You want good design? Then forget about trends

Massimo Vignelli is a grandee of design who's on a mission to combat the vulgarity he sees all around him. If only his fellow-practitioners felt the same way, he tells David Usborne
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As an Italian-born architect and designer whose determinedly modernist worldview has won him many awards as well as exhibits in museums such as the MoMA in New York as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vignelli can afford to show some good-humoured self-aggrandisement. There is also the fact that in America, at least - which has been his home for 40 years - Vignelli designs and logos are everywhere.

"You could fly into New York on American Airlines, find your way on the New York City subway, shop at Bloomingdales, dine at Palio, and even worship at St Peter's Church and never be out of touch with a Vignelli-designed logo, signage system, shopping bag, table setting or pipe organ," noted the graphic designer Michael Bierut - and Vignelli protégé - in a recent article.

At 75 years old, Vignelli is still working at full tilt, running his Manhattan-based firm, Vignelli Associates, with his wife Lella. These days, however, he is almost as interested in evangelising his own design dogma, which he calls Design Is One. That is the title of a new book of his work from the past 50 years as well of a lecture he will be delivering on 4 May in London.

It is a philosophy of Spartan and functional design that some younger designers and critics may no longer warm to. But Vignelli is harsh on designers who follow different paths. Victims he mentions in the course of our interview include almost the entire design community in America as well as, much more narrowly, whoever was responsible for the latest revamping of The Guardian newspaper.

Design Is One seems to be about several things at once. First, just about everything around, save the flora and fauna, are products of design, Vignelli says. "We believe that an architect should be able to design everything from a spoon to a city; that is something I learned when I was very young," he says. "I remember thinking, my God, you can really do anything and that is the discipline of Design Is One."

Second - more controversially - to achieve timelessness for their creations, designers must always eschew trends of the moment. In other words, they should ignore fashion. "You don't have to follow fashion to be elegant," Vignelli says. Designers must also focus always on making things actually work well and be functional. There was, for example, a set of dinner plates he made 30 years ago that had unusually high rims and stacked on top of each other so that the leftovers from each course of a meal could be hidden even while the plates stayed on the table. The idea was simple, they looked elegant and they helped the host. "Now, that is what design is all about. It's not putting flowers on a plate. That's decoration; it's not design."

His portfolio is crammed with designs that, he says, have also stood the test of time. He points to a sofa of leather and lacquered legs sitting in the apartment that first went into production in 1964. A barely reworked version of the piece is about to go on sale again, more than four decades later. True, the map he did for the New York underground system in 1972 was scrapped soon after because people found it confusing - the geography of the city that formed its background was apparently too abstracted - but the Sixties-style signage he gave the platforms and stations is still there more or less intact today.

Vignelli also has a serious and arguably elitist bee in his bonnet about things that are "vulgar". "I am happy when we get a good client. The chances are that someone worse than us might have got the job. It's very rare that someone better than us gets the job," he says, before adding without pause: "We have a lifetime commitment to reduce the amount of vulgarity in the world. Some people like vulgarity; we hate it. It is the opposite of intellectual elegance."

Unfortunately for him he sees his adopted land as one that overflows with vulgarity. He lays bare his disdain for the American furniture industry, for example, which, he says, focuses only on feeding the worst instincts of the American consumer for excess and pretension over simple elegance and usefulness. "This is a country which has the biggest amount of greed that I know worldwide and that is getting in the way of giving people what they actually need and giving them quality," he says.

He blames the marketing culture of the United States - "the way it works here is that they sell the people what they think they want, but they don't know what they want," he says. "Marketing should give to the people what the people need" - and he blames the designers themselves. "The responsibility of the designer is a major one. Designers who do not have this sense of responsibility who are egocentric or indulgent in what they do, they should be deprived of their professional rights. They damage society. They damage the environment."

To illustrate his case he points to Sir Terence Conran and to the Swedish furniture chain Ikea as saints of responsible design. Between them, Vignelli says, they have begun the process of educating public taste on designs that work, are, one hopes, intrinsically elegant and are affordable. "It takes companies like Conran and Ikea really to make great indents on mass taste," he said, while admitting that even he has Ikea bookshelves in his bedroom. As for Sir Terence, "He is one of the few guys who really deserved the title he got, if the title 'Sir' is meant to award someone who did something for society."

His fixation with simplicity or, as he puts it, capturing the essence of every design, has been equally important to Vignelli's canon of graphic design work. It has included creating new layouts for newspapers, forging language visuals for television channels, devising theatre bills and putting coffee-table books together. The work of the designer in these cases is critical but should itself be invisible, he says. "I think that when you see the layout, you miss the book," he explains, clicking on his computer to show pages of a forthcoming book he has edited showcasing the work of the architect Richard Meier.

Another example of perfect design, he says, was the format of The Guardian, devised 16 years ago by David Hillman of the Pentagram design group in London. "The Guardian was beautifully designed. I think it was the best newspaper design out there. And now, of course, they have changed it, stupidly. There was no reason in the world to do that."

Presumably someone at The Guardian would disagree. But designers are used to dissent, because they are selling us taste. Perhaps a designer can survive for very long only through supreme self-confidence. And supremely high ceilings.

Massimo and Lella Vignelli will be giving the D&AD President's Lecture at Old Billingsgate in London on Thursday 4 May. Details: