Massimo Vignelli: Oppositions, Skyline and the Institute

Vignelli’s graphic design work for the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, the legendary Manhattan design forum of the 1970s.

Studying the social, intellectual and cultural history of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies — the non-profit education and research organization founded by Peter Eisenman in 1967 — you can’t overlook the contribution of Massimo Vignelli. From 1973 on, until the Institute’s closing in 1985, Vignelli was responsible for the graphic design not only of its journal Oppositions but also of its other publications and various printed matter, including posters, stationery and catalogues. Certainly the graphic identity that Vignelli created influenced how the Institute presented itself and how it was perceived. Still, it is somewhat surprising that in retrospect Vignelli characterizes the Institute as a communicative invention.

From its earliest days — when it was affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art and supported by Cornell University — the Institute was aware of the need for a coherent and recognizable graphic identity and for a public relations strategy. In the very early years, the graphic look was created in-house; the Vitruvian homo ad quadratum was used for the logo and featured on leaflets, posters, t-shirts and even doors. Before Vignelli, Institute fellows and friends designed posters (Emilio Ambasz), covers for research reports (Robert Slutzky) and exhibition catalogues (Kenneth Frampton). On pamphlets, stationery and posters, Helvetica was the typeface of choice (it had earlier been introduced in the United States by Unimark, the graphic firm Vignelli had worked for).

By the early 1970s Vignelli had started his own office and worked on the high-profile redesign of the New York City subway map. His first Institute project was Oppositions, which became a forum in which intellectually ambitious fellows and other contributors debated issues of design and theory. Having studied architecture (at the Politecnio di Milano), Vignelli was interested not only in the design but also in the content of the journal. The modernist graphic design of Oppositions would ultimately help to shape the public face of the Institute, which increasingly presented itself as a think tank and public forum. (It also became an exclusive club: release parties for issues of Oppositions were invitation only, and limited to sponsors, a group that included Vignelli.)

Vignelli was eventually asked to create the graphic identity for the Institute. As with his work for other organizations, he promoted a systematic approach. For all Institute printed matter, he designed a template, using large titles — all caps, bold, sans serif lettering for logotypes — applying grids, and limiting text layouts to certain typefaces and sizes; thus he extended the visual language established for Oppositions. For posters, Vignelli would first sketch by hand, in meetings with Institute fellows at his office. The layouts and final mechanicals were then produced by Institute staff. Vignelli was not interested in controlling the whole production, and since he did not work on the entire process, his designs were not always realized as he intended: typefaces and sizes and other graphic devices were not consistently applied.

Given his increasing involvement in the workings and culture of the group, Vignelli often worked for free, out of friendship with Eisenman. In appreciation, the work of Massimo and Lella Vignelli was exhibited at the Institute in the spring of 1975, and in 1977 Vignelli was made a trustee. He felt personally honored, yet this had the effect of formalizing his relationship with the organization. As a trustee, Vignelli was not expected to contribute money; rather he continued to refine the graphics. At the end of the 1970s, he added to his portfolio of Institute publications, taking on the design of the magazine Skyline, of the exhibition catalogues, and of Oppositions Books.


Author's Note

The introductory text and the captions in the related slideshow are based on an oral history I conducted in 2010 with Massimo Vignelli, Michael Bierut and former Institute fellows and staff, as part of a PhD project on the history of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies.

Thanks to Mimi Taft for the images of the mock-up model of Skyline and copies of the original posters for City as Theater and Open Plan. Thanks to Andrew MacNair for allowing me to borrow his Skyline issues.

Kim Förster, “Massimo Vignelli: Oppositions, Skyline and the Institute,” Places Journal, September 2010. Accessed 28 Sep 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Suzanne Frank

    09.16.2010 at 16:32

    Kim Foerster has produced a grand snapshot of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. His texts are right to the point and meticulously correct. I say this as a writer who was part of the IAUS and who will have a volume on it in short order. Kim's short captions are telling of his larger project, a Ph.D., and eventually a book. We can all look forward to the latter for it will be a definitive story of this international hub of debate and challenging imagery.

  • Jessica Helfand

    09.16.2010 at 17:25

    In 1976, the Institute introduced a summer program for high school students: I was one of them and it changed my life.

    When it came time to apply for college, I had terrible board scores — but refused to apply to a "safety" school, figuring that if I didn't get in anywhere, I'd just work another year at the Institute and reapply. That's what it was like back then: part atelier, part think-tank, filled with these deeply engaged people.

    Because I was only 17 when I worked there, I did everything from running errands to answering phones. Once, I was sitting in the gallery when Claes Oldenberg walked in. And I will never forget the time I was taking tickets at the door for some evening event, and I failed to recognize Robert Stern, scanning the guestlist for his name to check off. His surname seemed to me then, as now, particularly apt as he screamed at me: "STERN!"

    I did get into college, but spent two of the next four summers working at the Institute: first for Andrew MacNair, later for Peter Eisenman — but what I remember most of all was the running between the institute and the Vignelli office, delivering text and photos and God knows what else to Lorraine Wild as she sat patiently laying out those glorious pages of Skyline.

    As my time to graduate and enter the work force drew near, I was panic-stricken: but I remember this palpable moment in which I thought: if I can work every day in an environment like this — with designers and architects and Luxo lamps and books and magazines and exhibits — I might just be okay.