The Daily Heller: “The Assistant,” Beatriz Cifuentes

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Welcome back to our occasional series "The Assistant," a paean to the usually unsung essential members of teams and firms, where we introduce those who play, or have played, integral roles behind the scenes for designers both living and dead. May 27 marked the seventh anniversary of Massimo Vignelli's death. So, we invited Vignelli's former collaborator Beatriz Cifuentes to recall the unforgettable time when she came from Spain for an internship at the Vignelli office. At first she stayed for a couple of months before leaving to work at other design firms in New York City. What happens next is where we pick up her story at Massimo and Lella Vignelli's (Vignelli Associates) office (where she worked on the revised MTA Subway diagram), and the intense bond that evolved.

Yoshiki Waterhouse, Beatriz Cifuentes and Vignelli talking about NYC Subway branding standards. (All photos via Beatriz Cifuentes.)

From what I understand, after your brief internship you worked in New York building your portfolio. What brought you back to Vignelli?

Soon afterwards, Vignelli Associates moved from a large top-floor office on 10th Avenue to the Vignelli’s beautiful duplex in the Upper East Side. They had reorganized their apartment as an office by day and a home by night. The number of employees had been greatly reduced—Massimo used to say the office went from a bus to a Ferrari!

In 2003 Massimo needed someone to take over a project, and I came to visit him to show my then-larger portfolio. I remember nervously presenting my work at his large steel table, but we had an engaging conversation that went on for almost two hours, after which he asked me when I could start. Little did I know that the next day was the beginning of over a decade as his assistant, collaborator and friend. It never felt as if we were just working from a home. It felt grand, elegant, sophisticated, comfortable, luxurious. For Massimo there was no difference between work and personal life: Everything was a consistent stream of creativity and design. Lunch would be prepared using the same mindset as a client meeting. Such was the discipline of his mind that he would arrange on a plate a grid of cheese he had cut into perfect cubes, only to later create an impeccably organized layout for a book. Fastidious but not fussy, Massimo was naturally able to instill in others his love of perfection and overarching sense of correctness.

I met my work and life partner, Yoshiki Waterhouse, at the office. At the beginning we kept our relationship secret, since office romance is a big no-no in the U.S., but Massimo loved those stories and used to joke that Vignelli was a design office, but most importantly an undercover matchmaking agency, and that he was responsible for the births of many children. He loved to play the part of godfather.

What were your responsibilities? Did you help him execute his designs as an assistant? How long did you work with him before you were given a larger design role?

At first I helped with projects already begun by others. There were fewer designers and projects at the office, but work was still large-scale. I could speak Spanish and Italian and soon began to work directly with Massimo on projects in South America and Italy. Over the years our working method evolved but not much. As I sat with Massimo, he would sketch beautiful and precisely drawn concepts: say, a logo, book, or interior. We would discuss details and I would implement them on the computer while he sat by my side. It took a little getting used to having Massimo Vignelli look over my shoulder all day, every day, but it was fascinating to learn his mental process. After a while your mind starts to mimic the process and you realize you are thinking in a very similar way. It was fun being able to read his mind before he would ask me to change something.

The creative process was non-stop, morning to night, and even after-hours. Everything was design! Some nights Massimo would have an idea he couldn’t wait to try, and we would discuss it late at night over the phone. Your boss calling you at 11 p.m. to discuss work? It would be a nightmare for most, but for me it was a pleasure. As I gained experience, Massimo started delegating design concepts to me, but it was rare to not work together because the office dynamic was a big collaboration of a small team.

As Massimo—especially Lella—aged, they started developing health problems, which opened a new set of very different responsibilities. There were doctors’ appointments, prescriptions to pick up, keeping an eye on salt intake, hospital visits, pilate class scheduling, meal preparations … it became a different yet still intertwined process of design and domestic life. There was no real schedule. One day I would be helping with household chores, then another work weekends. Work late nights, but start work at 11 a.m. Massimo was a night owl and luckily so am I, which helped. Leisurely coffee breaks could easily become a lengthy masterclass in design, or between frantic hours of work. You never knew what the next day would bring. I remember once spending the night at the hospital with Massimo, computer on my lap, working on a presentation we had to send the next day. He had charmed the nurses and convinced them it was a matter of life and death to send the work out to clients, and that I had to stay past visiting hours. We worked all night on it. I still don’t understand where he got so much energy. He faced every project and client with the same enthusiasm of a young designer.

