18 January 2010


Bob Noorda, Italy, Pirelli, Unimark

Bob Noorda 1927–2010

Bob Noorda was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1927. After serving for the Dutch military in Indonesia in the late 1940s, he returned to Amsterdam to resume his studies at the IvKNO (Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs, now the Gerrit Rietveld Academie), graduating in 1950*. The functionalist education he received, a result of the school’s Bauhaus influence, was a constant presence throughout Noorda’s life as a designer. Noorda did freelance work in Amsterdam until 1954*, when he moved to Milan, Italy where the economic boom and cultural climate translated into innovative design work. Since that time, Noorda has contributed a great deal to the artistic and cultural development of that city. In addition, his body of work - corporate identity, transportation signage and graphic design - has reached far beyond his adopted city of Milan.

In Milan, Noorda first gained widespread fame in the mid 1950s and early 1960s for his posters and advertisements for Pirelli (tire and industrial manufacturer). Along with other companies such as La Rinascente (department store) and Olivetti (business machine manufacturer), Pirelli was a visionary leader - hiring both Italian and European designers for their advertising and publicity. Designers including Walter Ballmer, Aldo Calabresi, Max Huber, Lora Lamm, Bruno Munari, Raymond Savignac, Albe Steiner, Studio Boggeri (whom Noorda worked for briefly in 1956) and Pino Tovaglia all had opportunities to work for Pirelli during the 1950s and 60s. In 1961, Noorda became Pirelli’s art director and served as art consultant for La Rinascente from 1963 to 1964.

During those years Noorda also worked with architects Franco Albini and Franca Helg on the new Metropolitana Milanese which opened in 1964. He was in charge of all graphics from signage, name plates and maps to clocks and even, initially, the posters displayed there. To accomplish this task, Noorda studied the stations extensively - colors, lettering, distance of signs, etc. The success of the Metropolitana Milanese resulted in Noorda receiving the Premio Compasso d’Oro (Golden Compass) in 1964, a prestigious award originating in 1954 by La Rinascente to acknowledge achievements in design. Noorda would receive the award three more times in 1979, 1984 and 1994 (Career Award).

Along with international recognition as one of the new breed of graphic designers with a specialty in transportation signage, Noorda’s work on the Metropolitana also led to his association with his fellow Milanese designer Massimo Vignelli. Together they were two of the co-founders of Unimark International, established in 1965. Noorda headed the Milan office while Vignelli moved to the United States to run the New York City office. With a presence in five countries, Unimark was known for using modern design approaches for their international clients such as Knoll, IBM and American Airlines.

In 1966, Unimark was awarded a contract to design signage for the New York City subway. The resulting design, the basis for the current sign system, was largely the work of Noorda. Vignelli said:

I remember when Bob came to New York and spent everyday underground in the Subway to record the traffic flow in order to determine the points of decision where the signs should be placed. I also remember how we decided all details, from typeface to type spacing, from color coding to implementation. Bob Noorda had a very systematic mind.

Unimark’s work for the New York City subway led to other subway signage projects for Noorda in Saõ Paulo, Naples and the regional train network in Lombardy.

In the early 1970s Unimark, which at one point had as many as 13 offices worldwide, fell apart and in 1972 Noorda and three others took the Milan office of Unimark independent. The firm lasted until 2000. After that Noorda and his wife Ornella worked under the aegis of Noorda Design. In addition to client work, he also taught at the Venice School of Industrial Design, Umanitaria of Milan, the ISIA in Urbino and Milan Polytechnic, where he was awarded an honorary degree in industrial design in 2005.

Along with Pirelli, Olivetti and La Rinacente, Noorda worked for many leading Italian companies during his more than fifty-year career: pharmaceutical manufacturers Montecatini and Farmitalia; automaker Alfa Romeo; energy companies Agip, Total and Enel; publishers Feltrinelli, Arnaldo Mondadori Editore and Touring Club Italiano; department stores COOP and Upim; luxury brands Richard Ginori, Lanco and Ermenegildo Zegna; and others. Noorda’s enduring design work demonstrates the importance of building a corporate identity based on value and utility, not merely aesthetics. His prolific contributions to graphic design will continue to have an influence and be recognized.

Special thanks to Paul Shaw for his assistance in writing and researching this feature article.

Selected Sources:

*Some of the dates of Noorda¹s early life are in dispute. We have relied on Who’s Who in Graphic Art (1962) as well as contemporary documentary evidence. However, Noorda Design says he graduated in 1954 and moved to Milan in 1957 while Ben Bos, an old friend of Noorda¹s from his days in Amsterdam, says he moved to Milan in 1954 (no graduation date mentioned).

Amstutz, Walter. Who’s Who in Graphic Art. Zurich: Amstutz & Herdeg Graphis Press, 1962

De Sanna, Jole. 1872-1972 Cento Anni Di Comunicazione Visiva Pirelli. Ed. Bob Noorda and Vanni Scheiwiller. Milano: Libri Scheiwiller, 1990.

Fioravanti, Giorgio, Leonardo Passarelli, and Silvia Sfiligiotti. La Grafica in Italia. Milano: Leonardo Art Srl, 1997.

Lauwen, Toon. Bob Noorda. Einhoven: [Z]OO producties.

L’Ufficio Moderno. Pubblicità in Italia 1957–1958, 1958–1959, 1959–1960, 1960–1961. Milan, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961.

Morgan, Ann Lee, ed. Contemporary Designers. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1984

Ventura, Nico, ed. Bob Noorda Design. Ferrara: MusArc, 2005.

Waibl, Heinz. Alle Radici della Communicazione Visiva Italiana. Como: Centro di Cultura Grafics Como, 1988.