My friend Massimo Vignelli died earlier this week, on May 27, 2014. His passing is a huge loss to the design world, but also to New York City, his adopted home and location for some of his most iconic work, from the NYC Subway signage to the graphic identity for Bloomingdales.
Massimo was the first person I interviewed for Helvetica. Actually, he was the first person I'd ever interviewed on camera for anything, which was an incredible way to start a filmmaking career. He was humble, passionate, and as anyone who's seen the film knows, he had plenty to say! When I arrived with our film crew, he brought us into the kitchen and served everyone espresso, in cups that he and his wife Lella had designed, of course. The conversation we had that day set the tone for the rest of the project, and in some ways, for all my films since. The breadth of his and Lella's work was mind boggling; furniture, clothing, architecture, watches, tableware — a range, as Massimo liked to say, "from a spoon to a city." But his biggest legacy will be graphic designs that have become part of our everyday visual environment, and that will continue to impact generations of designers.
One of my favorite Vignelli stories actually came via graphic designer David Carson. In the '90s, during the "grunge" typography era when Carson was designing Ray Gun magazine, Vignelli had said some pretty harsh words about Carson's work in the press. The two had never met, but when they were both scheduled as speakers at a design conference, Carson said he was scared to meet Vignelli in person. But at a speakers' dinner the first night of the event (and after several bottles of wine were shared) they bonded, and apparently by the end of the dinner Massimo and Carson were dancing with the waitresses. The next day, a journalist asked Massimo what he thought of Carson. "Oh, I love him, he's fantastic!" Massimo replied. Then the journalist asked him what he thought of Carson's design work. "I love it, it's fantastic. It's not graphic design, but it's fantastic!" Massimo was opinionated, but his sense of humor was always infectious.
One day last spring, I spent an afternoon with Massimo and took some photographs of him and Lella in their home/studio. I didn't have any idea what I'd use the photos for, I just felt like photographing Massimo, and he graciously agreed. I've posted a few of those photos, above. As I was leaving that day, we talked a little bit about the next film I'm making. I told him I was worried that it would feel the same as the Design Trilogy films, and if I should deliberately use a different approach on the next one. Massimo said not to worry about it. "You created a language with Helvetica," he said. "Don't be afraid to keep speaking that language." I've taken that advice to heart.
I will deeply miss Massimo, his creativity, and his love of life. My sincere condolences to Lella and their family, and to everyone who's ever known, worked with, or been inspired by him.