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For more than 50 years, Milton Glaser has been making images that have captured the American zeitgeist. Next month the Woodstock
resident receives an award for a lifetime of achievement  

 

By Joanne Furio 

Photographs by Elliott Landy

 

When we came here, it was a place that had sort of lost the glamour of an arts community, which is one of the things that attracted us,¡± says the legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, sitting in the sun-dappled studio of the Woodstock home he has shared with his wife, Shirley, for the past 43 years. ¡°It¡¯s a curious transformation that we have been part of in an inadvertent way.¡±

 

So begins Glaser¡¯s tale of Woodstock Transformed, told with the relish of a seasoned raconteur in a baritone that is at once sonorous and stimulating. But while he¡¯s an engaging and articulate speaker, it¡¯s in the world of visual communication that Glaser is a true master. With a career spanning more than 50 years, this modern Renaissance man cum intellectual designer-illustrator is one of the most influential figures in contemporary graphic arts. The sheer variety of his projects displays an amazingly broad design vocabulary.

 

By far his most recognizable project is the ¡°I Love New York¡± logo, which was first created in 1976 to encourage tourism to Manhattan at a time when the city had a dubious reputation, but was soon adopted by New York State. The logo, with its heart symbol in place of the word ¡°love,¡± has been described as ¡°the most frequently imitated logo design in human history.¡±(After the fall of the Twin Towers, Glaser resurrected the logo in a poster and wrap for the Daily News that proclaimed ¡°I Love NY More than Ever,¡± the heart slightly smudged.)

 

Another iconic image, his 1966 poster of a silhouetted Bob Dylan with rainbow-colored locks, helped make the rock poster a legitimate art form. Glaser¡¯s other myriad design work includes ads, portraits, and projects as diverse as Sesame Place, a children¡¯s educational play park in Pennsylvania, and the 20-year redesign of Grand Union supermarkets¡¯ architecture, interiors, and packaging. New York magazine, the groundbreaking publication that he and editor Clay Felker launched in 1968, became the

prototype for the multitude of city magazines that followed.

 

Next month, Manhattan¡¯s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, which has a number

of Glaser¡¯s works in its permanent collection, will honor him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its National Design Awards gala. ¡°Milton Glaser has been a dominant force in graphic design internationally for more than thirty years,¡± says Cooper-Hewitt director Paul Thompson. ¡°It¡¯s hard to think of any graphic designer in the U.S. whose work is more readily identifiable by the general public.¡±

 

Examples of Glaser¡¯s artistic legacy line the walls of his studio, whose style is best described as organized clutter. Art books are piled on tables and shelves, and on the terra-cotta floor. Sharing wall space are recent projects, including a series of posters for the Teatro Massimo in Palermo¡¯s 2001 opera and ballet season and a small poster for the Pulitzer Prize¨Cwinning play Angels in America. A drafting table where he sketches is adjacent to a glass-topped table where he reads. Sunlight filters in through a cupola, a detail he included when he added the studio to the stone-and-stucco house in the 1980s. Windows overlook the surrounding woods.

 

Surprisingly, the studio is devoid of what most designers consider their most important tool ¡ª the computer. ¡°You can¡¯t really work today without a computer,¡± Glaser admits. ¡°But I have a feeling that if I ever touched the keyboard my hand would fall off.¡± Instead, his sketches are scanned in at his Manhattan office, where he works with one of his ¡°brilliant assistants¡± to add type and fiddle with scale and color.

 

Glaser and his wife discovered Woodstock in the early 1960s when visiting friends who had a barn there. ¡°We used to come up regularly, and after sleeping in their corn crib, decided that perhaps we could get more comfortable surroundings.¡± The couple rented a gristmill for two years, then began looking for a place of their own.

 

The house they found was a cottage once owned by the sculptor Bruno Zimm, who bought the place around 1916 and began to remake it in the Arts and Crafts style, ¡°reflecting the artistic spirit of its inhabitants,¡± Glaser explains. The house is replete with Zimm¡¯s wooden carvings and ironwork. The Glasers were immediately smitten. ¡°I¡¯ve always found the Arts and Crafts movement to be entirely sympathetic to what a house should be,¡± he says.

 

As Glaser describes it, he and his wife inadvertently contributed to Woodstock¡¯s transformation by introducing several music figures to the region. One of these was their friend Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan¡¯s manager, who bought a house Shirley had discovered, and who subsequently built Bearsville Studios. Later, Shirley found ¡°a good house¡± for Dylan himself, although his stay in Woodstock was short lived. ¡°By virtue of those two events,¡± says Glaser, ¡°Woodstock became an attraction for a whole generation of rock-and-roll musicians and became identified with that generation.¡±

 

Although the area¡¯s musical reputation has since subsided, Glaser notes that ¡°the relationship between the music and the art colony and the locals and the weekenders makes a very rich and diverse mix, which I find very attractive.¡±

 

Each week, the Glasers spend Thursday through Sunday in Woodstock, where, he says, he is able to ¡°think by himself,¡± instead of working with others. The couple makes the trip from city to country with their 12-year-old cat, Willie, in tow. Shirley had cats when Milton met her, and cats have been part of their lives ever since. In fact, Glaser¡¯s penchant for felines has manifested itself in a number of cat posters, including one of his cat Annie that hangs in many a veterinarian¡¯s office, including his own.

 

 

Glaser¡¯s awakening to the possibilities of design can be traced to a simple yet profound experience at the age of five. His 11-year-old cousin Saul visited, carrying a paper bag, and asked Glaser if he would like to see a bird. Thinking there was a bird in the bag, the young Glaser happily said yes. Instead, his cousin reached into the bag, pulled out a pencil, and drew a bird on the side of the bag.

