The 79-minute documentary Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli, released on DVD last week, is a biography, of a kind, of the designer and his wife, originally hit the festival circuit in 2012. It neatly tracks Massimo and his wife Lella’s careers as the preeminent design team of the postwar era at something of a breakneck pace. A series of images of the Vignellis’ work flashes by at the start of the film as if we were quickly flipping through a retrospective (or high-end product) catalogue, and things don’t get much slower from there. Directors Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra blitz through all the high notes—American Airlines, the New York City subway map, Vignelli’s grids—while Massimo and Lella briefly recollect the genesis of a project and their many friends, collaborators, and acolytes sing their praises.
This approach allows us to take the macro view of the Vignellis’ work, but it also promotes Massimo’s genius and vision far too often at the expense of Lella’s role in the partnership. Outside of a two-minute vignette in the middle of the film that’s dedicated to Lella, her jewelry, and interior architecture, and her contributions to Massimo’s work, Design is One mostly alludes to how important she is and has been to design and Massimo without allowing her to stand on her own. At one point in the film, she says, “Massimo is the dreamer, and I am the reality.” You desperately want that sentiment unpacked. Unfortunately, there’s always a Heller cup or typography discussion that needs exploring.
That’s not to say Brew and Guerra don’t know when to luxuriate on a topic. When we get to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan, for example, the filmmakers allow Massimo and Lella to bask in the interior space they designed while we’re treated to some of the film’s most poignant moments: Massimo moved by the church, outlining his funeral plans, and where in St. Peter’s he would like to be entombed. Even without the added weight of his recent death, in May, this section of the film is quite moving.
Still, there’s not much time for introspection here. The film begins with Massimo and Lella arriving in America in 1957 and doesn’t look back. Literally. We never learn about his time in Milan, how the two met, what their childhoods were like, and all that other biographical information that’s necessary for a deeper understanding of the work. Indeed, we barely get contemporaneous details about what was happening in their lives when they were rewriting the rules of design. To an almost fetishistic extent, the film dwells on the accomplishments and triumphs at the expense of Massimo's and Lella’s personal history. That’s a fundamental and inexcusable omission. There are plenty of books (a medium better suited to examining objects) dedicated to the Vignellis’ work, and relatively little on film capturing their humanity. While we get a bit of the former in Design is One, in the end it’s just a well crafted, glossy, superficial art volume in cinematic form—and an unfortunate missed opportunity.