Big Think Interview With Massimo Vignelli

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Massimo Vignelli: My name is Massimo Vignelli and I like to\r\nbe known as a designer.

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Question: How did you choose design as a career?

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Massimo Vignelli: \r\nYes.  I started to begin to\r\nbe interested in architecture and design when I was 14 years old, which was\r\npretty early in life.  And then I\r\nwould start to look at architectural magazines and I eventually went to the\r\nschool of architecture too, but one of the things I learned very early is that\r\nan architect should be able to design anything from a spoon to the city.  That was a favorite phrase by Argo Flores, a Viennese architect around the turn of the century, the other\r\ncentury.  And I was fascinated by\r\nthat idea and then I’ve seen that that is true and the great architects like\r\nFlores and Hoffmann from Vienna, again were doing this kind of things.  And since I was born and raised in\r\nMilan, architects in Milan, they were also doing all kinds of things.  They were designing buildings and\r\nfurniture and interiors and exhibitions and so on. 

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Then I shared an apartment with Max Huber, a famous graphic\r\ndesigner from Switzerland, and so I learned graphic design and I got fully in\r\nlove with graphic design.  And so I\r\nwas doing the whole thing from graphics to architecture.

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So I built a house at one point for a client and then I did\r\nexhibitions and then I started to do products and you know, that's the way I\r\nstarted.  And I like to try all the\r\ntime to try different materials, different experiences, I was eager to try all\r\nkinds of things and I suppose that attitude has a left me after a long, long\r\nlife of design anyhow.  So that's\r\nhow I got interested in architecture and design.  And naturally since I was very curious about the protagonist\r\nof the Modern movement in Europe at the time by the time I got to the\r\nUniversity of Architecture I was about 20 years old, I had already met cursory\r\nall the major architects in Europe from Le Corbusier, to you name it, all the others, country by\r\ncountry, which was very exciting. \r\nYou know, I was a kind of a groupie I would say. 

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And of course, I was reading all of the books of them and\r\nabout what they had to say, and that gave me the critical strength or the\r\ncritical background to approach architecture and design.

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Question: How much of your work takes place on, and off, the\r\ncomputer?

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Massimo Vignelli: Well, when I started was a completely\r\ndifferent set of tools then than today. \r\nAnd I like to divide our profession into B.C. and A.C., just like\r\nhistory.  So B.C. is Before\r\nComputer, A.C. is After the Computer. \r\nSo before the computer was extremely and intensively manual.  So of course I grew up with a\r\npencil.  A pencil was my computer\r\nat the time and so drawing,\r\ndrawing, drawing and the tools of drawing where the usual ones and eventually\r\nthen you graduated from the tools when the work increases and you start to draw\r\nby freehand as precise as possible and as accurate as possible, and I was pretty\r\ngood at that.  So, for me one inch\r\nwas a particular length, you know, but in centimeters or inches, which is kind of important too\r\nbecause it gives you a very good sense of dimension and therefore a good sense\r\nof scale.  Scale is extremely\r\nimportant, you know.  Scale is not\r\ndimensions.  Dimensions are\r\nphysical and scales are mental. \r\nAnd so without a knowledge of one, you can’t get to the knowledge of the\r\nsecond one in a sense. 

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Then, there was a lot of glue, a lot of other materials, you\r\nknow, pasting up and specifying type and losing type and was a very long and\r\ntedious process, Photostat machines and paste up again.  Oh god, what a life.  I spend two-thirds of my life on nothing,\r\nin a sense. 

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Then all of a sudden God sent this incredible thing, which\r\nis the computer, that’s the – it’s like God sending Jesus Christ, it’s that\r\nkind of a thing.  I don’t believe\r\nin one or the other, but I can believe in the computer.  And so that was the great\r\nredeemer.  So throw away all other\r\nkinds of tools and all of a sudden you could do things that were taking a long\r\ntime to do, all of a sudden you can do it and you can see while you’re doing\r\nit.  So that is a very, very, very\r\nexciting thing.  Not only that, but\r\nyou could do things better than ever in history.  You can also do things worse than in history, all the\r\ntime.  Most people do worse things\r\nthan ever.  But good guys then make\r\nbetter things than ever.  And so\r\nthat is a great tool to work.  And\r\nthis is what we use all the time.

