Monday, January 20, 2014

Design Is One (January 23rd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[DESIGN IS ONE screens Thursday January 23rd at 8:00 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

“If you can't find it, design it” is the motto of Massimo and Lella Vignelli, the charming married Italian-born designers who are the subject of DESIGN IS ONE, a 2012 documentary by Kathy Brew and Robert Guerra.

Even if their names aren't familiar to you, their designs certainly are, including the corporate logos for American Airlines, Bloomingdale's, IBM, Saks, Ford, J.C. Penney, and the streamlined (and controversial) map for the New York City subway system. In addition to graphic design, the Vignellis' seemingly inexhaustible creativity has produced iconic furniture, interior designs, glassware, packaging, tableware, books, jewelry, watches, even the clothing they wear (sleek, black and functional). Many of their ingenious designs are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The film is less a biography than an appreciation, as associates, employees and colleagues praise Massimo and Lella for their genius, their style and their zestful humor (they squabble only with each other, never with clients). The designers themselves, slim and tastefully attired septuagenarians, talk about the ideas behind their designs. We visit, with them, St. Peter's Church, whose interior the couple designed to be completely modular and adaptable to multiple uses. It is one of the ingenious ideas for which their New York City firm, Vignelli Associates, is celebrated.

The Massimos are icons of good taste. Lella, a designer of considerable flair, is the practical half of the partnership, reining in Massimo's dreamier impulses. He has an intuitive talent for graphic design, based on a fundamental “grid” concept that has been widely imitated but never matched. He also introduced the Helvetica typeface to the U.S. (“You can't beat Helvetica for strength,” he says.) Lella, trained as an architect in Milan, designs beautifully minimalist interiors, objets d'art and the most ingenious silver jewelry imaginable. Married for 51 years and working together just as long, they speak of a perfect partnership. “Collaboration is a trust in the other person,” Lella says. “We are absolutely complementary.”

The Vignellis' works flip before the viewer in dizzying montages. It becomes clear that the ephemerality of film makes it a less than ideal medium for studying the work of designers, compared to, say, a large-format book. Little is revealed by the interviews, many of which are gushing encomiums about the Vignellis. The couples' work is astonishingly good, but repetitive praise does not make for a very interesting film. There are intelligibility issues too, as the Vignellis speak in heavily, albeit charmingly, accented English.

Like industrial design, the film is useful, though not entirely enthralling. The speakers have a lot of interesting things to say about the role of design in everyday life. Design is utilitarian, a way of communicating information and “making the complex clear,” with a different set of values than those of purely aesthetic art. Graphic design appeals to Massimo, he says, because of its universality — the opportunity to have his work be seen by millions and “to affect lives through design.” That he is as excited about the design of brochures for the National Park system as a prestigious building is testament to a life lived for the joy of creating.. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.

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