With the passing of Milton Glaser on his 91st birthday on Friday, New York lost a favorite son whose designs – and one in particular – radiated the vitality and multiplicity of his beloved hometown. Over the course of seven decades, he has produced a countless amount of striking graphic images: first at Push Pin Studios, the countercultural and politically committed design company he founded with Seymour Chwast and others; later to New York magazine, which he co-founded; and then as an independent designer whose experience has never turned into a distinctive style.
Shakespeare Covers seals, from 1963 to 1972
Milton Glaser appreciated the possibility of designing editions for the mass market of Bard’s plays, whose pocket covers (unlike the hard cover at the time) could be printed in full color. Retail for 50 cents, the Signet Shakespeare editions wiped out the drab school connotations of Shakespeare’s textbooks and used controlled explosions of color to accentuate the delicate linework, in debt to Aubrey Beardsley’s campy style. My favorite remains the illustration of Glaser’s “The Tempest”: Miranda’s face is a torrent of twirls, while her father Prospero emerges from the crown of his head, casting his spells in Technicolor.
“A Gentle Guide to Jewish Food”, 1968
The New York magazine, which Glaser co-founded with Clay Felker, brought the warm colors and thick lettering of Push Pin to the newsstands; the magazine still carries the abundantly serif type setting he designed for issue 1. Mr. Glaser drew many of the initial covers of New York on the fly, including this classic of a fish swimming through a bagel, on the fly in the hours before going to press. In fact, Mr. Glaser didn’t just design the cover; he also wrote the main story (with Jerome Snyder), in which he praised the best lox, bialys and halvahs in the city, and covered up the sable as “the poor sturgeon”.
“Don’t eat grapes”, 1969
Glaser designed this lethally succinct poster – printed on cheap paper and spread as widely as possible – in support of a five-year labor strike by Californian farm workers who protested for their poor pay and exposure to carcinogenic pesticides. Under 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. He denounced discrimination on the basis of “The colors of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins”, and he insisted that they would have won a nonviolent “fight of death against man’s inhumanity for man”. Civil rights groups persuaded grocery stores to withdraw the grapes from the non-union and in 1970 the United Farm Workers had won new contracts that guaranteed fairer working conditions.
Poster for Hugh Masekela’s concert, 1972
To promote a performance by South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela in New York, Mr. Glaser weaves a silhouette of the apartheid-era giant with lush floral motifs and stripes into a pan-African palette of red, green and black – which he then positioned on a bold geometric background inspired by Xhosa fabrics. He printed Masekela’s name in a typeface of his own design, called “Baby Teeth”, whose fat, puncture-free characters also appear on Mr. Glaser’s most famous Bob Dylan poster. The letters take on an almost abstract form: the G, a close circle; the A, a pyramid torn open by an entrance with a shark fin.
Poster for the Montreux International Festival, 1976
Switzerland is not normally considered a hedonistic destination, but for the Alpine nation’s first jazz festival, Mr. Glaser envisioned a woman whose long hair falls out of her loose-brimmed floppy hat, and who crouches satisfied for a joint on whose smoke has fallen into a treble clef. Despite all its grumpy counterculture, this is an excellent example of Glaser’s omnivorous appetite for design, particularly from the beginning of the 20th century. The chair on which the toking fan of music collapses is a renowned Bauhaus design by Marcel Breuer, while the floral abundance of the dress recalls the decorative overload of Gustav Klimt and his colleagues from the Vienna Secession.
I ❤️ NY Concept Sketch, 1976
The city was full of crime and littered with waste; President Ford had told us to drop it; the state tourism office knew he had a climb. On the back of a taxi, Mr. Glaser scribbled a preliminary sketch for a new civic logo on the outside of a torn envelope, his four characters not yet resolved in his familiar square. In today’s sterilized Big Apple, the initial realization of Mr. Glaser’s campaign has been obscured; this was a project that not only told tourists that we were open to business, but it convinced the citizens of an almost bankrupt metropolis to hold their heads high.
Poster for the Olivetti Lexicon 83DL typewriter, 1977
The Italian typewriter manufacturer was the Apple of his time, whose typewriters were intended for a consumer attentive to the design with promotional materials of important graphic artists. Glaser has created numerous posters for Olivetti, and my favorite is for a 1977 version, whose floating ball, surreal hand and empty and elusive ground draws on the alienated metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico or Carlo Carrà. Note the marble mesh staircase in the lower left corner: an echo of the richly decorative, modern and classic architecture of Carlo Scarpa in the Olivetti showroom in Venice.
“Mozart Sneezes”, 1983
Mr. Glaser has designed countless advertisements for New York’s performing arts organizations, but my favorite is this one for the Mostly Mozart Festival, in which the Australian bewig seeks and cannot repress a tremendous cold. Here the designer draws heavily on the legacy of Pop: the serial imagery recalls Warhol, while the solid blocks of fuchsia, coral and light blue echo the French narrative, and the plot frame by frame proudly imitates a comic. Yet this is not a simple counter-cultural twist; it is a tender and even loving humanization of a canonical composer, just as prone to allergies as the rest of us.
“Angels in America” poster, 1993
An angel, says a two-part epic character from Tony Kushner’s AIDS crisis, “is a belief, with wings.” Mr. Glaser focused on that part for his dramatic poster and playbill, in which a downed angel has a right wing colored parts, a direct quote from Albrecht Dürer’s precise, forensic “Wing of a blue roller.” (Even the crouched and naked seraphim 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 comedy received a graphic signature for the “painful progress “with which Mr. Kushner’s characters try to keep faith.
“The secret of art”, 2007
Mr. Glaser continued to work long after the official retirement age, and a more distinctive later job is this poster for the School of Visual Arts, where he became an instructor in 1960 and was eventually chairman of the board. Its deceptively simple use of mise en abyme (i.e. the inclusion of an image within the image itself) embodies an entire design philosophy, founded not on genius but on effort. Practice, experiment, frustration, turning point: Mr. Glaser’s career is a testament to the iterative processes behind great design, where inspiration means nothing without hard work.