The east-facing windows of Milton Glaser’s studio on 32nd Street overlook a school playground. Every day at 2:35 pm, a deluge of rowdy grade-schoolers surges into the courtyard as their parents float and mingle along the perimeter. Yellow buses queue up dutifully between the parked cars that line both sides of the street. It requires perfect timing to find a parting in this afterschool sea and skip across the sidewalk, through the heavy front door of Glaser’s building. Etched into the glass window above the stoic entranceway is Glaser’s mantra: Art is Work.
I will meet with Milton Glaser twice in two weeks. On each occasion he will wear a shirt of a surprisingly bright shade of pink and a short scarf coifed sensibly around his neck. On my second visit, he will offer me a job. In person, Glaser is as formidable as any self-assured and self-made 84-year-old man deserves to be, yet he gives off an undeniably cozy vibe. In the comfortable front room of his office, waxing philosophical and sharing lessons from his life, he has a generosity of spirit that feels remarkably familial.
Glaser has been working in advertising and design for more than half a century, beginning his career in 1954 alongside Reynold Ruffins, Seymour Chwast, and Edward Sorel. The four founded the renowned Push Pin Studios, an organization that for 20 years put considerable pressure on the direction of graphic design. Precisionism had long been the reigning style among designers since World War I, with a defined, geometric simplicity that mirrored the sleekness of an industrialized world just coming into its own. Push Pin anticipated the more eclectic styles that would develop from the ’60s onwards — images full of historical references and the appropriation of vintage typography. It was a narrative approach to design unprecedented at that time and Pushpin, as MoMA’s website states, “dominated advertising and print media,” with Glaser’s work becoming “something of a fashionable cult.”
Glaser’s motto, ‘art is work,’ is what he lives by, a way of existing in the world that he’s damn near close to perfecting. “One must always be aware of what one is doing,” he says, perhaps harking back to the meditation and yoga he practiced in the late ’60s “like everyone else,” in his words. “At a certain point you stop going to classes, but I’ve always been involved in Buddhist thought and tried to integrate it into my life.” But while awareness is a practice he is very, very good at, sitting still is not: he is as restless in his chair as he is in his design style. Constantly leaning forward and back, Glaser gives the impression of either pondering things from a distance or inspecting them most intimately. “I wonder who decided to do that,” he says, eyeing my wide-ruled composition notebook, marbled red and white instead of the traditional black and white. “It’s a very good idea.”
There is something uniquely ubiquitous about Glaser’s work, which has made him somewhat a figure of legend — the self-appointed ambassador of ostensibly the world’s greatest city, his devotion to which is indelible. He is responsible, of course, for “I <3 NY,” perhaps the world’s most widely rendered and reincarnated logo, worn like a tattoo on the arm of our century. New York has more than her fair share of painters (Edward Hopper and George Bellows notwithstanding), but Glaser is her bastion, perhaps by virtue of design, and he has entered her cultural milieu as a forced to be reckoned with again and again. Also his are Brooklyn Brewery’s bar-friendly, baseball-style logo; the Rubin Museum’s Tibetan-inspired insignia and the striking copper cloud wall behind its front desk; the SVA Theater’s marquee sculpture and its subtly speckled, psychedelic bar; and the reinvigorated signage of the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.
He is also responsible for the branding of Bread Alone Bakery, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Stony Brook University, Trump Vodka, the Fortune 500, Vespa, and Grand Union grocery stores, where, Radiolab host Robert Krulwich tells me, Glaser introduced “stage lighting for vegetables” for the first time. (When I mention this to Glaser, his reaction is a nonchalant, “Nah. I mean, we thought they should be distinct, to be sure. But I can’t take credit for that.”) Glaser has also designed book covers for the likes of Philip Roth and Marshall McLuhan, magazine covers for The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and Esquire, as well as posters for Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Julliard, the Holocaust Museum, LACMA, Cooper Union, the Philadelphia Zoo, the 1984 Olympic Games, the Van Gogh Estate, the American Bar Association, Brooklyn College, the Metropolitan Opera, Bob Dylan, and others.
It seems fitting — destined to be, even — that this titan of ad men recently took on Mad Men‘s creator, Matthew Weiner, as a client, designing the poster for the final season of the TV show. The image summons the convivial nature of the late ’60s, and of Glaser himself, ornamenting New York’s subway stations like some pyschotropic fresco, with the iconic silhouette of Don Draper looking into the ebullient and covetously remembered past. If one were to line up all of Glaser’s posters — a number he estimates at around 400 — top to tail, you would have a Glaser brick road longer than three football fields, with the great and powerful wizard simply a New Yorker in love with his city. When he was 39, he co-founded New York magazine with Clay Felker, “right at this table,” he tells me, gently tapping the wood with his pen. “It was out of the sense that this was our city.”
