It’s a privilege and occasional frustration for graphic designers that they furnish the backgrounds of the lives of millions, without those millions always being aware that they have done so. So it was for Milton Glaser, who died on Friday, on his 91st birthday.
It is hard to think of any visual artist so pervasive in his influence. If you’re of a certain age, you might have noticed his carnivalesque covers on the Signet Classic paperback series of Shakespeare plays, or have owned the poster he made for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, in which bright riotous hair bursts from the singer’s austere silhouette. With the Push Pin Studios, which he helped found in 1954 with fellow graduates of the Cooper Union design school, he can be said to have created what became the look of the 60s: flowing lines, rainbow colours, strong patterns.
If you’re younger, you might have come across the swirling “B” of his Brooklyn Beer labels, or his designs for the Mad Men TV series. It will have been almost impossible for anyone, of any age, in the western world not to have come across his “I love NY” motif, invented in 1976 to help lift the city out of despair of near-bankruptcy. Quite apart from the original version, there are countless imitations.
Glaser combined a deep seriousness about his own discipline with an openness to inspiration from wherever it could come. He believed in the importance of mastering the skill of drawing, which at one point he studied with the great Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. His work has, in its strength of line and the clarity of its contrasts, the virtues of Bauhaus modernism.
At the same time, he explicitly reacted against the puritanism of that tradition. He was promiscuous in his inspirations, borrowing ideas from art nouveau, from Renaissance painting, from Islamic ornament, from pop art, from commercial culture.
For New York magazine, which he co-founded in 1968, he co-wrote the “Underground Gourmet” column, on the city’s cheap ethnic restaurants. “The world is a very astonishing place,” he said in old age. “What I feel fortunate about is that I am still astonished, that things still amaze me. The possibility for learning never disappears.”
He liked to tell of his childhood experience of being bedridden with rheumatic fever. “The only thing that kept me alive,” he said, was his mother bringing him a daily supply of modelling clay, which he would make into “little universes”, that he would then destroy and remake. The point he took into his professional life was always to create things anew, “to keep moving and not get stuck in my own past”.
Again and again, he stressed the importance of continuing to learn. “We are all born with genius,” he said. “It’s like our fairy godmother. But what happens in life is that we stop listening to our inner voices, and we no longer have access to this extraordinary ability to create poetry.”
In his work, everything his animate. Letters take on the qualities of living beings. Characters had character. In The Alphazeds, a children’s book that he made with his wife Shirley, the alphabet becomes a series of personalities, progressively joining a party in what starts as an empty room.
It is this attitude that makes the “I love NY” emblem, where type and the heart symbol work together, so successful. It also went with a strong sense of humanity and ethics. The logo itself he did pro bono, as he believed in the cause of reviving the city.
In his essay “12 Steps on the Graphic Designer’s Road to Hell” he deplored the abuse of design for such things as “a diet product that you know doesn’t work”.
He described art, including graphic design, as “a passing on of gifts”, a way of putting something into the world that people can share, “a device to stop people killing each other”. The way to know if a particular job was good, he said, was to ask whether working with the client made you feel happy at the end of the day.
Milton Glaser was an archetypal New Yorker, born in the South Bronx to immigrants from Hungary, and spent most of his life in the city. His love of the melting pot, of the human energy of the city’s streets, shines through in his work, but his achievements spread far from there. They came from his ceaseless curiosity and energy. “None of us really has the ability to understand our path,” he said, “until it’s over.”