NEW YORK — The works of Massimo and Lella Vignelli, the famed Italian husband-and-wife, design-and-architectural modernist duo, are the subject of a small but stunning exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute on the Upper East Side. The tiny show, displayed succinctly in a set of four modestly-sized glass cases with an accompanying slide show, spans the couple's triumphs in industrial, home, and graphic design, from their luxury Swiss wristwatches and iconic plastic stacking mugs and plates, to the American Airlines logo and the outdated '70s subway map the MTA still uses on the Weekender.
The title "Timelessness" is well-suited to the aesthetic of the show, an installment of the institute's "Slowness Project," a response to modern day waste and frivolousness. The works on display (all made up of circles, squares, and triangles) demonstrate a geometric simplicity and straightforward design crafted to fulfill a purpose, and their usefulness and relevance has endured for decades. Massimo spoke at the institute yesterday about the importance of lasting design, as well as his and his wife's rejection of the "culture of obsolescence" and "cult of ephemera" they described in 2010's "Vignelli Canon," expressing a disdain for trends in fashion unusually high for a pair of Italians.
"We think that if you design something that's good today, gone tomorrow, it's an irresponsible act," Vignelli said. "Timelessness is not a style. It's not only cubes, spheres, and cones. Timelessness is an entity, is a biproduct of responsibility."
One of the couple's most recognizable and successful products is the Compact Stacking Dinnerware line they designed for Heller in 1970, which, when stored, form rainbow columns of interlocking dinner plates, serving trays, and mugs. The design's practical lightness and compact storage explain why it has endured for several decades, and is equally at home in a contemporary household as it is in MoMA's permanent design collection. Lella and Massimo's intentions were always to design products to last, rather than bend to current fashions, an act they deem a "moral crime" and "commercial garbage."
Vignelli does, however, have a paradoxical admiration for Dieter Rams and his aesthetic heir apparent, Jonathan Ive of Apple, whom Vignelli described as "terrific" and "the best one, by far." But, we asked him, isn't it contradictory to admire Apple's constant innovation and refinement of its projects since it creates a rapid cycle of obsolescence? "Technology is different — its surface never changes," he answered. “That shows the level of integrity... the kind of design that's going to last a long time, even beyond its functionality, just as an object."
It’s a funny response, and at odds with one given in an earlier interview, where Vignelli expressed an admitted lack of technological prowess. Roughly translated, he had said that with a pencil he can extract anything, but with a computer he could only send emails and do Google searches.
"Timelessness" is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute through July 16. To see images from the exhibition, click the slide show.