Design Is One: The Vignellis: Film Review

John Madere
Enjoyable but scattershot doc focuses on hanging out with the design legends.

Roberto Guerra and Kathy Brew look at the many iconic designs of Massimo and Lella Vignelli.

One of those "you don't know their names, but you've grown up with them" subjects that documentarians love, the career of Massimo and Lella Vignelli has given the world everything from the logo on the grille of Ford pickups to the design of the New York City subway system and Heller's perfectly stackable plastic dinnerware, a household staple from the 1970s onward. Roberto Guerra and Kathy Brew target the design geeks who do know the Vignelli name in Design Is One, an admiring portrait that spends plenty of time with the multi-disciplinary designers but isn't ambitious enough to tell a story that would appeal to a broader audience. It won't attract the attention paid to Helvetica, Gary Hustwit's ode to the typeface the Vignellis made famous, but it holds value for fans on video.

Almost entirely avoiding backstory or a chronological account of the couple's career, the film only alludes to their with-a-bang start after they relocated from Italy to New York in the 1960s: Within a few months, the vaguely told story goes, they were working for Knoll, doing corporate identity work for Ford, and making a transit map for the MTA that would be hated by some and revered by others.

Guerra and Brew recruit peers like designer Milton Glaser, design historian Steven Heller, and architect Richard Meier to talk about their impact and working style, but they're more interested in hanging out at the couple's home and listening to them talk. Nothing wrong with that, as both are charming people, but structurally the film offers no echo of the Vignellis' rigor -- the snap-in-place grids that govern their book layouts, the clean lines of their furniture. Only once do we really get to watch them doing their work -- Massimo sketches a layout for an artist's monograph, carefully cropping images with a tool computer-reared designers have never seen -- but there are certainly a wealth of images of old designs parading before the camera.

Directors-Producers: Roberto Guerra, Kathy Brew

Directors of photography: Roberto Guerra, Courtney Harmel

Editor: Roberto Guerra

Music: Pauchi Sasaki

No rating, 79 minutes