines with a splash of pure colours. She used ancient and existing motifs and other elements. Colours were used to communicate the necessary sentiments. Emphasis was placed on using text as an additive tool of communication than using it only as an ornamental addition. Hence, she used bold black text on a white background to reinforce the same idea in her other designs. She used the subtractive technique over the additive technique for greater flexibility in explorations.
After acquiring the Gavina collection, Knoll wanted a showroom designed. Hence, Lella collaborated with Massimo to create a temporary showroom within the Knoll premises. They used dramatism as the key theme. A supergraphic neon sign displayed the designers’ names in different colours between two walls of sheer fabric.
The classic furniture was hung on the walls to imply the different perceptions of classic products while the new Gavina furniture enjoyed the entire floor space. The white walls and floors gravitated the focus toward the neon sign. This installation is an instance of how Vignellis’ tactfully used neon light within a neutral space and rearranged the furniture to shift focus using simple methods.
A few projects are even considered to be masterpieces of the twentieth century and are even a part of the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to floating innovative ideas through her projects, she has also played a critical role in the academic sphere by teaching, writing, delivering lectures, seminars and getting on board for juries and boards.
Michael Beirut, who started out as a junior designer at Vignelli Associates said Massimo taught him how to become a good designer but Lella taught him how to become a successful designer. Lella believed that talent and skills have always been a prerequisite in the design industry but what helps one succeed is smart work, sheer confidence, and a zestful drive towards their goals. These attributes allow designers to convert abstraction into reality, doubtful clients into passionate advocates, and trivial notions into ideas of consequence. She was the ‘business arm’ of Vignelli Associates.
In Massimo’s monograph “Designed by: Lella Vignelli,” he wrote about his beloved wife and her creations. ‘Clarity’ and ‘simplicity’ have always been the most important aspects of her design. She refrained from believing in futile decoration. ‘Solid,’ ‘timeless’ and ‘elegant’ are the terms he used to describe her work.
Will this century see the advent of a husband-wife collaboration in professional life?
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