 

¡°At that moment I almost fainted, and decided what I was going to spend my life doing. Not drawing birds, exactly, but doing something that created the equivalent magic of that experience,¡± Glaser recalled in a 2001 speech to the Chartered Society of Designers in London. ¡°Everything I have ever done has seemed to lead in a very straight path from that moment.¡±

 

A Bronx native, Glaser went to the High School of Music and Art and got a full scholarship to Cooper Union. After graduating in 1951, he went to work in the promotion department at Vogue ¡ª ¡°my only official job,¡± he remarks ¡ª an unhappy experience that taught him two important life lessons: that he was going to have to work for himself and that he should work only with people he liked.

 

A Fullbright Scholarship took him to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy, where he studied etching with Giorgio Morandi. Returning to the U.S., in 1954 he and a group of former classmates founded Pushpin Studios, which was to have a profound influence on the development of an American design vernacular throughout the 1960s and 70s.

 

In 1968, Glaser co-founded New York with Felker and would remain the magazine¡¯s president and design director until its sale to Rupert Murdoch in 1977. The writer Pete Hamill recalled Glaser¡¯s influence at the magazine in a column marking the designer¡¯s 70th year: ¡°Felker would arrive each morning, brimming with ideas he had absorbed the evening before while doing his rounds of cocktail parties, openings, dinner parties¡­. Glaser, from his totally focused silence, would fix him with those penetrating eyes and say: ¡®That¡¯s fine, Clay, but what¡¯s the headline?¡¯ Or ¡®I think I know what you mean, Clay, but how do I illustrate that concept?¡¯ And I realized that although Felker edited the magazine, Glaser edited Felker.¡±

 

Glaser¡¯s fondest memories of those years are of weekly lunches with 10 or 12 contributors ¡ª the likes of Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Ken Auletta ¡ª to discuss ¡°what¡¯s happening…. In all cultures there are times when everybody seems to be together at that one moment and to know each other,¡± he reminisces. ¡°I¡¯m not equating this with ancient Greece, but a lot of people came out of New York magazine. Talent attracts talent.¡±

 

In 1974, Glaser established Milton Glaser, Inc., a Manhattan design studio that encompasses a wide range of disciplines, from print graphics to interior design. He has been personally responsible for the design and illustration of more than 300 posters, architectural projects, and the communication programs for the restaurants in the World Trade Center. In 1987 he created the graphic program for the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center and a year later completed the exterior, interior, and all graphic elements for Trattoria Dell¡¯Arte, one of several New York restaurants he has designed.

 

Although he says he has no favorite among the various design media, he admits trying to ¡°exploit the parallels¡± that link one to another. ¡°I often say doing a magazine really helped me design a supermarket. You have to take people through the pages, inform them, and keep them interested from beginning to end.¡±

 

Glaser teamed with Walter Bernard to form WBMG, a Manhattan-based publication design firm, in 1983. Since its inception, the company has designed more than 50 magazines, newspapers, and periodicals around the world.

 

Such Herculean efforts have not gone unnoticed by major design institutions. The designer¡¯s work has been celebrated in numerous exhibitions both here and abroad, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and his alma mater, Cooper Union.

 

Glaser¡¯s ego seems unaffected by his design superstar status. In fact, he holds an almost populist view of art. In his second book on design, Art is Work, he actually proposes replacing the word ¡°art¡± with ¡°work¡± so it can regain its importance in the society, without the pretension the word can convey.

 

¡°For me the role of art in society and culture is absolutely compelling and essential,¡± he explains. ¡°But the social use of art and the financial manipulations of the art world have become really ugly. To use art as a social tool to validate yourself and demean others or to use it as an investment are aspects of a behavior that is very unfortunate,¡± he says.

 

Teaching has been a vital part of Glaser¡¯s life ¡ª and clearly a dynamic influence on his speaking style and persona. He has taught every Wednesday night at the School of Visual Arts for more than 40 years. Eighteen years ago, he added a once-a-week summer workshop. It¡¯s an energizing experience for him, he says, that also helps him clarify his ideas. And he sees teaching as a way to pass along his legacy.

 

¡°That you have acquired something in the world and achieved some success and want to transmit that and not let it die when you do is a profound characteristic of our species. Maybe it¡¯s one of those survival mechanisms that has genetically been impressed on us,¡± he says. ¡°And possibly because we don¡¯t have any children, the act of engaging the young and passing on something is significant to me.¡±

 

   Now 75, Glaser shows no signs of slowing down. This summer, he was put­ting the finishing touches on posters for the Theater for a New Audience while working on book jackets, ¡°and everything else that everybody in the graphic arts business does on occasion.¡±

 

In October, the Rubin Museum of Art, a New York museum of Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist culture for which Glaser designed an identity campaign, will open. Shortly thereafter, his third children¡¯s book collaboration with Shirley, The Big Race, will be published by Hyperion. ¡°We did our first when we were very young and waited another 45 years to do another,¡± he remarks. (The couple celebrated their 47th anniversary in August.)

 

By the time this issue appears, Glaser will know if his ¡°Light Up the Sky¡± idea succeeded. His plan was to have thousands of New Yorkers protest the Bush administration during the Republican National Convention by carrying flashlights or candles. Glaser hoped the display would be a silent alternative to the expected conflicts between police and protesters.

 

¡°The issue always is how do you get ideas into the bloodstream of the culture, how do they become visible,¡± he says, ¡°which is not an easy thing.¡±

 

When asked if he plans to retire, he shakes his head with an adamant, ¡°No, no, no…. My plan is to die at my desk in the middle of doing something.¡± Retiring, he adds with a laugh, ¡°is  for people who fundamentally hate what they do. The idea of living in a condominium at the edge of a golf course is the greatest horror I could imagine.¡± ¡ö

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