Massimo Vignelli attended the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, Milan, the Politecnico, Milan, and the School of Architecture, University of Venice. He chiefly worked on product and graphic design and corporate identity programs. In the mid-1950s, while still a student, he designed a series of lighting fixtures for the Venini S.p.A. of Murano, most notably the ‘Fungo’ table lamp (1955; e.g. New York, Cooper-Hewitt Mus.), an original concept in striped glass in which the swelling lampshade and conical base form an integrated unit.
Between 1957 and 1960 he traveled and studied in the USA. In 1957 he married Lella Vignelli. She studied at the School of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and worked as a junior designer (1959–60) for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill before returning to Italy and graduating in architecture at the University of Venice. She specialized in interiors, furniture, exhibition display and office and household objects. At a time when small, energetic design studios were being set up in major manufacturing centers around Italy, they established the Lella and Massimo Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture, Milan, designing office accessories, domestic products, furniture and graphics (e.g. poster for the 32nd Venice Biennale by Massimo Vignelli, 1964; New York, MOMA).
In 1965 they moved to Chicago where they founded Unimark International, specializing in corporate graphics. Massimo Vignelli’s novel use of the Helvetica typeface encouraged its widespread use in the USA. They worked with geometric forms: cubes, pyramids, cylinders and spheres. Their product design was balanced and functional, as exemplified in their line of stacking dinnerware for Heller Designs Inc., New York, made from molded melamine in a range of brilliant colors (e.g. New York, MOMA). They believed that a designer should be able to produce anything ‘from a spoon to the city’ and executed wide-ranging design programs, from environmental planning to tableware and packaging, displaying an unusual versatility in a period of specialization. They became known for dynamic corporate and advertising graphics that made frequent use of over sized single letters or words. In the 1960s and early 1970s they designed the corporate identity programs for American Airlines, Knoll International and the Lancia and Ford Motor companies, as well as logos, signs and packaging for such New York department stores as Bloomingdales, Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
In 1971 they established a larger operation, Vignelli Associates (from 1978 Vignelli Designs) in New York, fulfilling their initial aim of bringing contemporary Italian design and technology to the USA. Their product and furniture designs reveal a refined, almost Minimalist taste (e.g. bar set, sterling silver, made by San Lorenzo S.p.A., Milan, c. 1971; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). In furniture design they favoured the use of wood, leather, plastics, marble, stone and glass, for example in the ‘Metafore’ (1979) and ‘Tara’ (1980) lines of tables (e.g. ‘Metafore I’ coffee-table, glass and stone, made by Casigliani, Italy, 1979; Munich, Bayer. NMus. Neue Samml.) and the ‘Handkerchief Chair’ (1982–7; Munich, Bayer. NMus. Neue Samml.) for Knoll International, New York, a shell-moulded, reinforced-plastic stacking chair on thin metal legs. Their award-winning designs were exhibited internationally, and in 1981 the Parsons School of Design, New York, devoted an exhibition to their work.
During the 1980s the Vignellis brought their rigorous high-styling to a series of outstanding, Post-modern interiors for showrooms, offices and art galleries. Their penthouse offices (1985) on 10th Avenue, Manhattan, featured walls and doors covered with hand-waxed squares of lead sheet, room dividers of corrugated steel and furniture of sand-blasted glass and industrial steel tubing finished in gold leaf. They redesigned many magazine formats and commercial and institutional sign systems in the USA and Europe, including signs for the New York subway and the Washington, DC, Metro. —From Grove Art Online