Massimo Vignelli, Creator of the Subway Map, On Design

The world-famous Italian designer extols the virtues of a minimalist meal and how stacking a pile of dirty dishes can be almost as good as washing them.

Milan-born Massimo Vignelli is among the world’s most influential designers. Creating by the credo that “design should be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, pragmatically understandable, visually powerful, intellectually elegant and timeless,” he has fashioned corporate identities for companies such as American Airlines, Ford and Knoll International; graphic design programs for the U.S. National Park Service, the Guggenheim and Benetton; interiors for the Minneapolis Museum of Fine Arts and NYC’s Saint Peter’s Church; exhibits for the Louvre and BMW; furniture, clothing, packaging, books and much more. Vignelli’s work is in the permanent collections of museums worldwide, including MoMA, the Met and the Cooper-Hewitt, and he has won countless design awards, including the National Design Lifetime Achievement award, which he shares with his design partner and wife, Lella Vignelli, who is a renowned and award-winning designer in her own right.

New Yorkers may know Vignelli best for his iconic signage for the NYC Transit Authority and his ’70s-era subway map. And style-smitten epicures are certainly acquainted with his awardwinning line of colorful melamine stacking dinnerware, manufactured for years as Hellerware. At 78 and working from his home office on the Upper East Side, Vignelli has designed his first NYC restaurant, Tony and Marisa May’s SD26. He says he’d like to work on more restaurants, and we hope that he will.

Edible Manhattan: What inspired the Hellerware line?

Massimo Vignelli: Back in Milan, in 1964, I had a client making plastic tiles. I made the designs for the tiles. I went to see the factory and noticed that they were also using the plastic to make ashtrays with Mickey Mouse and things like that. I thought, “Can’t you make anything better than that?” And a set of compact dinnerware came to my mind. I went back to the office and in two hours I had the design fully completed. It was so clear in my mind—the stackability and the whole thing. It’s very rare to find the originals nowadays. I have to buy them, actually, many of my things, from eBay. We want to have them for our archives. If you go on eBay and see somebody bidding, that’s me!

EM: What do you like about stackability?

MV: Stackability is not accidental. It has been designed for that purpose. Piling up, you do with junk. Stacking, you can only do through design.

EM: When you first came to New York, did you intend to stay for long?

MV: Originally we came to open the New York office of our company, Unimark International. We thought we’d stay for just a few years. That was 1965, and we’re still here. I like New York much more than Milan. And I felt there was a need for us to be here. There were a lot of things that I thought we could help to change by fighting bad design and by showing better alternatives, by offering a different visual language and training people to use it.

EM: What were your first impressions about food and restaurants here?

MV: The food was terrible when we first came. You have no idea what New York, let alone America, was like in the late ’60s. The food, it just didn’t exist. There were a few Italian restaurants in Little Italy, and they were cooking spaghetti and meatballs. That’s it! And the food publications— they hardly existed. Even Julia Child is a thing of the ’70s.

EM: How about now?

MV: Today it is beyond belief! There are so many good restaurants. We go to mostly Italian restaurants: Antonucci, Sandro’s and SD26, most frequently. Absinthe, too—it’s right here on my street and very good. They make a fantastic cassoulet and a fabulous rack of lamb. I like Japanese places, too.

EM: SD26 is a beautiful restaurant. What was your thinking behind the design?

MV: The notion of seduction. You have to feel that the moment you enter the restaurant. It’s like high heels: It’s not to get higher, it’s to feel more seductive. It’s the same with a restaurant. Some people like to design a restaurant as a portrait of the owner. I’m not interested in this. I’m interested in solving the problems of the space and creating an experience.

EM: Do you look at food packaging while you shop?

MV: I’m a packaging freak, naturally. I sometimes go to a wine shop or supermarket just to look at the packaging. I often buy things based on the packaging. I assume if the packaging is nice the product is good. Very rarely am I disappointed, because when one has the sensibility of making better packaging, he also has the sensibility of making a better product. The two things go together.

The unfortunate thing in America is that only sophisticated products have beautiful packaging. The supermarket packaging is a disaster; it is vulgar. There are countries that do better work— England and Scandinavian countries—even for public packaging. But here there is a tremendous misconception of what public is. The marketing people think they are giving people what they want, but consumers don’t know what they want, design-wise. Give people good things and they will be positively affected. If I were a dictator, I would send these marketing people to Siberia. They don’t know it, but they are cultural criminals.

EM: How would you describe your cooking style?

MV: I like things that require very little preparation. For instance, lamb chops. You just put some rosemary on top and put the pan in the oven for a few minutes. Bingo, it’s done. Or Pinzimonio: fresh vegetables to dip in good olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sometimes I cook chicken thighs with potatoes and leeks in the Le Creuset. Two hours in the oven; that’s it. I am a very clean cook. I can cook a whole meal and you don’t even see anything around. It has to do a lot with my minimalist attitude. It’s amazing how all these things relate.

My wife, she’s a hurricane. She takes the salt out; she leaves the salt there. She takes the oil out; she leaves the oil there. I’m a maniac about neatness. So after a while I can’t even get into the kitchen. I stay out. I can’t stand the mess, but I like her cooking better. Last night she made a sauce with peppers and tomatoes and olives. She put it over
some gnocchi. God, it was so good.

A clean pile of dirty dishes
This is another stackable plastic tableware set I designed in 1979, called Kyoto. I designed this set starting from the end of the meal, not from the beginning. At the beginning of the meal everything looks nice. At the end, it becomes like garbage; the operation of the flatware sliding off while you pick up the dishes, and so on. It works likes this: You have your dinner. At the end of the dinner you collect all the dirty dishes, one on top of the other. You throw your flatware inside, and then the small plate fits on top. And so you make a nice clean pile of dirty dishes.