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Now, since I’m medieval, as you can see, then I still use my\r\npencil, and I use the computer mostly for email and writing and things like\r\nthat, and Googling, and blah, blah, blah, and checking the words, as you can\r\nimagine.  Not being my first\r\nlanguage, I have to check spelling all the time.  And then I have people working with me which are very\r\nliterate in the computer and so I can work behind them and say a little bigger,\r\na little smaller, yeah, like this, yeah this is good, this is better.  Yeah, try this, try that.  It’s that kind of operation, which is\r\nvery funny in a sense.  You cannot\r\nplay the piano by telling a pianist what to do, go a little more to the left or\r\nto the right.  And the same is for\r\nthe computer, really.  You have to\r\nplay yourself to get the most out of it. \r\nBut you know, and it takes a long time to learn too.  So, I don’t think I have the time in my\r\nhead to really use it in a good way.

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Question: Is there anything the computer can’t do for a\r\ndesigner?

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Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, the computer is really like a\r\npencil, you know.  It used to\r\nbe.  The pencil can do anything you\r\nwant to, but you have to do it, and the same is with the computer. It can do\r\nanything you want, but you have to do it. \r\nIt’s a tool.  And when it\r\ngoes by itself, it’s a disaster because it’s a very seductive kind of\r\ntool.  The pencil you leave it\r\nthere, and it’s dead.  It doesn’t\r\ndo anything and it doesn’t move by itself.  It doesn’t offer anything; it’s totally submissive to\r\nyou.  The computer needs...even by\r\naccident, offers incredible beautiful things that are very seductive.  And if you forget about, or if you\r\ndon’t have an idea to begin with, it is very easy to be seduced and that is not\r\na good use of the computer.  You\r\nknow?  So, that is the way it goes.

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Question: What makes a design work?

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Massimo Vignelli: Well, it should be visually powerful in\r\nthe sense that I do not like design that is a flat tire, that has no tension,\r\nthat has no guts, that has no expression. \r\nThis doesn’t mean to be **** like this, it could be on the contrary,\r\nextremely elegant.  And by that I\r\nmean, intellectually elegant.  Not\r\nfashion elegant, not mores elegant, but intellectually elegant.  That means a mind that has been\r\ncultivated and refined for quite a long time, you know.  Reading the best kind of books and\r\nreally understanding how the mind can be sublime.  And another way intellectual elegance is exactly the\r\nopposite of intellectually vulgar, you know.   And indeed, we are surrounded by a tremendous amount\r\nof vulgarity, therefore, it is a strive to – it is an effort to change that\r\nkind of situation, but it is very exciting because you have a sense of\r\naccomplishment.  You know.  And of course, you like to talk about\r\nit, you like to convince people and tell people how to get away from vulgar\r\nsituations into something which is a little more elegant, a little more\r\nrefined.  And if you multiply,\r\nmultiply, multiply, then the world is beginning to get better.  It takes you a long time. 

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Then the third thing is, people are fascinated with\r\ntrends.  You know, trends are in\r\nthe air, everybody likes to be trendy, to be up-to-date, you know.  But what is up-to-date today is gone\r\ntomorrow.  And if you are a\r\nresponsible kind of a designer, you cannot design things that tomorrow are no\r\ngood anymore.  If you like cheating\r\nwith your client and your public where you use it, whatever it might be.  So, you like to design something that\r\nis going to last a long time.  And\r\nso, you train yourself to be disciplined and you train yourself to stay away\r\nfrom trends.  And in a sense you\r\nget automatically involving into the notion of timelessness, so it takes to\r\nlast a long time.  And my god, I\r\ncan quote so many things.  Let’s\r\nsay American Airlines logo I’ve done. \r\nLook how many have been done since I done that one.  I done that one 45 years ago, maybe\r\neven 50 years ago, and it’s still there. \r\nIt’s the only one that’s never changed.  And how you can change?  How can you make it better?  It’s very legible, there are no tricks, it’s half red, half\r\nblue.  What is more American than\r\nthat?  You give me one and I’ll\r\ntake a look.  You know, the type is\r\na type that will last forever.  And\r\nit’s fine. 