But while Glaser’s body of work is daunting, his studio digs are welcoming, slightly bigger than a decently sized New York apartment and covered in the creative, joyful abundance of artistic paraphernalia. Above his desk the wall is bedecked with floral printed horse heads, loose sketches, a laughing bronze moon, rulers, and Victorian-looking fans, along with postcards of other artists’ work. The front room is private, separated from the studio space by two sliding wooden doors with simple stained-glass windows. The square wooden table at which we sit looks old and cut-upon. Lining either side of the room are tiered countertops displaying some of Glaser’s work: cups with I <3 NY and bottles of Trump Vodka alongside a mélange of oddball collectible items like toy trucks and Oryoki bowls. Among this organized chaos is Glaser’s National Medal of Arts award, presented to him by President Obama in 2010. (Glaser was the first graphic designer to receive the honor.) It’s a countertop of curiosities — and it’s fit for the Met.
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A New Yorker by birth and by ethos, Glaser was born in the South Bronx in 1929 to Hungarian immigrants. His family lived adjacent to one of the city’s first cooperative apartment buildings. The neighborhood was home to a lot of Eastern European immigrants and working-class families, and left wing to its marrow. Glaser grew up slow-roasted in New York’s liberal legacy. He describes the neighborhood as “very militant left wing and anti-capitalist” and admires that it was “the first neighborhood in the country to have interracial couples,” adding, “I didn’t live in the coops.” (He pronounces this as in ‘chicken coops.’) “I lived a block away. But it was a pervasive atmosphere in that area of the Bronx, at that moment in time.”
That moment was wedged between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. Many Eastern Europeans were fleeing the rise of despotism on all sides: the Weimar Republic was giving way to Nazi Germany, Italian Fascism was burgeoning under Mussolini, Stalin had begun a campaign to stain all of Soviet Russia red. Glaser remembers seeing his mother’s passport (he never saw his father’s) and thinking it was “funny” because it read “Country of Origin: Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.” Birthplaces were unable to keep pace with the continually blurring borders. Europe clearly had its problems, but so did the United States, with the Great Depression just settling in for the long haul.
The national and international conflicts and crises were acutely felt in Glaser’s neighborhood, but his life spans far more than the Depression and World War II. He saw the post–Robert Moses neighborhoods of the Bronx ebb with the first tides of gentrification. He also saw the bloom of the Abstract Expressionists and the concomitant glut of the art market; the near-doctrinal Giuliani years (“before Guiliani” has a Christ-like ring to it, no?); and the attack on the World Trade Center.
This rise of money and propaganda-driven markets put a foul taste in Glaser’s mouth; he expresses a strong distaste for crooked advertising and industries built on intellectual manipulation. While advertising is often seen as the greasy spoon of capitalism — the antithesis of Glaser’s upbringing — it should come as no surprise that Glaser holds a firm belief in design’s power to do good and create communal ties. Speaking to attendees at a 2004 AIGA conference, Glaser marveled at the abundance of lying in our society, particularly in design. “So pervasive is the culture of small distortions that we can no longer recognize them as lies,” he said, noting a time he had made a Greek salad with a box of feta cheese that touted “70 calories a serving,” when the entire number of servings was seven. “I had just added 490 calories to a diet-conscious lunch for my wife and myself … I wondered how a thimbleful of feta became a serving. You all know the answer.” Rather than thinking of their audience as consumers, designers should think of them first and foremost as citizens, Glaser believes.
While this sense of moral responsibility is soul-deep, so is his belief in intentional ambiguity. Clarity and ambiguity form a dyad that has long interested Glaser, a dynamic capable of refining the ways our brains perceive visual information, and how that perception informs what actually exists on the page. The ideas relate to the modernist counsel of making the viewer complicit in the artistic process and aiding in the experience of the miraculous and beautiful in art. “However one defines beauty,” writes Judith Thurman in the introduction to Drawing is Thinking, a compendium of Glaser’s work, “its spell holds distraction at bay, and creates a sanctuary from which randomness is excluded. In that space out of time, we have, however briefly, the chance of becoming present to ourselves—and one with the art.” For Glaser, a good design might not show all its cards, transcending advertising’s immediate, communicative purpose to become something worthy of meditation.
These sentiments mirror those of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who has long influenced Glaser. “Morandi was one of those artists who, the longer you look at him, the more you grow in your appreciation, the more you understand,” Glaser says. “There is a sense of inevitability and incredible satisfaction in looking at his work.” As Robert Hughes pointed out in an essay in TIME magazine in 1981, Morandi’s images “modestly, insistently…try to slow the eye, asking it to give up its inattention, its restless scanning, and to give full weight to something small…[it] provides a lesson in seeing.” Young Glaser had enrolled in a study abroad program after college and, by stroke of luck, was placed at a university in Bologna where Morandi was teaching. “The two polar influences of my life are Picasso and Morandi. Picasso was a man who wanted everything, all the women, all the fame, all the money, all the success — all the everything. And Morandi, he wanted nothing. I always tried to be in the middle … to realize you don’t have to be one or the other.”