The small plate is for fruit or for salad; you can use the large one as charger or as a plate. And, as I learned from the Chinese, a good tea should have its own lid to keep it hot; here the lid is also a saucer. We made this collection in white, black, beige and terracotta, and you can mix and match, play with it. I like to play. Everybody says I’m still a child. They will probably still say this when I am 100 years old. It’s fun.

Breakfast by the cup
Should I show you my cups? The small one is for orange juice. The medium is for Greek yogurt, sprinkled with sugar. I use the plastic spoon for the yogurt (metal affects the taste of the yogurt, which is not good). The large cup is for caffè latte: I put in sugar, instant coffee and milk, and warm it up in the microwave. As soon as I am finished, I wash the whole thing and put it back together and in its place.

How to make a pot roast
This was done by a friend of ours, a designer from Germany named Frank Hess. He was here as a guest. He cooked that dish and then he left us the recipe, done that way. It is a visual recipe, which I like.

Eating like a northerner
We cook polenta in many ways. Lella makes it with mushrooms. Fabulous! Beautiful. The polenta is kind of soft and she puts the mushrooms, browned with olive oil, on the top. Or, I put cheeses on top and microwave it for one minute, and the cheese melts over the polenta and it’s just great. You see, we are from the north of Italy and these are the basic foods of north Italians: polenta and cheese; polenta and sausages; polenta and radicchio, as salad or sautéed; polenta and eggs, with or without tomato sauce. I can have polenta and anything.

Domed design
In the ’70s we designed the graphics, furnishings, interiors and tableware for an upscale Italian hotel chain called Ciga. I was at lunch in Venice with the client, who asked how the design of the glassware was coming along. I looked across the Grand Canal, saw the gorgeous ribbed domes of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, and said, “It looks just like that but upside down.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently reissued these; you can buy the carafe, tumbler and Old-Fashioned there.

Oil from both ends of the boot
Our favorite olive oil is Olio Carli, which is a Ligurian oil not sold in stores, only by mail, even in Italy. I learned to love it from my mother. We also use a very good Sicilian oil, which is fruity and very tasty, from Agata & Valentina. Olive oil goes like water in this house. We consume about a bottle every 10 days, which is quite a lot for the two of us.

Blue ribbon bouillon
This is the best bouillon, really great stuff. Fabulous! We used to use Knorr but it is too salty. This quality is fantastic. We use it to make soups, risotto—we put it in everything. Not coffee, but that’s about the only place we don’t use it.

Hungary for salami
If I miss anything about the food in Italy, it’s the quality of the raw materials—the tomatoes, the vegetables. I miss the salami, too. I do like the Hungarian salami, though. The “Pick” brand is great. I love mortadella, culatello and prosciutto di San Daniele, which I can find here. I get those at SD26.

Less is more
We designed the Colorstone Dinnerware for Sasaki in the ’80s. We wiped the glaze from the edges so you have that white line, which shows the material, so we get decoration by subtraction rather than addition. Our design is always by subtraction rather than by adding things.

To do well, to do bad, costs the same
I think the Nespresso product, from all angles—the café, the packaging, presentation, machines—is very well designed. The different coffees are terrific! And the stores are beautiful. Every detail has been thought out from a design and marketing point of view. What the American companies have not understood yet is that design is an integral part of the production process, not a last-minute embellishment.

What I say in Italian is “Far bene, far male, costa uguale.” That means “To do well, to do bad, costs the same.” It’s not that the good design costs more than bad design. Bad design is expensive and on top of that it’s a waste. Good design is a good investment and it projects a good image on the company, too.

On pasta and packaging
We eat a lot of pasta. This is a package that I designed three or four years ago. It’s called Malma; nice name. It’s Polish—this is why it’s white and red, those are the colors of Poland. We have pasta all’uovo, egg fettucine and spaghetti. The pastas we use most of the time are Garofalo and Da Verde, both are very good. Or De Cecco, naturally.

I like the packaging of this linguine, from Agata and Valentina, because it’s not over-branded. The color and the craft paper, which relates to the handcrafted element of the product, are great. This is a dried artisanal egg pasta, that’s why it’s packaged in a tray like this. The Spinosi pasta was given to me as a gift. We’re saving it for a special occasion.

A carpet for the wall
This Lichtenstein, based on an original silkscreen, is the thing I love the most in the whole house. It’s like a fresco; that’s why I like it. Generally speaking, I don’t like little paintings on the wall. I like the whole wall covered with one thing. It’s made with yarn. It really is like a carpet.

Goethe, loved and found
Goethe is my favorite writer. He was a writer of incredible intellectual elegance; a scientist as much as a poet. He wrote The Elective Affinities, which is a beautiful story, and a book on color.

I bought this statue 50 years ago in Milan. I did not even know it was him at the time, I just liked the bust. Then one day I went to the Goethe house in Frankfurt. I opened the door and there he was. And I said, “What are you doing here!?” It was, by happenstance, the same statue that I had in Milan. So, I was even more pleased. I like life. When you are dead these things don’t happen anymore. This is what is nice about life.

Photo credit: Gabriela Herman

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Food editor of La Cucina Italiana magazine, Mindy Fox writes articles and cookbooks from her home in Washington Heights. A fervent fan of the foods of the Mediterranean and Middle East, Fox first met mastiha at the Worlds of Flavor conference at the CIA in Napa Valley, and she’s been smitten ever since.