Do you think about what you eat off of when you’re sitting down to dinner? Someone does … it was designed.
How about the way a restaurant is laid out when you walk in? What are the interior colors making you feel? How about the decor on the wall? Is it giving you a feeling of comfort? Excitement? Intensity? Are you thinking about it? Someone had …
What about that box of spaghetti or that bottle of wine? Why are you gravitating toward that one? Is it just more eye-catching? Does it speak to you? Perhaps you subconsciously correlate the appealing aesthetics with a quality product. Is that something you have contemplated? Massimo Vignelli constantly did.
Vignelli was one of the most motivated and accomplished designers of our time. He died last week. He was 83.
Together with his wife, Lella, they have worked in print, package, publication, identity, interior and product design as well as architecture and adorableness. While he’s most commonly recognized for his creation of the New York Subway maps and system, he’s done infinitely more. Iconic identity work, such as Bloomingdale’s, American Airlines and IBM are also standout examples of his mastery of the skill.
While I think he attempted to design everything in his life (and who could blame the guy), I think his quote rings very true: “One life is too short for doing everything.” There were however, three very large contributions that Vingelli made to the food world. Three things that you may not even realize need quality design to enhance your appreciation of them: package design, product design and space design.
1. Package Design
“What the American companies have not understood yet is that design is an integral part of the production process, not a last-minute embellishment.” Massimo’s thoughts on package design were very refreshing for a designer like myself to hear. You spend so much time in the industry being rushed, but he emphasized quality. Originally being from Milan, but ultimately choosing New York over Italy, he has great insight on European vs. American cultures, especially the aesthetics of these cultures.
“The unfortunate thing in America is that only sophisticated products have beautiful packaging. The supermarket packaging is a disaster; it is vulgar.”
He even goes as far as saying marketers who encourage poor packaging design are culture criminals and if he were a dictator, he’d ship them all off. (I love him.)
That being said, please take a look at one of my favorites, his Malma pasta package design. The clean red and white color scheme (Polish colors for Polish pasta) and the geometric, well-kerned typography is all the product needs to brand it. He also includes a clear window so that you can see the pasta (rather than a bad image of the pasta). He values negative space and simplicity which gives the product an instant-high end feel. His style comes across the in similar elements in his Perugina candy packaging … which by the way, was done in the 80s and looks just as refined as it did the day he designed it. It’s this sort of technique that pulls in a consumer, whether they realize it or not. Vignelli was always encouraging people to appreciate the importance of aesthetics in marketing.
2. Product Design
If you think a designer is involved in food, you likely consider package design. That’s obvious. The more incredible feat was his ability to create beautiful and ultra-functional product designs. His most famous is likely the (award-winning) Hellerware. A set of stackable dishware that comes in a large assortment of vibrant colors, it was massively functional while being clean and attractive, having the mod aesthetic of the 1960’s, when he first created it. Though, again, the wonderful thing about Vignelli and his sense of design is, the Hellerware has stood the test of time. It by no means looks dated and is actually still sold through MOMA. Though, if you want any from the original line, you’ll have to do what he did and purchase them on Ebay.
Hellerware aside, the man has designed a great deal of creations for your dining pleasure. Other dishware sets, cups, flatware, furniture … he has had his hand in more than you can imagine.
3. Space Design
Five years ago, at the age of 78, Massimo Vignelli took on a new project: designing a whole freaking restaurant. SD26 in New York City, is a three-floor contemporary Italian/Mediterranean restaurant with a crazy amount of wine. Vignelli designed the space (as well as the identity and other collateral). Having his hand in the restaurant business was extremely rewarding to him and he had hoped to do more restaurants.
Knowing how much the man had accomplished in his 83 years (without ever slowing down) is an extreme inspiration. Crossing fields to design in areas that he had passion for is also very moving. Hopefully you all can take some lessons from Massimo Vignelli and find some inspiration for yourselves. Do what you do. Combine it with what you love. Make your world more beautiful.
I’m leaving you all with a mushroom and polenta recipe. It didn’t come straight from him, but he did once mention in an interview that he and his wife always made polenta and she loved sauteing mushrooms to serve on top. Mangia bene, vivi felice!
Mushrooms Atop Creamy Polenta
(Recipe from Love & Lemon)
Ingredients for the polenta
- 1 cup polenta
- 3 cups water
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/4 cup grated asiago cheese (optional), plus extra to go on top
- salt, pepper
For the mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 3 cups mushrooms
- 1/2 cup chickpeas, cooked & drained
- 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
- 1/4 cup chopped chives
- salt, pepper
Make the polenta: Bring 3 cups of water to a boil with a few teaspoons of salt. Gradually add the polenta while whisking. Continue whisking for a few minutes until smooth & not lumpy.
Continue cooking the polenta for 20-30 minutes, whisking often.
Turn heat off, whisk in the garlic, olive oil, butter, salt, pepper & cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside.
Cook the mushrooms: In a large skillet, heat olive oil. Add mushrooms and a few pinches of salt. Let the mushrooms cook for a few minutes, then add the chickpeas and the soy sauce.
Cook until golden brown (8-10 minutes or so), stirring only occasionally.
Add the sherry vinegar, stir, and let cook for 30 seconds or a minute longer.
Remove from heat, stir in tarragon and chives. Taste and adjust seasonings.
(A very optional step – make a quick pan sauce by pouring a glug of white wine into the still-warm pan the mushrooms cooked in. Let it bubble up and cook off for a few seconds and add a little pat of butter. Stir that into the finished mushrooms or pour over the final dish.)
Scoop the polenta into ramekins and top with the mushrooms & chickpeas.
Optional step – top with a little bit more grated cheese and place under the broiler for a few minutes until bubbly.
Fontina Turner, a food blogger and graphic designer from Philadelphia, makes classy-as-fuck comfort food and consumes an unhealthy amount of cheeses and craft beers. She can be found in the kitchen, at the bar, on Twitter or trying to make H. Jon Benjamin love her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.