We lost the design industry’s ego and the id within the last few weeks, and perhaps that is appropriate in an era in which the very notion of an integrated, yet multilayered, reality seems to be fracturing into bits and bytes all around us.
First, of course, there was the passing of Massimo Vignelli. Few other designers represented discipline by design better than this Italian maverick of order. Not only did he get us to think about New York in abstraction through his subway map, he also came up with logos that were so absolutely right that you could not imagine changing them—as American Airlines is finding out as they rebrand themselves. When I spent a few hours with him last year, he recounted his dream of a white restaurant: The space would be white, of course, as would all the furnishings, the linens, and the tableware. But, so would the food be. Pasta with white sauce. White ice cream. Risotto with white truffles. Everything would be white.
Vignelli and his wife, Lella, clothed themselves and then proposed to do the same for us by selling their couture designs. They offered us, in short, a designed life. Submit to their graphic discipline, and everything would be clean, clear, and simple. My introduction to their work came through the architecture books they designed, from every jot Richard Meier, FAIA, ever let out of his office to monographs on the likes of Louis Kahn. They still color (in subdued hues) my sense of not only how architecture should be presented—in a grid, of course—but also what it is. Against the play of forms in light, they brought the arrangement of things within the grid.
A few days before Vignelli passed away, we also lost H.R. Giger. I know it sounds like blasphemy to speak about someone who was not much more than a virtuoso illustrator in the same space as Saint Massimo, but the importance of Giger’s work, at least on my generation’s nightmares, was considerable. Though he was a favorite among certain devotees of the arcane and to lovers of Austrian angst art, what his work meant above all else to most of us was the set of Aliens. It was his vision of a world in which there was no grid, only the bulges of life: good, evil, or undecidable, always pregnant and always metastasizing into something that kept us at wake at night. His vision was frightening in that it created a world in which what was supposed to frame us came alive and ate us, in which buildings and objects, in other words, were as much alive as we were.
Today there are even philosophers who, like the German Peter Sloterdijk, have proposed a theory of “bubbles,” in which we can understand our world as nothing but versions of wombs. Ian Bogost, in his Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), has proposed that things are alive, and that we understand ourselves as part of a continuum of organic and sentient beings. Manuel DeLanda already told us to look in that direction almost two decades ago in his A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (Zone Books, 1997). All Giger did was to make images that seduce you into believing in that uncertainty in the manner that Vignelli made you believe that the way to a better life was by bringing order and clarity to the dead things all around you so that we could be more alive.
You cannot order the Internet, at least not as simply as Vignelli would have liked, nor can you give stability to companies or institutional entities that morph almost as quickly as mushrooms. We are close to reordering our own bodies at the level of molecules and even DNA so that we become healthier people. It might seem that Giger has won, but I still hold hope that one day I will wake from this nightmare, not into the white light, but into the kind of clarity and openness Vignelli promised.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.