I ❤️ MG

July 25, 2020

A longtime collaborator recalls Milton Glaser, a giant of midcentury graphic design

 

By James McMullan

When, in 1964, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast invited me, an “emerging” talent, to become the third artist in that decade to join the already renowned Push Pin Studios, some people in the field were no doubt baffled. I probably have Lawrence Durrell to thank for my becoming a name alongside theirs. The three of us independently had been doing covers for Dutton’s Everyman paperbacks, and mine, for the four books of The Alexandria Quartet and the box that contained them, had attracted notice, perhaps convincing Milton that their success wasn’t a one-shot.

Actually, we were all part of a revolution in paperback-cover design in those years, creating work that was more graphic and wittier than the romantic, fully rendered art that had been the style in preceding decades. The signal that the design torch had really been passed was a series of very linear covers Milton did for the Signet Shakespeare plays. His treatment of such a classic subject in an entirely new way drew unusual attention in the field and, I’m convinced, changed the taste of editors and art directors. Because of the triumph of the Shakespeare series, Milton took a few more steps along the pathway to the Mount Olympus of graphic design, where he eventually took his seat at the top.


Glaser rebelled against the strictures of modernism, preferring to draw from a wide range of visual sources. His widely reproduced 1966 poster for Bob Dylan was inspired by a self-portrait of Marcel Duchamp and geometric forms in Islamic art.


Milton was confident that we could find a way for me to fit into the exuberant, optimistic patterned style that had made the studio famous, despite the realism in my work and my attraction to the psychological dark side of any subject that was often bubbling along under the surface. Because he was always leery of being assigned a fixed creative persona or of having the success of the studio style become a trap, I think this mismatch between my naturalism and his and Seymour’s eclectic stylizations intrigued and even amused him. He expressed this attitude in the piece of my art that he chose for the announcement of my joining the studio that was going out to hundreds of art directors. Instead of a drawing that might suggest I could handle a typical assignment, he picked a personal piece in which I had painted a still life over a photograph of the poet Brendan Behan. Perhaps in choosing this gloomy image he was saying to the audience, Don’t typecast the studio so quickly. But I think he was also saying that he found this outer edge of my sensibility interesting. That last message became the foundation of our growing friendship.

The signal that the design torch had really been passed was a series of very linear covers Milton did for the Signet Shakespeare plays.


Working alongside Milton in the mid-60s meant seeing firsthand his creation of images such as the Dylan poster and the groundbreaking ads for Olivetti. His appetite for graphic high drama and his effortless skill in achieving it had a powerful effect on the impulse for polite understatement that had been instilled in me by my boyhood in English-style boarding schools in India and Canada. Watching Milton set off one visual explosion after another made me question whether I really had to always choose the middle path between small and big, between quiet and loud—why couldn’t I sometimes shout, or whisper in a dramatic way? Even though Milton rarely offered specific advice, his example was enough, and through those years I started to develop my own way of amplifying the effect of my drawings and designs. I never fully overcame my addiction to nuance, but I beat it down enough to one day become a theater-poster designer.

One aspect of Milton’s intelligence and creativity that especially impressed me was his instinct for cutting through received opinion to reveal the core of the subject. His I ❤️ NY logo is the most celebrated example. Where another designer, given the task of promoting tourism in New York, might have become entangled in including some of the city’s familiar sights and activities, Milton moved past these particulars and got to something he sensed the audience was ready for—a simple symbol for the affection that the sometimes critical but essentially loyal New Yorkers had for their then beleaguered home. It was the kind of intuition that looks like common sense, except that it’s anything but common.

He used this talent more recently with his design for the logo of Brooklyn Brewery. When Steve Hindy, a co-founder of the brewery, explained that he had chosen the name Brooklyn Eagle because “Eagle” reflected the borough’s historical newspaper, Milton suggested that the word obscured rather than enhanced the heft of the word “Brooklyn.” The borough was becoming internationally known as the hometown of everything young and hip, and that simple name, Brooklyn Brewery, would be a forceful brand. Milton was right again—the label worked. The beer is good, too, and success has followed.

Working alongside Milton in the mid-60s meant seeing firsthand his creation of images such as the Dylan poster and the groundbreaking ads for Olivetti.


Part of Milton’s power and effectiveness in the world was his ability to talk and think about art and graphic design with extraordinary precision, both intellectual and down-to-earth at the same time. Along with helping him explain his work to clients, this articulateness was part of what made him the kind of teacher that changed his students’ lives. He always raised the class discussions above issues of professionalism to challenge individuals as to why they had become artists and what they hoped to express in their work.


Glaser in his New York City studio, 1969.
 

Since, as an artist and teacher, I ponder some of these same questions myself, Milton and I had a good time tussling conversationally over hundreds of lunches and dinners. He would always lift the issue into an overarching concept, while I would try to pull it back to some smaller, specific consideration. Whatever the subject under discussion, our shared love of drawing often became a point of reference.

I admired Milton for his boundless talent and was always stimulated, if sometimes intimidated, by his intellect. But he had one other quality that was particularly precious to me, and that was the underlying sweetness with which he dealt with other people. That a man so confident and naturally capable of dominating any situation could, at the same time, be so full of empathy and real consideration was extraordinary. He praised my illustrated memoir, Leaving China, both out of his genuine appreciation of the book’s art and writing but also out of his sensitivity to the central place the story had in my life. He promoted it to people whenever he could and even suggested to a director that the story would make a good film. It reminded me, in a way, of his choice of my dark still life for the announcement of my joining Push Pin all those years ago. In that unusual decision, he seemed to be saying, “I see you in all your complexity, and I accept and celebrate that.”

Milton was such a multifaceted and towering figure and yet full of simplicity and love. For all the diversity and reach of his art there was a fundamental joy that connected the pieces of his work together, a kind of visual music that made it unlike anything else in our time. He received every honor that the field of graphic design could bestow on him, but I think his legacy will be in a different sphere—he will be remembered for creative art on a level with Mozart and Matisse.

I will remember him as an irreplaceable friend.

James McMullan is an illustrator and the author of Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood

 

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