Ten Signature Images From Milton Glaser’s Eclectic Career

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With the passing of Milton Glaser on Friday, his 91st birthday, New York lost a favorite son whose designs — and one in particular — radiated the vitality and multiplicity of his beloved hometown. Over seven decades, he produced an uncountable quantity of high-impact graphic imagery: first at Push Pin Studios, the countercultural and politically engaged design firm he established with Seymour Chwast and others; later at New York magazine, which he co-founded; and then as an independent designer whose experience never hardened into a signature style.

Mr. Glaser’s designs could be amusing, even outright comic, but his wit and invention were undergirded by a profound seriousness about the history of art and the power of design. Long before Google Images made it child’s play to discover and redeploy the figurative language of earlier centuries, Mr. Glaser imbibed the art of the past as widely as he could, and exhaled it into posters, logos, book covers and typefaces that scampered across eras and styles. Here we’ve collected some highlights from his epically eclectic oeuvre, where Dürer mingled with Duchamp, Islamic ornament with African textiles — all with a vibrancy that was unmistakably New York.

Milton Glaser relished the chance to design mass-market editions of the Bard’s plays, whose paperback covers (unlike hardcover at the time) could be printed in full process color. Retailing for 50 cents, the Signet Shakespeare editions washed away the drab schoolroom connotations of Shakespeare textbooks, and used controlled blasts of color to heighten the delicate line drawings, indebted to the campy style of Aubrey Beardsley. My favorite remains Mr. Glaser’s illustration of “The Tempest”: Miranda’s face is a torrent of curlicues, while her father Prospero sprouts from the crown of her head, casting his spells in Technicolor.

New York magazine, which Mr. Glaser co-founded with Clay Felker, brought the hot colors and thick lettering of Push Pin to the newsstand; the magazine still bears the abundantly serifed type setting he designed for issue No. 1. Mr. Glaser drew many of New York’s initial covers, including this classic of a fish swimming through a bagel, on the fly in the hours before going to press. Indeed Mr. Glaser didn’t just design the cover; he also wrote the lead story (with Jerome Snyder), in which he praised the city’s best lox, bialys and halvah, and dissed sable as “the poor man’s sturgeon.”

Mr. Glaser designed this lethally succinct poster — printed on cheap paper and circulated as widely as possible — in support of a five-year labor strike by Californian farm workers protesting their low pay and their exposure to carcinogenic pesticides. Beneath the bunch of grapes reshaped into a skull, the designer printed part of a letter from César Chávez to the president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. It decried discrimination on the basis of “the colors of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins,” and insisted that they would win a nonviolent “death struggle against man’s inhumanity to man.” Civil rights groups persuaded grocery stores to withdraw nonunion grapes, and by 1970 the United Farm Workers had won new contracts that guaranteed fairer working conditions.

To promote a performance by the South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela in New York, Mr. Glaser interwove a silhouette of the apartheid-era giant with groovy florals and stripes in a Pan-African palette of red, green and black — which he then placed against a bold geometric background inspired by Xhosa textiles. He printed Masekela’s name in a typeface of his own design, called “Baby Teeth,” whose fat and unpunctured characters also appear on Mr. Glaser’s more famous poster of Bob Dylan. The letters take on nearly abstract form: the G, a near circle; the A, a pyramid gashed by a shark-fin entrance.

Switzerland is not normally thought of as a hedonistic destination, but for the Alpine nation’s premier jazz festival, Mr. Glaser pictured a woman whose long hair falls out of her wide-brimmed floppy hat, and who slouches in satisfaction from a joint whose smoke has plumed into a treble clef. For all its countercultural grooviness, this is a prime example of Mr. Glaser’s omnivorous appetite for design, particularly of the early 20th century. The chair on which the toking music fan slumps is a renowned Bauhaus design by Marcel Breuer, while the dress’s floral abundance recalls the decorative overload of Gustav Klimt and his colleagues of the Vienna Secession.

The city was crime-ridden and trash-strewn; President Ford had told us to drop dead; the state’s tourism bureau knew it had an uphill climb. In the back of a taxi, Mr. Glaser scrawled a preliminary sketch for a new civic logo on the outside of a torn envelope, its four characters not yet resolved into its familiar square. In today’s sanitized Big Apple, the initial accomplishment of Mr. Glaser’s campaign has been obscured; this was a design that did not just tell tourists we were open for business, but convinced the citizens of a near-bankrupt metropolis to hold their heads high.

The Italian typewriter manufacturer was the Apple of its day, whose writing machines targeted a design-conscious consumer with promotional materials by leading graphic artists. Mr. Glaser made numerous posters for Olivetti, and my favorite is for a 1977 release, whose floating ball, surreal hand and empty, receding terrain draws on the alienated metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico or Carlo Carrà. Note the banded marble staircase in the lower-left corner: an echo of Carlo Scarpa’s richly decorative, modern-meets-classical architecture at the Olivetti showroom in Venice.

Mr. Glaser designed countless advertisements for New York’s performing arts organizations, but my favorite is this one for the Mostly Mozart Festival, in which the bewigged Austrian tries and fails to suppress a tremendous cold. Here the designer draws heavily on the heritage of Pop: the serial imagery recalls Warhol, while the solid blocks of fuchsia, coral and sky blue echo French Narrative Figuration, and the frame-by-frame story proudly mimics a comic book. And yet this is no simple countercultural potshot; it’s a tender, even loving humanization of a canonic composer, just as allergy-prone as the rest of us.

An angel, says one character in Tony Kushner’s two-part epic of the AIDS crisis, “is a belief, with wings.” Mr. Glaser zeroed in on that part for his dramatic poster and playbill, in which a downcast angel has a parti-colored right wing, a direct quote from Albrecht Dürer’s precise, forensic “Wing of a Blue Roller.” (The crouched, nude seraph also seems to channel Hippolyte Flandrin’s “Nude Youth Sitting by the Sea,” a classic painting of gay desolation.) In Mr. Glaser’s melancholy angel, the play received a graphic signature for the “painful progress” with which Mr. Kushner’s characters try to keep faith.

Mr. Glaser continued working long after the official retirement age, and one characteristic later work is this poster for the School of Visual Arts, where he became an instructor in 1960 and eventually served as chairman of the board. Its deceptively simple use of mise en abyme (that is, the inclusion of an image within the image itself) encapsulates an entire philosophy of design, predicated not on genius but on effort. Practice, experiment, frustration, breakthrough: Mr. Glaser’s career is a testament to the iterative processes behind great design, where inspiration means nothing without hard work.



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