Your role was not a typical assistantship.

In 2007 I became vice president of design, and with that came more responsibility, especially in interactions with clients, but the creative part was always an enriching collaboration. I started accompanying Massimo to visit international clients. He used to say, “Join Vignelli, see the world!” and it was true. Traveling together taught me so much, not only from the perspective of a master designer, but of a different generation. He recounted stories about his childhood during the war, about design before computers … there was just so much knowledge about everything to listen and learn.

He was also immensely charismatic, and all that knowledge didn’t come across as condescending or with a sense of superiority. Most people who knew him will tell you how approachable he was. Lella used to tell him he needed to keep more distance and not accept every single person who wanted
to come to the office to meet him, but he was always open to everyone, be it a client or group of students. He recognized that he had a big ego, but said it was a nice guy, and used to pat himself on the shoulder and laugh.

There are dozens of stories from those trips. While visiting a client's incredible estate in South America, we were offered a drink in the library before dinner. It was spring, windows were open and you could see an entire valley from the house. Massimo had a tiny bit too much to drink, and while speaking he waved his hands enthusiastically and knocked a small Giacometti sculpture out the window into the forest below. I went pale, but Massimo looked at the client and remarked: “Oh dear, are we fired?” Everyone laughed and we worked for several years on that project.

Another of my favorites: We were working on the complete rebranding of Woolworths South Africa and flew to Cape Town for the first client presentation. After a two-hour presentation, the board of directors said flatly: We don’t like it. It was a reaction that Massimo was not used to, and it was one of the very few times that I saw him lose his patience in a meeting. Massimo was upset; we were half a world away with a frustrated client and an impending deadline. I don’t know if it was fear or adrenaline, but I took Massimo aside and told him we could give it another try. I persuaded him to work on a completely new concept from scratch while we were there, and we agreed to reconvene with the board two days later. I had a good sense of what the client’s requests were. Massimo and I spent the next two days locked in his hotel room, day and night, working on a new presentation and ordering room service. The hotel staff looked at us oddly for the rest of our stay, but the new concept was a success and I was honored and proud that Massimo had trusted my design instincts.

What of your qualities, talents and skills did Massimo see that caused him to hire you?

I am not sure but I must say whatever it was, I was really lucky. Those first few months at the big Vignelli office were crucial to my development as designer. I spent hours in the library reading all the design books and copying designs over and over again, drawing typography, doing sketches. I worked hard trying to understand the “Vignelli” way, trying to replicate it. I think by the time Massimo saw my more developed portfolio he could see an understanding of typography, hierarchy and organization, and although I still of course had much to learn, perhaps he saw potential in it. I had studied design in Milan and shared, to some extent, a European understanding of “Design is One”—design as the result of one creative process, whether you are making graphics, products or architecture. It was all so different from American design offices, which pigeon-holed each design field. Massimo also thought I was a computer wizard, but of course that was his perspective. I was no better than any other young designer, but in his eyes it was amazing seeing a design emerge on the computer.

What was the most challenging aspect of working for such a disciplined designer as Massimo? Was he hard to please?

He was not hard to please so long as one understood that discipline was a way of life! Work and life were the same: There were never vacations, holidays or weekends (who needs vacations when you are having fun!, he would say). All the same, it was demanding in that you always had to be available. Challenging? Sometimes the challenge was not being able to try different creative paths or ideas outside the Vignelli way, but then there was the reward of understanding subtle adjustments of visual language and the wealth of outcomes through a few strict rules. Lella used to say Massimo’s designs were “always the same, but always different.” Sometimes the challenge was trying to create that difference using the same minimal vocabulary. It was fascinating to see Massimo reworking his ideas over and over again, then exclaiming: Bello! And you knew he was dead on target.