Glaser’s most recent work focuses largely on being out of focus, or at least on asking the question of how much information is really needed in order to comprehend what you’re looking at. The images are stippled landscapes, in the manner of Seurat, where hazy fields and trees dissolve into atoms of color that vibrate, recede, and then reform for they eye. It’s a body of work created mostly for his own enjoyment, to express a philosophical question he’s been asking himself for decades. “It’s the fundamental question of why something becomes understandable,” he says, holding up a very large, smoky greenish poster speckled with the rough shadow of a harbor. Or maybe a mountain.
“I always wanted to be the best designer in the world; I mean, that was my dream,” he tells me. But in many ways, his dream was also to change the world — the doe-eyed trope of basically all artists, at least until the industry’s grip makes cynics of us, ossifying an innate sense of creative joy. At another conference in 2003, for ICON Illustration, Glaser observed that the “deepest role of art is creating an alternative reality, something the world needs desperately at this time … Art is the most benign and fundamental way of creating community that our species has discovered. Mozart and Matisse — children of Eros — make us more human and more generous to one another.”
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Besides the vocal socialism, Glaser’s community growing up was also very committed to the idea of education for children. He guesses that almost 95% of the kids from his (mostly Jewish) building went on to college, a statistic he refers to as “freakish.” And Glaser now has very specific views on education. To begin with, he believes it’s very easy to be a bad teacher. “Teaching is not about telling people anything. It’s about being something. By representing something to them: a commitment to work.” Later he will tell me that key to being a good teacher, and indeed a good artist, is “attentiveness. To be able to look at something and have an idea of what it is. Because it so difficult to look at anything … as you know.” (He will repeat these words, “as you know,” often and mostly without due cause, to the point of inducing guilt. I mostly don’t know, but he graciously gives me the benefit of the doubt.)
But while Glaser’s neighbors were out rallying around the city, his own home was relatively quiet. Eugene Glaser, Milton’s father, owned a dry-cleaning business a few blocks away from their apartment; his mother, Eleanor, was a housewife. Eugene had originally been a tailor in his home country, a trade requiring a refined sense of style and measurement. A propitious combination of craftsmanship and political ferment was passed on in Milton’s DNA, and he kept a sketchbook from a very young age. He says he’s always felt lucky, not only for the environment in which he grew up, but for the benefit of having a supportive mother and a resistant father. “That’s a great combination,” Glaser explains. “My mother felt that I could do anything and convinced me of that, and my father said ‘Show me. We’re not going to waste anybody’s time by your drawing pictures.’ And that served to be a good beginning for me, because I really believed that I could accomplish something but that I would have to endure the world’s indifference. I mean, who else cares about what you want except you?”
Glaser’s ferocious belief in simply “doing the work” is also a denouncement of the belabored struggling artist trope, which he abhors. “There is so much of this conversation about creativity and flow and hardship and all that — it’s bullshit. I mean, it’s work, like everything else. You have to spend time doing it. But for me it’s quite the opposite. There is no hardship. There is only pleasure. But that’s not to say there are no difficulties. There are difficulties in everything. But what else is life about? I always tell people the privilege of being able to make things in your life — devoting your life to being able to make things — is unsurpassed.”
Art is work, but one of the greatest tragedies in life is that you often can’t do the work you think you’re capable of doing. “Most people are shunted into a series of events where you have no choice,” Glaser says. “You get a job, you find you get ten dollars more if you stay another two years and you think, ‘okay.’ You get married, you have two children, they have to be sent to school, and before you know it your life is over [and] you haven’t done anything you wanted. But that is the story of most people’s life. It’s a life without choice.”
Glaser himself is married, and very happily so. His wife, Shirley, is a photographer, and he’s clearly delighted to be asked the story of how they met. “When I got out of high school, I was supposed to get a scholarship to Pratt Institute,” he begins. “In fact, the president of Pratt came and saw my work at the High School of Music and Art and said he’d give me a four-year scholarship.” As a head-strong boy with an unshakeable sense of purpose, young Milton didn’t apply anywhere else. And then he failed the entrance examination. “So I went to this guy, and I said, ‘Hey, you know you promised me a four year scholarship, and now I have no place to go to school.’” The president told him to go to night school and that if he passed the examination at the end of the year, he’d give Milton a three-year scholarship. “But then I failed the night school exam. As far as I know — and I tell this story frequently — I am the only person that ever failed the Pratt night school exam.”
As a result, Glaser went to work at a package design office, where he stayed until he got into Cooper Union. “After I got out of Cooper I worked there for a little while again, and then I went to Bologna. And while I was in Bologna, I got a letter from the owner of the studio that said they had hired a new girl who was better and smarter than I was.”
