Ever wondered why refrigerators from the 70s are still humming along beautifully, while the one you bought just a few years ago already has an electric short and leaks ice water all over the floor?
Planned obsolescence is to blame, and Massimo Vignelli, the creator of the Stendig calendar, would be livid.
Planned obsolescence is anathema to Vignelli’s philosophy of design. He saw it as “a social crime whose ultimate goal is only profit for the few over the masses,” and felt that his moral imperative as a designer was to make timeless designs that would never become obsolete. Vignelli saw design that failed to be timeless (like your faulty new fridge) as a dishonest scam designed to squeeze money out of consumers. To Vignelli, being a designer meant living with the obligation to make timeless work that wouldn’t need to be replaced, and to do otherwise would be morally reprehensible. In Vignelli’s mind, good design wasn’t a matter of mere taste. To him, a design failure was a personal failure.
An insistence on timelessness is a very modernist approach. The modernist movement, which was in full force from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, embodied an idealistic search for purity and truth. This is exemplified in the way that art trended away from realism, which was considered to contain unnecessary distractions from a subject’s essence, and toward abstraction, which was able to be much more pared down. Through this shift in mindset, modernism overturned traditional notions of what art and design should look like.
Modernist ideas of paring down art and design to focus on something’s essence are useful in thinking about the work of artists as different as Vincent van Gogh and Donald Judd. Its far-reaching influence is still being felt today.
The modernist pursuit of good design, art, and society was something like a pilgrim’s journey through the desert toward a utopian Platonic ideal. Modernists dreamed of arriving at the purest, most perfect design and falling on their knees to worship at the altar of a glowing white cube. What often reads as spartan simplicity in Modernist art and design is in fact an attempt to strip away everything extraneous in search of the purest essence of the subject. Vignelli’s work is no exception.
One demonstration of Massimo Vignelli’s modernist fervor comes from his attempt at creating a utopia in his design firm. It was traditional for European professionals of the time to wear smocks in colors correlating to their profession. Vignelli, who wanted to elevate the perception of design from merely tinkering with colors and shapes, instituted a company-wide mandate to wear white smocks: the color for doctors and architects. In addition to dignifying his profession, Vignelli referred to the white smocks he and his colleagues wore as “a great equalizer,” as they made everyone appear alike. Dressing his company in an identical, minimal uniform echoed the modernist impulse to shed clutter and distractions in favor of simplicity.
A devout disciple of modernism, Vignelli colored all his work with its philosophical trappings. In 1966 — clad in a white smock, with his rigorous convictions shaping his practice — Massimo Vignelli designed the Stendig calendar.
Designing a timeless calendar is a conundrum. Of course the days shake out slightly differently year after year, which is a small but surmountable challenge. Even more difficult, however, is the question of how to make a calendar —which is so rooted in time as a concept — actually timeless. A truly modernist calendar must intentionally address time’s passing as well as its presence. Fortunately for us, Vignelli was up to the task.
If ever you were to fall down and worship a calendar, this would be the one worth scuffing your smock over. The Stendig calendar is a 3 by 4 foot modernist icon made of twelve sheets of alternating black and white 60 lb paper. It’s printed in utilitarian Helvetica font (which Vignelli called “the ultimate typeface”) on a tight grid. Since its release in 1966, it has been hoisted onto the walls of factory floors and penthouses alike, where its bold print and monumental size make it readable across the largest rooms. Every month since 1966, thousands of Stendig calendar users have marked time by tearing a 12-square-foot sheet of paper off its perforated base and bringing it soaring through the air like a sail.
Every month, thousands of people perform the same full-body dance and let the white or black paper float down like the folds of Massimo Vignelli’s smock.
The first time I saw the calendar it was hanging in my childhood friend’s kitchen. I remember its massive presence looming over us while we ate chocolate chip cookies and sorted through his mom’s collection of eclectic dice in an old cigar tin. I was in awe that something functional could be so beautiful. Stare at the Stendig calendar for just a few seconds and its high-contrast numbers sear themselves into your retinas. The Stendig calendar stays with you.
The calendar fit perfectly in this domestic space, just as it would in an executive’s corner office overlooking Manhattan. It is a grounding design choice for upscale spaces and it lends gravitas to humble locations. The calendar’s truest magic comes in its great equalizing power: we all use the Stendig calendar the same way. And what else would we expect from the man in the white smock? All pilgrims of modernism must arrive identically.
MoMA acquired the Stendig calendar immediately upon its release, thus stamping it with the art world’s approval. Since then, design enthusiasts and trailing lines of tri-state elementary students alike have gazed at the white and black rectangle inside the hallowed halls of society’s favorite white cube.
The Stendig calendar lives up to Massimo Vignelli’s high standard of timeless design.
Other than small shifts in the placement of numbers to reflect each year, the calendar has remained identical for 56 years. After all, why change what is already working efficiently and beautifully? By remaining the same for decades, the Stendig calendar creates a magical time loop. As an old but never outdated piece of design, the calendar crumples the past and the present into one, thus solving the conundrum of a timeless record of passing days.
We just passed January, which is the time of year when time’s passing is top of mind. It was also the time to buy a calendar, which is by definition an act of optimism. Buying a calendar asserts the hope that, on the simplest level, one will live through the next twelve months. It also expresses one’s expectation of places to go and reasons to distinguish one day from the next, which, in 2022, is no longer a given. Especially in this era of scheduling everything digitally, buying a beautiful physical calendar manifests the intention to make time to sit down and look at an object on the wall, then ponder one’s place in time. A calendar is full of empty space, and empty space is potential.
For the last 5 years, the new year has brought on countless memes and jokes about the prior year being the very worst on record. Political tumult, environmental catastrophes, the COVID pandemic, and even celebrity deaths have made the last half a decade, on a global scale, pretty brutal. It’s no wonder that year after year, longing cries that “this year, everything will be better” surface around the internet. The delusion that everything will change when the clock strikes 12 on January 1st is extremely sympathetic, though completely unfounded.
Despite collective hope in a great shift in fate, there’s no inherent magic in a new year that changes the trajectories of disease, war and politics. Time rolls on in the same way. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the truth.
No one understands this better than Stendig calendar users. For them, the beginning of the year brings the same opportunity to heft the same 3x4 feet of stacked paper onto the wall and anticipate a year of the same dramatic flourishes to reveal identical new months and identical new starts. But built into the enduring sameness of time’s march forward is the fact that each day, month, and year start with blank slates.
The Stendig calendar makes no assumptions about where you’ll be and what will fill your days. There are no holidays or birthdays or work engagements on the Stendig calendar—just open time. By remaining the same day after day and year after year, it treats every moment with the same pragmatic openness. Anything could happen and nothing has to happen in the days of a Stendig calendar.
The Stendig calendar is a practical companion to a new year, and its enduring and constant design has nothing to say but the simplest facts of existence.
Fact one: the past is the past. Fact two: this is the present. Fact three: the future is ahead.
Made to spend.