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There are so many, the Bloomingdale logo, or the New York\r\nSubway, or you know, I mean, plenty, plenty, plenty of things which are – and\r\nobjects that we have done, plates like the Heller plates.  You know, generation after generation\r\ngrew up by eating on those plates and they are still around today.  Furniture that we have designed a long\r\ntime ago are still there, and so on. \r\nSo, it is great to design things that stay a long time.  They have a long staying power.  And when you look at the antiques, one,\r\nthey have staying power.  So, I\r\nkind of like the idea of designing things that in 100 years from now will be\r\nlooked at with respect and not laughed about, in a sense.

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Question: What aspects of contemporary design do you\r\ndislike?

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Massimo Vignelli: Well, vulgarity is a real ubiquitous\r\nthing.  You know, vulgarities on\r\neverything.  On clothing today more\r\nthan ever is on printed matter, kind of toonish kind of things, balloons, even\r\nthe subway map has all those balloons. \r\nI mean, that’s very low, literally.  **** there’s no need. \r\nYou don't talk down to people, you talk up to people, you know.  So instead most of the people -- most\r\nof the manufacturers they tend to design things to sell they are more\r\ninterested in the money side than anything else.  And greed is really the religion of vulgarity.  And it's that is that kind of greedy\r\nyou know that everybody seems to have. \r\nI mean, as part of the culture, more here than any other place to a certain\r\nextent.  Maybe because it offers\r\nmore, maybe because there's more buying power in the people, who knows?  I don't know why.  But certainly is -- and you know why\r\nelse because it's a very young country and hasn't had the time to sift what is\r\ngood from what is bad.  But like\r\neverything that is young it's fascinating.

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Question: How did you create your iconic 1970s New York City\r\nsubway map?

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Massimo Vignelli: Well, number one, we like to design things\r\nwhich we have done before.  So we\r\nhave a challenge to make it better. \r\nThe other thing, all the maps which were done at the time before our map\r\nwere **** to a certain extent, but we’re talking a different – they were trying\r\nto be half geographic, half schematic, and so on, not a very clear idea.  And so we started to took a precise\r\nvery diagrammatic kind of an approach, a diagram based on a grade of 90 and 45\r\ndegrees, like the London map which was very 1931.  You know, a long time ago.  And we just did it. \r\nEvery line had a color at the time, every station had a dot, no dot, no\r\nstation, it’s very simple.  But\r\nvery simple however is a process of insisting, insisting, insisting until you\r\nget just the essentials.  And all the\r\ntrashy things are gone.  And that\r\nis a process that is typical of our modes operandi, I mean what we do all that\r\ntime sifting, sifting.  Actually,\r\nI’m not a designer, I’m a sifter. \r\nI can sift everything, all the time.  My sift level lines keep shaking all the time for everything\r\nthat is around.  And so that is the\r\nway the – then in 1979, they changed their nomenclatures, so the map that we\r\nhad then was no good anymore for use. \r\nAnd so recently we redesigned the map according to the new\r\nnomenclatures, so that’s what we have done and it’s kind of nice.  There’s so many museums I can’t believe\r\nit.  And I hope we will do\r\nsomething with it soon.  It’s a\r\ngood map. 

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But most of the maps today, they are done this way, subway\r\nmaps I mean, around the world. \r\nParis has done a new one like this some time ago.  Berlin, you name it, every major city\r\nuses diagrammatic map.  It’s only\r\nNew York, which is kind of special, it still has this sort of a hybrid between\r\na map and a diagram, but not even a diagram and, not even a map, but however,\r\nthe problem with the existing map is too much information it is 5 pounds into a\r\n1 pound bag.  And no wonder it\r\nbreaks.

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Question: What other New York City signage have you created?\r\n

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Massimo Vignelli: Well, I mean we designed the signs for the\r\nhistorical district, the historical streets you know.  And why we did that, you see again, you have to be aware of\r\nwhat is around.  For instance, we\r\ncould have done a completely new and different sign, but that would have been\r\nstupid.  As a matter of fact\r\nsomebody else did that kind of thing and I consider it a very stupid approach\r\nbecause then when it does it is who it adds to an already very busy\r\nclutter.  So instead we took the\r\nexisting signs and just change the color. \r\nYou know, so it's not so expensive that way, but also doesn't add\r\nanother layer to the already very busy urban clutter you know.  So the problem of clutter is a big one\r\nof course as a designer and sifting, sifting, we tried to sift out as much as\r\npossible.  And that kind of stuff.

