Giants in their field, Massimo and Lella Vignelli designed the interior of Saint Peter’s Church and its many liturgical appointments. These two designers are just as much responsible for shaping the liturgical life of Saint Peter’s Church as those who regularly gather within its walls and use its objects.
Massimo and Lella’s commitment to function — to capture the essence of an object’s use for its design — is the much-lauded hallmark of the ongoing vitality of their comprehensive design approach. This notion that “design is one” is clearly and successfully employed at Saint Peter’s Church, what they consider their most important project.
Designing a church project might seem straightforward. It is not. Over the centuries, a great variety of meanings — some constructive, others destructive — have been attached to so many of the church’s traditional objects, its means of proclaiming God’s love for all people.
With the Saint Peter’s project, the Vignellis met the challenge of reinterpreting the old by offering responsible and vibrant life-affirming designs. They applied the same scrutiny and disciplines as with any other project, capturing the essence of an object by subtracting “vulgarity” (to use one of Massimo’s favorite terms) from what has come to be expected of the object.
Capturing the essence gives immediate recognition to the object at hand: what it is to be used for and how it matters.
The Paschal Candle, for example, is both its white-painted steel stand and its wax candle. Combined, stand and candle together speak “candle” — and speak “candle” with boldness and presence, as well as elegance and simplicity. No other approach does justice to what the Paschal Candle is, namely, the simple but profound presence of the risen Christ.
Lella captured the same sentiment when she memorably quipped, “We’ve designed many tables. When we thought about designing God’s Table, we knew it had to be large and impressive.”
At Saint Peter’s Church, the clarity of an object’s use (sometimes an object’s many uses) is impeccably executed. In Massimo and Lella’s own words: “Whatever we do, if not understood, fails to communicate and is wasted effort. We design things which we think are semantically correct and syntactically consistent but if, at the point of fruition, no one understands the result, or the meaning of all that effort, the entire work is useless. Sometimes it may need some explanation but it is better when not necessary. Any artifact should stand by itself in all its clarity. Otherwise, something really important has been missed.”
While the projected was completed in large part in 1977, continued affinity by the Vignellis for Saint Peter’s Church has led to the production of a number of new objects, including candle votives, flower stands, tables, among other things. The seamless addition of new pieces to the original is a testament to the enduring quality of their approach. “Design is one,” even across time.
The floor and baptismal font are of Caledonia granite. Here the outline of the strict grid on which the entire project is based — the Church’s interior and its furnishings — is on full display. Steps lead into the baptismal font, envisioned by Massimo to be “as though you were walking down Mount Sinai directly into the Jordan River.”
The Vignellis designed a simple, though prominent, wooden processional cross. While the entire space was conceived of “as more than a church,” Massimo is very fond of saying that the Sanctuary is marked as a church when the cross is carried in procession and placed in its stand. There is no missing this simple, but profound, act.
Most objects are of red oak, some are steel painted white, others are Plexiglas so as to disappear. Ceremonial objects are silver. Interior walls are painted entirely beige, though doors painted warm red provide permeability — and tasteful alert to such function — between the Sanctuary and the Living Room.
Consistency allows objects to incorporate well with each other (and with the beige walls). Some examples:
The pulpit (of red oak), although movable, engages the steps (also of red oak), conveying a sense of permanence and consistency.
The color of the stone columbarium is of the same tones as the beige walls so as to transition from niche to wall nearly seamlessly.
Silver is graceful, highly polished and emphasizes its use — often what it contains (wine, for example) — rather than the object itself.
Mechanics nearly disappear, allowing an object’s sheer meaning to be the focus of attention.
Massimo and Lella’s design for Saint Peter’s Church is beloved to many in this community. Their design colleagues are similarly stirred.
Commenting on the Saint Peter’s Church project, David Revere McFadden (Curator of Decorative Arts at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York) writes, "Interior design has long been a core activity for the Vignellis, bringing together Lella’s European architectural training and her unique perception of form and color with Massimo’s disciplined and ordered spatial sensibility, based on surface texture, light, and refined proportions. Their work is highlighted by exceptional commissions, including the interior and furnishings of Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan, a project that revealed the rational poetry of the Vignelli’s approach to a highly charged symbolic space."
This is certain: the faith of many is inspired by their inspiring design.