Massimo Vignelli dies at 83; graphic designer created N.Y. subway map

Massimo Vignelli dies at 83; graphic designer created N.Y. subway map
Lella and Massimo Vignelli at the Pratt Institute's "Legends 2008" gala. In addition to the New York subway map, Massimo Vignelli also designed the American Airlines corporate logo and the format for the National Park Service brochures. (Will Ragozzino, Getty Images)

Massimo Vignelli, a graphic designer whose New York subway map both guided and confounded riders in the 1970s while generations of shoppers carried his Bloomingdale's "brown bag," has died. He was 83.

He died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan after a long illness, according to Carl Nolan, controller at New York-based Vignelli Associates.

Vignelli's work remains a pervasive part of New York City life. It includes the subway system signs that he and partner Bob Noorda began working on in the 1960s and the corporate design for luxury department store chain Bloomingdale's, including its shopping sacks emblazoned with the "big brown bag" logo since 1973.

His subway map sparked controversy from the moment of its introduction in 1972, with colorful and angular depictions of routes that had little relation to actual geography.


"It was not a map," Vignelli said in a 2012 interview, according to the New York Times. "It was a diagram." The design, which was replaced in 1979, is now part of the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Vignelli also designed in 1967 the American Airlines corporate logos and,10 years later, the format for National Park Service brochures, both of which are still in use today. Known for his distinctive use of typography, he was an early champion of the Helvetica font and appeared in a 2007 documentary of the same name.

Vignelli was born Jan. 10, 1931, in Milan, Italy, to Ettore Vignelli and the former Noemi Guazzoni, according to Marquis Who's Who. He studied at the Brera Academy in Milan and the School of Architecture at the University of Venice.

He met the former Lella Valle at an architect's convention and they were married in 1957, according to a profile on the American Institute of Graphic Arts website. Three years later, they opened an office in Milan, handling industrial and product design for clients including Pirelli, Rank Xerox and Olivetti.

They came to New York in 1965 to work with Unimark International, a design company. In 1971 the couple founded Vignelli Associates. The firm gained a reputation for a holistic approach stressing modernism.

"We designed everything from graphics to products to interior, and even to fashion," Yoshiki Waterhouse, a longtime designer with the firm, said Tuesday. Vignelli was an inspirational boss fond of espousing his design principles in simple expressions, he said.

"The last of his aphorisms was timelessness," Waterhouse said.

In 2011, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority revived his 1972 subway map for use on its website.

In 2003, Vignelli and his wife received the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Besides his wife, Lella Vignelli, his survivors include their son, Luca Vignelli, and daughter, Valentina Vignelli Zimmer, and three grandchildren.

Miller writes for Bloomberg News.