Massimo Vignelli was one of the 20th century’s most prominent designers, creating everything from New York’s subway map to logos for American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s, and IBM. He died in 2014 at 83. His wife and creative partner, Lella, followed in 2016.
But just a year before Massimo’s death, documentarian Gary Hustwit–known for his “design trilogy” of films Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized along with a new profile of Dieter Rams–visited Massimo for an intimate photo shoot in his home. The photos will be published this September in an 80-page book you can pre-order today for $35. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Vignelli Center at Rochester Institute of Technology, which houses the complete archive of the Vignellis’ work.
Hustwit had known Massimo for nearly a decade by the time these photos were taken. Massimo was, in fact, Hustwit’s very first subject he interviewed for Helvetica back in 2005, and the two bumped into each other at design events frequently. “In 2013, I was getting more interested in still photography, and frankly I just wanted willing subjects I could photograph in order to get better at it. I thought about interesting people I knew in New York who might let me spend the day with them and be photographed, so I emailed Massimo and he graciously agreed,” recounts Hustwit. “I just wanted to try to capture what it felt being in that space with him and Lella at that point in their lives. He was in good spirits and seemingly good health that day. There was nothing to indicate to me that he’d be gone a year later.”
The images take us inside the modernist master’s home, with its endless bookshelves, and its array of rainbow mugs–designed by the Vignellis, of course–which pop inside the all-white kitchen as if the entire room were conceived as a blank canvas just for this drinkware.
“Vignelli famously said that designers should be able to create everything from a spoon to a city,” says Hustwit. “Nearly everything in the house was designed by him and Lella . . . the furniture, lighting, vases, dishes, cutlery. They even designed their own clothes–all black, of course. I think it’s a very modernist impulse, to create the world you want to live in.”
Hustwit says that he was trying to be a silent photographer that day, not an interviewer. As a result, he and Massimo didn’t chat much. “But Lella was in the first stages of Alzheimer’s, so we mostly talked about how their day-to-day lives had changed,” says Hustwit. ‘”We’ve been so lucky, we’ve had a fantastic life,’ he told me. ‘But this is my life now, caring for Lella.’ He seemed to be very much at peace with the situation, it was a little sad but also so beautiful.”
Before Hustwit left that day, Massimo imparted a bit of wisdom. Hustwit had been working on a new film at the time, and like many of us who find ourselves repeating themes in our work, he shared that he felt that it was too repetitious of the design trilogy that had come before.
“As I was walking out the door he said, ‘Look, you created a language with Helvetica. Don’t be afraid to keep speaking that language,'” Hustwit recounts. “That’s actually the last thing he ever said to me, and it’s something I still think about today.”