Vignelli was a modernist designer for American businesses

By Douglas Martin / New York Times News Service

Published May 28, 2014 at 12:01AM

Massimo Vignelli, an acclaimed graphic designer who gave shape to his spare, modernist vision in book covers and shopping bags, furniture and corporate logos, even church pews and a New York City subway map that enchanted aesthetes and baffled straphangers, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

His death, after a long illness, was confirmed by Carl Nolan, a longtime employee of Vignelli’s.

An admirer of architects Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Vignelli moved to New York from Italy in the mid-1960s with the hope of propagating a design aesthetic inspired by their ideal of functional beauty.

He preached clarity and coherence and practiced it with intense discipline in everything he turned out, whether kitchenware, public signage, books or home interiors.

“Massimo, probably more than anyone else, gets the credit for introducing a European modernist point of view to American graphic design,” Michael Bierut, a partner in Pentagram, a leading graphic design firm, said in an interview.

Vignelli’s work has been exhibited in North America and Europe. It is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, as well as museums in Philadelphia, Montreal, Jerusalem, Munich and Hamburg, Germany.

His clients included American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox and Gillette. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan had him design its pews. His brochures for the National Park Service are still used. Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys all gave out Vignelli-designed shopping bags in the 1970s. He designed the signage for the New York and Washington subways, and suggested the name Metro for the Washington system.

Vignelli described himself as an “information architect,” one who structures information to make it more understandable. But when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released his new subway map in 1972, many riders found it the opposite of understandable. Rather than represent the subway lines as the spaghetti tangle they are, it showed them as uniform stripes of various colors running straight up and down or across at 45-degree angles — not unlike an engineer’s schematic diagram of the movement of electricity. Design aficionados, however, considered the map an ingenious work of streamlined beauty.