Milton Glaser (1929-2020)

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 1, 2020

The artistry of Milton Glaser is surely key to the mark he has left on our ways of looking at, and thinking about, the world we live in. In his seven decades behind a pencil, Milton looked/thought twice about more subjects than there is space here to mention. But just considering a few ideas that made New York Magazine completely unique when it broke free of the New York Herald Tribune to become a stand-alone “service magazine” in 1968, you get the idea. Under the direction of co-founders Clay Felker as publisher, and Milton, it was the first of its kind and became the model for city magazines that proliferated in its wake.

A scrappy startup always out of money, New York was host to Milton’s talents in every department. When there was no cover ready to print, he would often come up with something on the spot, sometimes doing the illustration himself, or getting something equally brilliant from one of his colleagues at Push Pin Studios (which he co-founded in 1954 with Seymour Chwast, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins).

And he wrote. Starting with the first issue, Milton created the Underground Gourmet together with his friend Jerome Snyder, then design director of Sports Illustrated. Chris Bonanos, writing this week in New York, says the regular feature became "very possibly the world’s first columnists covering cheap ethnic restaurants in a sophisticated way. That sounds like no big deal now, but it was a minor revolution in 1968. As Glaser himself would explain when asked, nobody back then bothered to cover restaurants outside the white-tablecloth world, because they didn’t advertise. But as hardcore New Yorkers, Glaser and Snyder knew that a whole lot of us love nothing more than a great Chinatown dumpling joint, or a superior taco stand, or a scoop of perfect whitefish salad, or a bowl of udon. He brought all of those and more to New York’s early readership, and everyone — from the Times on down — soon started doing the same. Vernacular rather than dressy food, today, is the dominant restaurant experience in New York, not to mention the dominant subject of the city’s restaurant coverage, and a major branch of its family tree starts with Glaser and Snyder.”

Milton, left, around 1970 with Clay Felker at New York Magazine. Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone, via Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution

During the fiscal crisis of 1977, Milton produced a job for the New York State Board of Economic Development that has made the designer as close as one of that stripe can get to being a household name: the "I [Heart] New York" logo, which he famously sketched on a napkin during a cab ride, and did pro bono. The logo went on to produce $millions in income for the the state, and even more for the thousands of ripoff artists who continue to slap it on every printable surface imaginable.

After Rupert Murdoch acquired the magazine in a hostile takeover in 1979, Milton returned to the more dignified if still profoundly creative work of being a graphic designer, magazine designer, and a long-time faculty and board member at School of Visual Arts. 

In a recent New York Times interview with Jeremy Elias of Atlantic Monthly, the humility and grace of this towering figure is evident in these two questions:  

JE: You’re skeptical that your current project can have an impact, but you’re still doing it? There must be some sense that it can break through.

MG: I have no idea. Actually, I’m surprised by how these pieces of art can affect people, and can affect their mood or attitude. Design starts with a desire to change an existing condition, but as I said, the shift is something you hope for, and most of the time don’t get it.

JE: The “I ♥ NY” logo started with a city commissioner coming together with an advertising agency. Would you like to see Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo do more to engage the artistic community in this moment?

MG: Well, I think they don’t understand the power of these ideas. And what they do is they hire perfectly competent people and agencies that specialize in professional work. And to some degree, [what we do] is not professional. It’s quite the opposite. Professional work guarantees results, and this has no guarantee, but we hope it opens the heart. And so it’s very hard to quantify and it’s certainly very hard for a government to select people that it’s comfortable with, who are also extraordinary. You need people who go beyond what is objective and what is logical. I suppose you have to call them artists.

Milton Glaser died of natural causes last Friday, on his 91st birthday. Info The Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives is a great place to get an overview of Milton’s work and process. Credits: Top—Visual Arts Gallery, “Big Nude” exhibition poster, 1966; “I Heart NY More Than Ever”, 2001; Bob Dylan poster for Columbia Records, 1966.


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