Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dear Massimo

Dear Massimo,

I met you when I was 23 and working as a Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Arts & Design. You and Lella came to work on the exhibition design for a show on the jewelry of Seaman Schepps. At the time, I had never worked with a real designer and I was in complete awe of your process. You were a great listener, and methodically took notes and drew sketches while we described to you our dreams for the exhibition. You had a mechanical pencil. You drew thick and distinctive lines, unquestionably bold.

Your notes were written in capitals, like an architect. You were stubborn and your stubbornness pushed all of us around you out of our comfort zones. I remember sitting with you and Lella, in the back of a yellow cab when we discussed the materials that we would be using to create the pedestals to display jewelry. You said "lead".  Lella said "MAAAAASSSSIMO, don't be ridiculous." You then described to us your vision of having the intricate jewelry stand out against the simplicity of the raw material. Your vision, was measured, austere and had perfect symmetry. As someone who had to work with the contractors to acquire the lead and to actually handle the lead to build the cases, I was of course completely terrified. Isn't lead toxic? Like, could this perfect design decision of Massimo's actually kill me in the long run?  We worked together and learned that wax detoxifies lead. We went to your studio (the first real designer's studio I had ever seen) and tested it out.  You had an I told you so look on your face like a devilish child. And so, we made the cases:

You loved a good fight. One of my favorite things was listening to you, Lella, Yoshi Waterhouse and Beatriz Cifuentes completely disagree about design direction. Lella was your partner and you had a beautiful banter that inspired me to be adventurous, and own my questioning nature. 

At the time I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was working in museums but found myself sketching in the galleries and taking side jobs just to draw. You saw me at lunch one day and asked me why I was wasting my talent and then you didn't stay around to hear an answer. Lella, of course, followed up with me and told me to try things out, to take in as much art and design as I could and that things will figure themselves out. You very much had the ask for forgiveness, not permission attitude, which I still to this day, admire.

I ended up working at the Rubin Museum of Art after that museum, and found myself constantly questioning and designing and thinking about my conversations with you. Eventually I built up enough courage to quit and went to design school. I learned about why I should admire you even more and read your writing on design, watched you speak in Helvetica and looked at your wealth of work over time. But really, that's just the evidence. You showed me how to be a designer because you embodied it. You had a viewpoint, and a goal of helping people to better understand the world they inhabit, through design. I am a stylistically a different kind of designer, but you taught me to own my stubbornness and to have an opinion. 

I will always admire you. We are lucky enough to see all the design interventions that you have left the world on a daily basis.  Thank you for being bold and stubborn. 

I already miss you.


Note: I learned that Massimo Vignelli passed away today. His son, Luca asked for all those for whom Vignelli was either an influence or an inspiration to write him a letter. This is mine.