Visual Moment | Milton Glaser: Master of Design

By | Nov 16, 2020

The world lost a towering figure in the field of design this year. Graphic artist, illustrator, teacher, icon maker, art director and creative thinker Milton Glaser passed away after a long illness on June 26, his 91st birthday.

A lifelong New Yorker, the celebrated and innovative graphic designer drew inspiration from the energy and diversity of the city he loved. Indeed, he created one of the most iconic expressions of that sentiment in his 1977 design “I [heart] NY,” in which a bright red heart stands in for the word “love.”

Commissioned by New York State as part of a marketing campaign to attract tourists and help rehabilitate the city’s then crime-tarnished and financially precarious reputation, the image became an instantly recognizable symbol for the city. Today it’s found emblazoned on just about anything, from T-shirts and mugs to license plates and billboards.

Glaser sketched the concept with a red crayon on a scrap of paper in the back seat of a taxi. That very scrap of paper now resides in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Glaser considered it a gift to New York and retained no rights to the design, which now generates millions of dollars a year for the state in licensing fees. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he designed a modified version of the logo: “I [heart] NY More Than Ever,” with a small dark bruise on the heart.

Over the course of his seven-decade career, Glaser, who was renowned for his vivid colors, flattened forms, bold, sometimes surreal designs and eclectic sources, created and illustrated more than 400 posters, including the psychedelic portrait inserted into every jacket of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits in 1967. With its rainbow colors and dynamic, curvilinear forms, the poster encapsulated the look of the 1960s. Glaser also created countless logos for clients, from Stony Brook University and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to the Brooklyn Brewery and DC Comics.

A true polymath, Glaser turned his formidable talents to everything from fine art to the Trump vodka bottle. His design projects included magazines, record and book jackets (some ten for Philip Roth novels), stores, restaurants, rugs and packaging. Clients ranged from the Grand Union supermarket chain to Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, from Olivetti to the Mad Men TV series. Typography always played a key role in Glaser’s designs, and he created several typefaces of his own, including one that bears his name. He collaborated on children’s books with his wife, Shirley, and for many years he was a food critic, reviewing the city’s cheap ethnic restaurants for “The Underground Gourmet” column in New York magazine along with his friend, designer Jerome Snyder. One New York cover of his design featured “A Gentile’s Guide to Jewish Food” by the Underground Gourmet. And for some 60 years, he taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

Milton Glaser was born in the Bronx to Hungarian Jewish immigrants Eugene and Eleanor Glaser. His father ran a dry cleaning and tailoring business, and his mother was a homemaker. His parents were observant “up to a point,” he told Hadassah magazine in 2009. He had a bar mitzvah but was not observant, according to the Hadassah article, although he fasted on Yom Kippur and hosted an annual Passover seder. The outsider sensibility of being Jewish, he said, gave him a kind of objectivity, and part of his ideas came more from his Jewish background than from his American background.

Glaser took his first drawing class at age 12 from social realist artists Raphael and Moses Soyer. He attended Manhattan’s storied High School of Music and Art and studied graphic design at The Cooper Union in New York City. After graduating in 1951, he won a Fulbright scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy, where he studied printmaking with the still-life painter Giorgio Morandi.

The pioneering work of the design company Push Pin Studios, which he formed with fellow Cooper Union students in 1954, inspired a generation of illustrators and graphic designers with its Pop orientation and fresh take on historical styles. In 1968 he founded New York magazine with editor Clay Felker and served as its design director until 1976, when the publication was taken over by Rupert Murdoch. In 1974 he started his own design firm, Milton Glaser, Inc., and a decade later, with designer Walter Bernard, set up WBMG, a publication design firm that went on to overhaul the look of dozens of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, describes Glaser as a “giant figure in the history of graphic design” and a “kind, caring critic and educator.” After his death, she solicited a series of tributes to Glaser from associates and former students. Mike Essl, the dean of The Cooper Union School of Art and himself a former Glaser student, wrote: “He was generous not only with his time, but with his ideas about design, love, and especially truth. He reminded us over and over again that our role as designers is to tell the truth and to help people.”

Glaser, whom Newsweek once referred to as “one of the few geniuses in the
image-making business,” maintained that a designer had to be responsible for what he or she was communicating. He detested, for instance, the abuse of design to promote things that didn’t work. In a 2018 interview with the publication Surface, Glaser said, “Self-examination, questioning whether or not you’re causing harm, whether you’re willing to lie in order to survive—all of those things are more important than which typeface you use.”

The recipient in 2004 of a lifetime achievement award from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Glaser was also the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of Honor. His work has been in numerous museum shows and is in the permanent collections of such prestigious museums as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Glaser derived inspiration for his playful, hip designs from both high and low art. His wide-ranging sources extended from Renaissance art, German woodcuts, Art Nouveau and Islamic ornamentation to American primitive paintings, Pop art and the cartoons of the 1930s. He cited artists Marcel Duchamp and Robert Indiana for specific inspiration.

Writer Jeremy Elias reported in an article in The New York Times last June that at the time of his death, Glaser was working on a graphic treatment of the word “Together,” to evoke the idea that during the separation of the pandemic, “we have something in common.” Glaser, wrote Elias, hoped to distribute the logo to public school students across the city. “There was no business plan,” Glaser’s graphic designer and studio manager Ignacio Serrano, told Elias. “It was about connecting people through art.”

Serrano stresses how optimistic and positive Glaser was, even when his health was failing, working on the “Together” project and exchanging feedback on an iPad when he was no longer able to come into the office. When Serrano posted the “Together” design on the company’s Instagram page, he wrote: “This is the last design I had the privilege to work on with Milton. He told me he wanted to create something to enhance the sense of community during the COVID-19 crisis. It was his belief that a designer has a responsibility towards society to make it better.
For everyone.”

Elias related in his Times article that he had asked Glaser, some five weeks before his death, if he had any predictions about how we will come out of this trying moment. Glaser replied: “I don’t think there’s any way of telling what’s going to happen. I know this [pandemic] is a cosmic change and that nothing will ever be the same again. But I do know that if there’s a collective consciousness, if we realize we are all related and we need one another, that would be the best thing that could happen.”

Opening picture: A selection of Glaser’s prodigious output, from left: Bob Dylan poster, 1967; New York magazine cover, 1968; AMC Mad Men Season Seven poster, 2014; Olivetti Lexicon poster, 1977. Glaser’s most iconic logo, 1977. (Photo credit: Milton Glaser INC.)





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