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Question: When you walk around New York, or the world, do\r\nyou feel like you’ve designed the place?

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Massimo Vignelli: Yeah.  You know, you have to know that, like every good designer,\r\nyou’ll have a twin brother that is called ego.  And I go around with my ego all the time.  And you should see how happy he is when\r\nhe goes around in a most far away kind of place and all of a sudden maybe a\r\ntruck that comes by with a logo that you have designed, or a book is on the\r\nwindow of a store, or someplace has the furniture that you have designed, or\r\nthe airline that brings you there has that.  So, it’s kind of funny.  Yes, it is a lot of fun. 

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While it is a gratification, it’s a lifelong\r\ngratification.  But as I said, it’s\r\nfrom my ego; to keep my ego happy. \r\nIf the ego is not happy, you are in deep trouble, you know that?

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Question: Why have you argued against the proliferation of\r\nnew fonts?

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Massimo Vignelli: Well you know, you have to know a little\r\nbit more about the history of typography, or type, and how it came about.  You know, it was invented at the end of\r\nthe 1400’s, you know, the Guttenbergs, so to speak, and then for 200 or 300\r\nyears, it went with very few different type faces.  You know, very elegant, and that’s it. Some publisher had\r\nthe type and printer and publisher was all one thing.  And there were very few also because it was very difficult\r\nto cut type, you know, it was cut by hand and not tools besides the chisels, so\r\nto speak, and the type was this small, so it was a very refined kind of\r\noperation to do.  And because it\r\nwas refined, it was quite elegant. There was no room for vulgarity to get into\r\nit.  So, the basic typefaces done\r\nin those years like Garamond, like Baskerville and **** and so on, ****.  They were quite elegant – very elegant,\r\nactually, typefaces. 

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Then the Industrial Revolution comes about and then you can\r\ndo the type in an industrial way and with the help of machines, and so on and\r\nso forth. And then because you could do it, people start to do it.  The foundry started to do more type and\r\ntherefore they had to sell it, to offer it.  And they found the right victim in the advertising people,\r\nwhich they thought that they should use a different typeface for every\r\ndifferent client.  They should not\r\nhave two clients with the same type. \r\nGod.  And so that went on\r\nand on and that became a business just wallpapers, you know, it became a\r\nbusiness to make typefaces.  And\r\nthen because of that, you’ve got typeface designers, people who got into the\r\nbusiness, they like it and the create nonsense type, things that were totally\r\nuseless and things of that nature and on and on and on and on. 

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And so eventually, you understand, that the reason that\r\nthere are a lot of typefaces is just because there’s a business, not a\r\nneed.  So, you begin to sift, sift,\r\nsift, sift, and you begin sifting to see which one are appropriate for one use\r\nor another and basically, as you know, the typefaces are divided into two\r\ncategories, which are called serif, the one with the feet, and sans serif\r\nwithout the feet, the straight one. \r\nAnd between one family and the other family you begin to pick out the\r\nbest, and at the end when you pick out the best, you wind up with about a half\r\na dozen, or a little more of typefaces. \r\nAnd those are good, those are good for everything.  Each one of those families are very\r\nlarge, you know, so they are of the same typeface you have are very thin or\r\nvery big, they are straight or italic, which inclined, and things like\r\nthat.  So yes, there are only a\r\ngood maybe a dozen.  I’m very\r\ngenerous today since I think they – but there’s no more than a dozen, actually\r\nI don’t use much many more than three or four in my life.  That is the thing. 

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However, exceptionally sometime I might use some other\r\ntoo.  But not really much more than\r\nthat a dozen of good typefaces and the rest you can really trash it from a\r\ndesign point of view.  However,\r\nit’s a business that keeps a lot of people alive and what do you want to do,\r\nwhat would they do otherwise?  So,\r\nlet them do type if they like it. \r\nThe only thing that is important to understand is when to use it and\r\nwhen not to use it, or what to use. \r\nAnd a good designer can come to it, you know.  And they can really very well along with a few\r\ntypefaces.  Every good designer\r\ndoesn’t use more than a few typefaces and when they’re less good, the number\r\nincrease.  And if they’re worse,\r\nthen use all of them.

