The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.16.10

Kim Förster

Massimo Vignelli: Oppositions, Skyline and the Institute

Studying the social, intellectual and cultural history of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies — the non-profit education and research organization founded by Peter Eisenman in 1967 — you can’t overlook the contribution of Massimo Vignelli. From 1973 on, until the Institute's closing in 1985, Vignelli was responsible for the graphic design not only of its journal Oppositions but also of its other publications and various printed matter, including posters, stationery and catalogues. Certainly the graphic identity that Vignelli created influenced how the Institute presented itself and how it was perceived. Still, it is somewhat surprising that in retrospect Vignelli characterizes the Institute as a communicative invention.

From its earliest days — when it was affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art and supported by Cornell University — the Institute was aware of the need for a coherent and recognizable graphic identity and for a public relations strategy. In the very early years, the graphic look was created in-house; the Vitruvian homo ad quadratum was used for the logo and featured on leaflets, posters, t-shirts and even doors. Before Vignelli, Institute fellows and friends designed posters (Emilio Ambasz), covers for research reports (Robert Slutzky) and exhibition catalogues (Kenneth Frampton). On pamphlets, stationery and posters, Helvetica was the typeface of choice (it had earlier been introduced in the United States by Unimark, the graphic firm Vignelli had worked for).


By the early 1970s Vignelli had started his own office and worked on the high-profile redesign of the New York City subway map. His first Institute project was Oppositions, which became a forum in which intellectually ambitious fellows and other contributors debated issues of design and theory. Having studied architecture (at the Politecnio di Milano), Vignelli was interested not only in the design but also in the content of the journal. The modernist graphic design of Oppositions would ultimately help to shape the public face of the Institute, which increasingly presented itself as a think tank and public forum. (It also became an exclusive club: release parties for issues of Oppositions were invitation only, and limited to sponsors, a group that included Vignelli.)

Vignelli was eventually asked to create the graphic identity for the Institute. As with his work for other organizations, he promoted a systematic approach. For all Institute printed matter, he designed a template, using large titles — all caps, bold, sans serif lettering for logotypes — applying grids, and limiting text layouts to certain typefaces and sizes; thus he extended the visual language established for Oppositions. For posters, Vignelli would first sketch by hand, in meetings with Institute fellows at his office. The layouts and final mechanicals were then produced by Institute staff. Vignelli was not interested in controlling the whole production, and since he did not work on the entire process, his designs were not always realized as he intended: typefaces and sizes and other graphic devices were not consistently applied.

Given his increasing involvement in the workings and culture of the group, Vignelli often worked for free, out of friendship with Eisenman. In appreciation, the work of Massimo and Lella Vignelli was exhibited at the Institute in the spring of 1975, and in 1977 Vignelli was made a trustee. He felt personally honored, yet this had the effect of formalizing his relationship with the organization. As a trustee, Vignelli was not expected to contribute money; rather he continued to refine the graphics. At the end of the 1970s, he added to his portfolio of Institute publications, taking on the design of the magazine Skyline, of the exhibition catalogues, and of Oppositions Books.