In “Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli,” the male half of the celebrated husband-and-wife design team can often be seen wearing a square, pewter-color brooch where a collar button would normally be. It’s in the shape of a grid. Vignelli will often use grids in his designs. Just glancing at the brooch, you might mistake it for a clerical collar. That’s not inappropriate, since Vignelli is something of a priest of design — and Lella Vignella a priestess. The sleek, spare look of their designs has a kind of opulent asceticism.
Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra’s documentary opens Wednesday at the Museum of Fine Arts. You may not recognize the Vignelli name, but you certainly recognize their designs. Over the past half century, they have created dinnerware, logos, furniture, jewelry, books, even clothes — “the whole field of design,” as Lella says. “If you don’t find it, design it” is her motto, one she and her husband have clearly lived by and profited from. Among the Vignellis’ clients have been American Airlines, Knoll, Bloomingdale’s, Benetton, the New York City subway system, and the National Park Service.
“A 24-hour partnership,” Massimo calls their collaboration. “People think we’re two heads and one pencil,” he adds. “Mostly, I’m the pencil, and Lella is the criticism.” Some of the most interesting parts of the documentary look at how their work complements each other’s — he’s the graphics man, she’s space and volume. “Design is One” (why isn’t the verb capitalized?) seems a bit skewed toward Massimo. Fair enough: He has the more ebullient personality. But it never really gets at a deeper understanding of how they interact.
The fact that Charles and Ray Eames are never mentioned during the course of the documentary is both startling and telling. That other famous design couple shares many obvious similarities to the Vignellis. But context and framing don’t much concern “Design is One.” Maybe that would have necessitated a more critical approach, one hard to square with the generally adulatory tone. Many people show up to sing the Vignellis’ praises — architect Richard Meier, designer Milton Glaser, various clients, associates, and curators — and while everything they say rings true, it does start to sound repetitive after a while.
The Vignellis are credited with having introduced the Helvetica typeface to the United States. One of the more delightful moments in “Design is One” consists of Massimo’s announcement that there are only three good serif fonts (Garamond, Bodoni, and Times New Roman) and just half a dozen good sans-serif ones — with Helvetica heading the list, of course. One inevitably thinks of Gary Hustwit’s marvelous 2007 documentary about the typeface. “Helvetica” had a sense of pacing and design history that “Design is One” lacks. Odder still, it had more personality. Maybe that’s because it treated its two-dimensional subject with a three-dimensionality, whereas “Design is One” too often works the other way around?