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Question: Having starred in the documentary “Helvetica,”\r\nwere you surprised by its success?

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Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, definitely, I was surprised and\r\nvery, very, very pleased too.  But\r\nit’s incredible by how many people really liked the movie.  People that had nothing to do with\r\ndesign, and how useful it has been. \r\nYou have no idea the amount of people that mentioned this movie to me,\r\neverywhere in the world.  I got\r\nemail from everywhere in the world talking about it.  I don’t say many things. 

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In the disc, if you get the disc, at the end there are\r\nextras, which are better then the whole movie, really.  It was terrific.  So, if you get the disc is fun.  Any how, what is clear you see,\r\nHelvetica was born in 1957, around that time, you know, 1955, for the very precise\r\nreason I remember, before Helvetica, I was using similar typefaces and cutting\r\ntogether close, because we like the type to be closed.  But typefaces, they came with shoulders\r\nat that time, and the great invention of Helvetica was to be make the shoulder\r\nvery, very tight so you could put the type – and it’s the only type that had\r\nthat, that’s why. 

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When we had that type that we could do that; that was B.C.,\r\nBefore Computer.  Now with\r\ncomputer, you can even do that. You can do anything.  But at the time, it had to be done by cutting.  And so I lost a lot of type ****, a lot\r\nof letters by cutting and gluing and so on.  But when Helvetica came about, that could be done fine and\r\nthat is why it was so successful. \r\nAnd I started to use it and use it and the more you use it the more you\r\nlearn how to use it, it’s just like a piano, the more you play it, the more you\r\nlearn how to play it and the better player you become.  And so it is with the type.  And it is a great typeface, it will\r\nlast forever.  You know, there are\r\nothers, some people like other variations of it.  I’m happy with it. \r\nAnd I think it will last hundreds of years, you know.  And there are people will write with\r\nthis.  Along with the **** along\r\nwith the Garamond, along with the few of the great classic typefaces.  And that’s it, until we **** those\r\nfaces will be around, I guess. 

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Question: What is the distinction you make between dimension\r\nand scale?

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Massimo Vignelli: Dimension is a measurable thing, entity,\r\nyou know that long, six inches, 10 inches, 10 feet, whatever it might be.  Scale is a mental – you can say that a\r\nlounger has scale, a building has scale, or an object has scale, or a page, or\r\nwhatever if it’s just right.  A\r\nscale is a relationship to the object and the space surrounding it.  And that dialogue could be music, or it\r\ncould be just noise.  And that is\r\nwhy it is so important, the sense of scale.  And the scale relates to everything.  The thickness of a pipe, the thickness\r\nof a leg of the furniture.  Even\r\ncolor could have a scale.  Let’s\r\nsay that if you paint a building shocking pink, that has no scale, it is just a\r\nhuge mistake, but it’s not in the scale of the city to have things like\r\nthat.  You know. So, not only\r\nbecause it’s not appropriate, not only because it’s offensive to the\r\nenvironment, I mean but among them also because that quantity of that color in\r\nthe urban scale, is out of scale.

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But however, out of scale is also very fascinating\r\nthing.  One of the greatest\r\ninventions of pop art was really to bring an object which was usually like this\r\nto make it huge.  Oldenburg was\r\nreally the great artist that did the best with that notion, you know.  I mean we need also, **** we made a\r\nline of cosmetics in the shape of nuts and bolts and screws and things like\r\nthat by just taking a real thing and making it big.  The change in scale is a surprise sometimes that could be\r\nused in a good way, but again, you have to measure it and it should be\r\nappropriate.  Appropriateness is\r\nnot a very important issue, you know, the notion of appropriateness.  That means to design things which are\r\nright for that destination, and not for another one.  And so when we start, we always look for what is specific\r\nfor that particular problem so that we can design in a most appropriate way as\r\nmuch as we can understand it, of course. \r\nBut appropriateness is important, discipline is important, and ambiguity\r\nis important. 

