August Journal Excerpts

True to Form

Dung Ngo

Dung Ngo & Alan Heller reminiscence about the incomparable Vignellis and their storied New York apartment

In this excerpt from the AUGUST Journal, editor Dung Ngo and pioneering design manufacturer Alan Heller reminiscence about the incomparable Massimo and Lella Vignelli and their storied New York apartment. Photography by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

Inside the Vignelli apartment in New York City. Photo © Ngoc Minh Ngo

Perhaps no other designers have had, and continue to have, as great an impact on New Yorkers as the late husband and wife duo Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Everyday millions of commuters and tourists navigate the city’s century-old, 400-station–strong subway system with only the Vignellis’ graphic wayfinding system as their sole defense against chaotic insanity.

But the Vignellis’ design work did not just affect New Yorkers. Millions of Americans of a certain age grew up with their colorful plastic tableware for Heller, which came in a variety of bright colors and were as ubiquitous in the suburbs of St. Louis as they were on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Inside the Vignelli apartment in New York City. Photo © Ngoc Minh Ngo

The Vignellis’ clean-lined aesthetic and its lack of superfluous ornament might suggest a propensity for austere severity, but far from it; their work is a paragon of clarity and warmth, often marked with a touch of roguish humor. The Vignellis’ own Manhattan apartment is a case in point.

A duplex in an early-20th-century building—originally built as artist studios that were converted into residences sometime in the mid-century—the Vignellis renovated the space back to its spiritual roots when they moved into it in 1976. The apartment is all about proportion and light, befitting two grand maestri of designs.

—Dung Ngo

Inside the Vignelli apartment in New York City. Photo © Ngoc Minh Ngo

In 1969, when I decided to import designer Italian housewares into the US, friends of mine said there was an Italian designer couple in New York that I simply had to meet. I first met Massimo and Lella at their imposing office on 10th Avenue. You might say it was love at first sight.

I also fell in love with Massimo’s melamine dinnerware, which had won the Compasso d’Oro, Italy’s highest design award, but was no longer in production. The Italian company that had produced it went bankrupt, so I went through the Italian courts to obtain the rights. We manufactured the dinnerware in Italy for five years. But in Italy, there seemed to be a new strike every day. So we moved production over to the US.

The original colors for the set were white, yellow, and orange. Soon we came out with colors of the whole rainbow, which you could mix and match. Over the years, we added the cup and saucer, mug, and ice bucket. Massimo also designed canteens and coolers for us. At one point, it seemed like everyone in the country was using our dinnerware.

Inside the Vignelli apartment in New York City. Photo © Ngoc Minh Ngo

Massimo designed our Heller logo back in 1971, and it has stood the test of time. When I launched my furniture company, he created the Vignelli Chair for us, and the Vignelli Collection of rainbow-colored benches and cubes. His very last chair was our beautiful new Vignelli Rocker, designed with Lella. I think they would have loved it.

Lella, Massimo, and I were dear friends for over 40 years. Massimo was the dreamer; Lella was the practical one. We had wonderful times in their apartment, whether it was to plan a new product at their big shared desk or to have a great conversation over a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta in the kitchen—served on Heller dinnerware, of course.

Inside the Vignelli apartment in New York City. Photo © Ngoc Minh Ngo

The Vignellis enriched my life immeasurably. They deepened my appreciation and sensitivity to clarity, simplicity, and timelessness in design and in life.

—Alan Heller