Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A series of modernist transit design gems were discovered last week inside Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s archives.
Jennifer Whitlock is the lone archivist at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Every day, she pores through through boxes upon boxes of artifacts from the careers of legendary graphic designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli. The couple donated 60 years worth of their papers—covering everything from subway maps to shopping bags and airline logos—to the western New York school in 2010 (Massimo died in 2014, Lella in 2016).
Whitlock has been documenting her discoveries on the Vignelli Center’s social media accounts as she unpacks, and last week, she made a remarkable find: Massimo’s delightfully abstract concepts for a Washington, D.C. rapid transit system map. “I’m pretty sure I did a little dance and let out a little scream of joy,” Whitlock says of her latest discovery.
In 1968, Massimo—working for the design firm Unimark at the time—was asked to design the signage system for WMATA’s stations. According to Cameron Booth, the graphic designer behind TransitMaps, Massimo put a separate bid to design the system map after he left Unimark to form Vignelli Associates with Lella. Booth estimates these designs were made around 1973, one year after his polarizing New York City subway map debuted.
WMATA ended up turning to Lance Wyman to come up with the map that’s still used by the system today, although it never adopted the station icon system originally proposed. “I wanted to, after the experience of seeing how effective [icons] were in making the city visible in Mexico [City’s subway], do that again,” recalled Wyman in a 2014 CityLab interview. “But we had to use an approach that Massimo... mandated when he did the signage system, and that was to use more of a diagrammatic map like the London Underground.” Wyman’s final concept, however, maintains non-Vignelli features like sections of green that correspond with popular park space and icons that identify landmarks.
Besides these latest discoveries, the center has a photocopied version of the WMATA signage manual, some preliminary sketches by Massimo for the manual and signage system, and 35mm slides of the final manual and signage in real life. Whitlock still has plenty more to uncover: She tells CityLab that there’s a whole summer’s worth of large cardboard portfolios to go through related to WMATA.
And in case you happen to have some Unimark or Vignelli relics laying around, she says the center is still collecting.