What did you learn from your time with Massimo?

It’s difficult to say, as I spent more than a decade with him, under very unusual circumstances, since our collaboration was so close. He taught me to look at the world through creative eyes, to the point of obsession. I used to tell him that I got my education at Vignelli University.

For him, knowledge of history was an important part of being a good designer (not to mention a good person), and that one could use it as a tool. The importance of understanding history and drawing from the cumulative experiences of others is something young people may not realize. He made sure I understood this. He also taught me humility. He treated everyone the same way: from the CEO of a company to the cleaning lady. No project was too small for him as design could give dignity to anything.

Oh, and also draw, draw, draw, draw. For him drawing was a way of life. He couldn’t explain an idea unless he drew it. He was inseparable from his Caran d’Ache pencil. The entire office would go up in flames if his pencil disappeared. He insisted that everything had to be drawn during a conversation and often complained how computers had mostly erased that ability in young designers. What do you think Massimo learned in return?

I think the age difference kept him informed of new technologies, design “trends,” news, and recent projects, a set of fresh eyes. Perhaps he drew some young energy from me, although I often think it was the other way around. He always said he had been born too early and was always eager to learn. From a practical point of view I taught him to use Photoshop, which he loved using to the extent of his ability. And we even introduced him to a couple of new typefaces that he loved, even if he wouldn’t admit it in public.

Massimo as "Nonno," the grandfather.

After Massimo died, were there challenges? What was that experience like?

Over the years Massimo became a father figure to Yoshi and me. He was our mentor, but treated us like family. He even became a Nonno (grandfather) figure to our daughter and spent a lot of time playing and drawing with her when we brought her to the office. His passing was devastating for us. A feeling of loss and of being lost. After you spend so many years under the wing of such an extraordinarily talented person, it’s daunting to imagine life in any other way. The months after he died we spent preparing his memorial, but after that, I faced a big void that was difficult to fill. Through them, we met extraordinary people whose friendships keep the memory of Massimo and Lella close.

Yoshi and I opened our own office. You try to reinvent yourself, but so many years of training and intravenous design (his words) are so ingrained that it’s difficult to shift gears. Some people expect you to develop and discover your own language in a matter of months and to detach yourself completely, but that is quite difficult. In a sense, I feel a responsibility to all the knowledge Massimo invested in me. In everything I do and design, the first thing that comes to mind is what would Massimo do? Some clients say: "We like it, but it’s too Vignelli." It’s such a sad thing to hear, because it means they don’t really understand the value of the Vignelli

The Massimo and Lella Vignelli Archive at R.I.T.

What was the best experience of all?

One of the best experiences was working with Massimo to organize the archives to send to RIT for the opening of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. For years they resided in a barn in upstate New York, in hundreds of boxes of original work since the beginning of Massimo and Lella’s careers. It was incredible to open each one with Massimo, look inside, catalogue, organize and repack. It took us several months of hard work to go through everything, but listening to Massimo recount stories about each project, client or the incredible list of fantastic designers that have formed the Vignelli family over the years was a delight. So many forgotten projects resurfaced, especially from the office's early years. It was fascinating to see the development of the Vignelli language, not immediately apparent relative to their iconic works.

During the final years of his life, Massimo dedicated many hours writing about design while I would continue to work on projects. His charming Italian voice could easily be heard in his essays. He became increasingly interested in passing his knowledge to future generations of designers. He left dozens of writings on many different subjects from his infamous (and revised) list of six basic typefaces; to the importance of acquiring a general knowledge that would guide designers to make informed decisions; about selective affinities (he made me discover the works of Goethe) and how to debate others with different points of view. It is my hope, as I know it was his, that those writings will see the light one day to continue inspiring future generations.

As for projects, the best was the redesign of the New York Subway Diagram with Massimo and Yoshi. It was the most rewarding and memorable experience we had with Massimo, but it is a long story that can be told another time.

We still miss him so much, but I am thankful for the unique privilege of knowing him so well.