A legendary husband-and-wife design team fought to get her equal credit for 40 years

“If she says it’s wrong, I don’t even argue because I know she’s right,” said design legend Massimo Vignelli in a 2010 interview at Virginia Commonwealth University, referring to his partner Lella.

Lella Vignelli was the co-founder of one of New York’s most sought-after design studios, but rarely got the spotlight she deserved despite her husband’s efforts. She passed away peacefully in New York City on Dec. 21, after a years long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 82 years old.

The Vignellis helped define modern design in the US. They created New York City’s iconic subway map, Bloomingdale’s department store graphics, chairs for several furniture manufacturers, and the interiors of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, where Massimo meticulously orchestrated his own funeral service in 2014.

Born in Udine, Italy, Lella was a trained architect and award-winning furniture designer. She could have served as a powerful inspiration for women in design and business, but was rarely acknowledged in public for her creative work (which press often attributed solely to her husband).

Massimo was Lella’s first and last champion. He famously confessed to throwing away magazines that failed to acknowledge her role in their work. Just before he passed away in 2013, Massimo authored Designed by: Lella Vignelli—a 96-page love letter and compendium of his wife’s many unheralded contributions to modern design.

Throughout their 40-year practice, the Vignellis painfully witnessed how sexism undermined female designers and architects. In the introduction to the book, Massimo decried the “macho attitudes” that have diminished the woman’s contributions, especially in husband-and-wife businesses.

He wrote:

For decades, the collaborative role of women as architects or designers working with their husbands or partners has been under appreciated.…Lella and I were affected by these standing mores early in our careers. It is why we purposely built the notion of the two of us as a brand, but it took time for the others to see and understand this.The architectural and design press had a bad habit of crediting only the man, forgetting the woman partner. For many years, our Vignelli office sent photographs of projects—with proper credits—to the magazines, but too often we would see the published material crediting my name only. This created a constant scene of embarrassment and frustration, to the point that I threw publications away to avoid unpleasant confrontations with Lella.

Massimo, the graphic designer, worked out the typography and layout schemes for print assignments. Lella took the lead on commissions for furniture, exhibitions and interiors, in addition to running their studio. The couple shaped final designs together, in critiques and brainstorming sessions.

With his final book, Massimo sought to mark their oeuvre with Lella’s name as co-author. “It is not holding a pencil with four hands that makes a partnership; it is sharing the creative act and exercising creative criticism which is reflected in the end result,” he wrote.

“Lella and I have been partners, lovers, a married professional couple for more than half a century. From the beginning, our relationship has been bonded by our mutual passion for architecture and design.”

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