Painting of Lella Vignelli by Jessica Helfand after a photograph by Beatriz Cifuentes, 2010
Thirty years ago this summer, I graduated from design school
in Ohio and moved to New York to take a job at Vignelli Associates. Even then, Massimo Vignelli was a legend. Other designers who heard where I would be working always seemed to have a story about him. Only a few of these were true, but most were outrageous. I knew next to nothing about Lella Vignelli, Massimo's wife and partner, alongside whom he had been working for his whole career. I remember running into a former Vignelli Associates intern. "Oh, wait till you meet Lella," he said, mysteriously.
It was at the end of my first day when I was presented to Mrs. Vignelli so she could examine firsthand the office's newest, youngest, most poorly dressed, and least experienced underling. "Oh, you are the kid from Cincinnati," she said with an enigmatic smile, giving that last word a slight emphasis as if in her mind it explained everything. God only knows how I looked to her. To me, she looked like a movie star. (Sophia Loren
was the obvious comparison.) Over the next ten years, I would get used to Massimo. But around Lella, I would never quite escape the feeling that I was just a rube from Hicksville.
I quickly came to understand the relationship between these two brilliant designers. Massimo would tend to play the role of idea generator. Lella served as the critic, editing the ideas and shaping the best ones to fit the solution. Massimo was the dreamer, focusing on the impossible. Lella was ruthlessly practical, never losing sight of the budgets, the deadlines, the politics, the real world. It was Massimo's worldview that had defined my studies in design school. Lella's concerns were entirely foreign to me. So I may as well say it right now: I learned an enormous amount from Massimo about how to be a good designer. But I learned how to be a successful designer from Lella.
Although Massimo hired me, it was Lella who gave me my first break. After months and months of making photostats, doing mechanical artwork, assembling comps, and executing Massimo's amazingly accurate sketches, I was called in to meet a new fashion client from the west coast. Coming out of the meeting, I knew that Massimo would have some ideas of his own, but I decided for once to develop my own approach as well. After working after hours for a week or so on my own solution, I was called into a meeting with the Vignellis to plan our first design presentation. "Well," I said sort of sheepishly, "I've been doing some thinking about this." I spread out my designs — all pretty detailed by this point — and Massimo and Lella scrutinized them. "These are great," exclaimed Massimo, picking up his pencil. "Of course, you might change the main typeface, and probably make this line here a little heavier —" "Massimo, stop!" said Lella. "Don't you see the kid has got it all worked out already?" Massimo laughed. "You're right," he said. "Let's do it your way." And we did — thanks to Lella. Looking back now, I realize it wasn't the greatest design in the world, but it was the first real thing I could call my own.
Lella taught me about the value of design, literally. "Don't either of you start talking about money," she would often joke as Massimo and I would go into a first-time client meeting. She knew that we would tend to give the work away for free just for a chance to see it realized. Once all three of us were in a meeting with a client who wanted Vignelli Associates to design a shoebox. At the end of the meeting, the client asked how much we would charge. Lella looked quickly at the two of us: leave this to me. I did the math in my head. Five sides, not counting the bottom, say $1,500 apiece, that makes $7,500 in fees. Then Lella spoke: "Thirty thousand dollars." "That sounds about right," said the client. After the meeting, Lella asked me what I would have charged, and I told her. "See?" she said triumphantly. "You just made $22,500 just by keeping your mouth shut!"
For some of the time I worked at Vignelli Associates, Lella was bothered by back problems, and occasionally would spend days in bed. Or rather, on her back in her office
. Like the rest of the 14th floor of 475 Tenth Avenue
, Lella's suite was furnished almost entirely with chairs, tables, couches and lamps that she had designed with Massimo. I remember more than once being summoned for conferences with Lella in that office which she conducted with supreme elegance from a reclining position on her Poltronova
sofa. Often these would happen at year end, when raises were announced and bonuses were distributed. Naturally this was Lella's job. "Listen, kid, we have decided to give you an increase," she would announce in her languid accent. One wouldn't know whether to say thanks, bow, or genuflect. At least once I remember approaching the sofa to kiss her ring. I was only partly joking. But what else could you do?
I was young and naive when I started out. I thought that good design was its own best argument. You simply would show it to a client and how could they resist? I assumed that the mechanics of a successful design practice — payrolls, leases, taxes, balance sheets — all took care of themselves. I learned from Lella that talent and passion were crucial, but that alone they were not enough. If a designer really wanted to make a difference in the world, you needed to also have brains, cunning, confidence, and relentless drive. These traits turned abstractions into reality, converted doubtful clients into passionate advocates, and transformed trivial notions into ideas of consequence.
Massimo has often defined their working relationship like this: "I'm the engine, and Lella is the brakes." The first time I heard this as a young designer, it was clear to me which was more important. If you were a designer, wouldn't you want to be the engine, powerful, propulsive, driving forward? It was only years later that I remembered something my high school driving instructor once said: "You don't get killed in a car accident because the car won't start. You get killed because the breaks fail."
So thank you, Lella, for keeping Vignelli Associates, and the Vignelli design vision, alive and thriving for all these years.
Lella Vignelli, circa 1980