Morning with Massimo

The Milanese Maestro

I first met Massimo Vignelli at the International Design Conference at Aspen in 1981.  I was there on a design scholarship from the University of Kansas. The theme of the conference that year was “The Italian Idea”.  It sought to understand and celebrate the essence of Italian design.  Every morning the scholarship students met for a breakfast discussion with iconic designers such as Saul Bass, Mario Bellini, Ivan Chermayaff, Henry Wolfe, Leo Lionni, Vico Magistretti, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Milton Glaser, Sergio Pininfarina, and of course Massimo Vignelli. I was especially excited to meet him as I had heard a lot about his work at UNIMARK International. Professor Richard Branham, one of my University of Kansas design teachers, had worked at the Chicago office in the late 1960’s and was full of fascinating real world stories to share.

In the cool morning Aspen air, with some of the world's best design talent, we gathered. We discussed and debated design philosophy, their work, tools and techniques, portfolios, and landing that all important first design job.  One of the scholarship attendees awkwardly brought up what to wear to the design job interview. I think he was intimidated by the immaculate, and somewhat costly, “design wardrobe” that Massimo was sporting. Dressed in all black clothing he designed, wearing minimalist glasses and a classic watch, he cast a significant shadow. His immediate reply was “I don’t care if you are wearing a Timex watch, as long as it’s the “right” Timex watch.” I took his advice to heart. It wasn’t about cost, it was about the design. I still have the “right” one in my dresser drawer. I think it cost $19.00 when I bought it back in the early 80’s.

My Timex Mercury 20251 mechanical watch circa 1981

Massimo always amazed me with his diverse body of work, his Italian wit, and clear understanding of design as a problem solving activity. One of my favorite Massimo quotes is as follows, “If you do it right, it will last forever.” He was spot on with this simple but powerful thought. I’ve adopted that clear philosophy in my own ThinkPad work with Richard Sapper for years. The results speak for themselves. Incidently, it was also at the Aspen conference that I first met Richard. I had no idea at the time that I would eventually end up working with him. I’ve always felt that Massimo and I were kindred spirits when it came to our beliefs about design. When I learned of his rapidly declining health, and the call for letters documenting his influence on others, I immediately wrote and sent mine. I hope he had a chance to read it before his eventual passing on Tuesday. You can read his obituary from the New York Times here.

My vintage Heller Maxmug designed by Massimo in 1964

This morning I’m spending time with Massimo once again.  I’m drinking a hot coffee from my white vintage Heller Maxmug and thumbing through a beautiful monograph of his design work from my personal library.  I’m as impressed today as I was 33 years ago with the man, his work, and his design ideals. Godspeed Massimo!

David Hill