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Ambiguity is not – ambiguity for us Italians is a positive\r\nthing.  For the Anglo-Saxon it is a\r\nnegative thing.  You know.  It’s a different culture.  You know, you come up with a Vatican in\r\nyour pocket, ambiguity becomes very natural.  But for us, ambiguity is plurality of meanings and that is\r\nwhy it is exciting.  In the\r\nAnglo-Saxon dictionary, so to speak, ambiguity instead has a negative connotation\r\nin the sense that ambiguity’s mellifluous, something that is neither here or\r\nthere.  And for us instead **** is\r\na way of living.  But it’s\r\nimportant in design too because then it gives another level of richness so\r\nthat, yes, it is that thing and if you read it in a slightly different way,\r\nmaybe it is something else too. \r\nAnd that might be – but it’s very, very dangerous as well.  So, one has to train – it’s not for\r\neverybody.

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Question: Are we currently in “postmodernism,”\r\n“post-postmodernism,” or “neo-modernism”?

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Massimo Vignelli: I tell you, one of the greatest things\r\nabout postmodernism is that it’s gone. \r\nYou know.  Postmodernism was\r\nthe 15 minutes of celebrity for those that would have never had it\r\notherwise.  You know.  When you think of Modernism as\r\nincredibly alive and just rooted in hundreds of years – in a sense, I think\r\nModernism started during the Renaissance somehow.  But really, the Modernism is more, really started, I would\r\nsay, with the Enlightenment, you know, the Enlightenment, you know, 1750,\r\n1770s, 1750, you know, around that time. \r\nAlong with the Didierot and d'Alambert in a sense, with industrialization, basically the\r\nfirst sounds of industrialization. \r\nAnd Modernism is alive and well and a great – while postmodernist is\r\ngone, it has only one very good thing with it, is that somehow you restore\r\ninterest in history.  And that is\r\nvery important.  History, theory,\r\nand criticism are the most important aspects in the development of design.  But Modernism is alive and well, as I\r\nsay, and a lot of the young people are now working along the Modernist\r\nway.  And there is no more\r\npost-modernism around, it’s really gone, gone, gone, gone, thank God. 

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But, of course, it’s not a style.  What is in style is a bad thing.  Modernism is an attitude, it’s not a style.  Modernism is a discipline, not a\r\nstyle.  Modernism is intelligent,\r\nnot a style.  And so, when you work\r\nalong those lines, you are a Modernist designer, and that is what is good about\r\nit.

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So that will last forever, by the way.

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Question: What was Le Corbusier like?

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Massimo Vignelli: Well, we were lucky enough to meet all the\r\ngreat masters of architecture and design from Le Corbusier to Mies van der\r\nRohe, from Alvar Aalto to Charles Eames, and it is nice to know them.  And if you aren’t stupid, they like you\r\ntoo.  And parties, you know.  Anyhow, Le Corbusier was well, was God\r\nat the time, you could imagine.  I\r\nremember one time, we were traveling from Milan to Venice on a train, he was\r\ngoing to give a lecture in Venice, and he was traveling with a friend of mine, an\r\narchitect friend, a very important architect at the time, and so, I could\r\nresist, I went to the same compartment where they were, you known, and I was\r\ndoing an architectural magazine at the time, so just like you, I was very\r\ninterested in interviewing the great master, you know.  And I remember at one point he said, when\r\nI was sitting next to Le Corbusier, and he said, “Wow, this young man has a lot\r\nof heat.”  It was summer.  Maybe we were tight together, but he\r\nmeant it as a kind of a – well, it was fun.  And I have stories about every one of those big\r\nmasters. 

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One night we had dinner, we had several dinners in Chicago\r\nwith Mies van der Rohe because I was teaching at the Institute of Design in\r\nChicago.  And again, very exciting\r\nstories, I mean, he was a great storyteller, he would tell stories over the\r\nBarcelona Pavilion, how it came about and all the things that happened during\r\nthe construction and a thousand of antidotes from every one of them.  And it was fun.  So, you know, as I say, I was a\r\ngroupie, so this is why I am never annoyed when wherever I go to give lectures\r\nand I see youngsters coming around, you know they want a signature.  And I understand that, I mean, I was\r\ndoing the same thing.  So, it’s\r\nfine.  I am not annoyed by that at\r\nall.  And I’m glad actually, I’m\r\nglad they have some examples, somebody in their mind that is, you know is a\r\nmentor.  I mean, at the end of the\r\nday, that is the most gratifying thing.

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An interview with the modernist designer and founder of Vignelli Associates.

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