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Graphic Color: Massimo Vignelli


By Jill Pilaroscia

More items for Color + Design

This month we pay tribute to the incomparable designer Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014), whose influential modern aesthetic hinged on primary colors and graphic forms.  

All images courtesy of Jill Pilaroscia

Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014) used color to create a graphic language that spoke louder than mere words could.

Born and trained in Milan, Italy, Vignelli came to New York in 1965 and set up a multidisciplinary design firm with his wife Lella, an architect. Throughout his career, Vignelli used color to create a graphic language that spoke louder than mere words could.  

Celebrated Portfolio

Vignelli was celebrated for his bold use of color and his insistence on simple, functional design. The designer's Heller dinnerware is a staple of many modernist kitchens; his Ford Motors logo has held fast for 50 years. 

Heller Dinnerware
Heller dinnerware organized by color family.

The designer also employed bright primary colors; his Heller dinnerware and nearly ubiquitous Knoll Handkerchief Chair were issued in a rainbow of shades. He once famously declared, “Any color works if you push it to the extreme.”  

Knoll's Hankerchief Chairs
Vignelli's vision for Knoll's handkerchief chairs manifests here in a striking orange.

His 1972 design for the New York City subway map was both celebrated and controversial. The map omitted many familiar features like streets and parks, and confused riders at first.

American Airlines
Vignelli's American Airlines logo

Gray, not green was used to denote Central Park; beige, not blue, indicated waterways.

New York City subway map

"You want to go from Point A to Point B, period," he explained. "The only thing you are interested in is the spaghetti.” Vignelli's revised design was heralded by New York Times’ architecture critic Paul Goldberger as “more than beautiful…a nearly canonical piece of abstract design.”

His Favorite Hues

Vignelli favored what has been called a “severe” palette of red, black and white. He always dressed in black, a color he considered all-powerful.  

Stendig calendar in black

He noted in an interview with the Design Observer:

“Black has class. It’s the best color. There is no other color that is better than black. There are many others that are appropriate and happy, but those colors belong on flowers. Black is a color that is man-made. It is really a projection of the brain. It is a mind color. It is intangible. It is practical. It works 24 hours a day. In the morning or afternoon, you can dress in tweed, but in the evening, you look like a professor who escaped from college. Everything else has connotations that are different, but black is good for everything.”

Knoll Cube
Knoll Cube

Red was another Vignelli signature color, as is evident in his work for Knoll, Heller, JC Penny, and his own corporate identity. He coined the term "Vignelli Red" which is "somewhere on the border of red and orange." 

graphic quote

At Colour Studio, we believe judicious use of strong color is infinitely powerful in communicating a message—be it through graphics, architecture, product design, or art.

Vignelli seamlessly employed timeless colors to communicate ideas and emphasize functionality, and for that we celebrate his work.


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architecture; Artists; Color; Color selection; Color trends; Design

Comment from Mark Lewis, (3/23/2016, 10:41 AM)

He would have loved Vanta Black.

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