“They actually wrote that in the letter?”
“Yeah! Oh yeah, oh, I have to tell you this story! It was particularly because she could match colors faster.” The job entailed painting sample color swatches to match the pre-made ones, and the colors had to be exact. “So I’d sit and paint until I got the right color. Anyway, that person was Shirley. Then I met her at a welcome home party, and I said, ‘Look. How did you paint those swatches so fast? They said you beat me, and I was the fastest one there!’ She just said, ‘I painted over the swatches they gave me.’” Chuckling, Milton describes Shirley’s ingenuity: if she was given a Robin’s Egg Blue, she would paint a color near enough to Robin’s Egg Blue, and then paint over the original swatch as well.
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During relaxed monologues Glaser talks about wishing he had more time. About how it took him 20 years to learn how to draw, how one first thinks drawing is about observing and representing but later discovers that’s not really the point at all. He ponders the ineffability of the “space between what is in front of you and what is in your brain,” quoting books he’s read on the neuroscience of perception. His sage-like approach to basically everything is as magnetic as it is pervasive. When the conversation moves on to the dires and straits of finding your life’s calling, Glaser cites a David Brooks column in the Times, in which Brooks asked people over 70 what they’d done well or poorly in their own life. “Fifty to sixty percent said they chose the wrong line of work and as a result felt like they hadn’t led their own life,” Glaser explains. “Fifty to sixty percent! That was breathtaking to me, and I realize how privileged anybody is who spends their life doing what they love, what they find meaningful. And how rare that is.”
Glaser gives his listener the sense that conversation with him could be endless, and endlessly fascinating, if she asks the right questions. Deftly weaving liberalism and philosophy, he meanders through a mini history lesson that leaves me feeling more like a student to a professor than a journalist to a subject. He refers to the rise of Bill de Blasio as “extraordinary,” even within the vast landscape of his life. “The next couple years are going to be fantastic in terms of a real visible difference between what life is about and what is important. Not only in politics but the fundamental idea between what is the difference between left and right. And between generosity and constraint.”
“The problem of our time,” he says, now warmed up, “as we’re sort of in the death throes of capitalism, is that the artistic hero is kind of the invention of the 19th century. With the emergence of capitalism and entrepreneurial activity and building a business and making money and making more money than others — and, as you know, seeing yourself in a position of class rather than in a position of tribal identification, comes the idea of being competitive in the market place, which is all you hear in our culture, including at SVA [where Glaser teaches]. What you see in our time is the inevitable path of predatory capitalism on the psyche of human beings.” He may have made his name — built the walls for the canon, even — as the most successful designer of ad campaigns, but he has no corporatist skeletons in his closet. His dedication to the city, its institutions and liberal laurels, underlines his belief in companionship and commune. “The competitive idea that you can make it — this whole idea of America — that you can be better than anybody else, you can make more money and all you have to do is want it and have the guts to do it, is largely, as you know, a myth. But the fact that competitiveness is built into the economic and the, you might say, psychological structure of our country, it’s very hard not to be competitive. It’s an inevitable consequence that comes out of an economic system that is perverse.” All of which leaves me wondering if I’ve just been absolved or implicated.
Throughout our conversations, Glaser uses the word “unimaginative” as the most castigating of insults. When he says it, he shifts in his seat, as if the word makes him physically uncomfortable, telling me, “If, compared to others, my work seems weak, inappropriate, unimaginative, I experience that very painfully.” Pressed for designers he compares himself to, Glaser admits that it’s only partially people in his own field. “I mean … I wish I could draw like Degas. I wish I had the color sense of Monet” — though he is self-aware enough to add, “It’s not entirely grandiosity, but I don’t really compare myself to people around at the time. I look at history and say, ‘how can anybody do that so well, and how can I enter into that same category?’ I mean, why pick a mediocre practitioner of your own time when you can pick a great practitioner of another time?”
I feel an objection rising to the surface, but Glaser, always one step ahead, points out that in a professional practice among contemporaries, it’s too easy to compare and then forgive yourself your faults: “Well I can’t draw as well as that,” he says, staging an internal dialogue I have had many times, “but I have a better typographical sense and yadda yadda yadda … you can sort of justify your own existence.” It’s the best defense I’ve ever heard for a strictly historical diet.
In anyone else, a listener might interpret these as delusions of grandeur. But Glaser’s penchant for greatness is critically tempered, and he gives long pause before adding, “I always have two views on the subject. One is: can I do anything like that? Am I capable of that kind of understanding? And the other is: I’m just doing the best I can. I mean, my aspiration is just to be as good as I can be … whatever that is.” He starts to trail off, or seems to talk to himself: “And you have to have something greater… that sense of the miraculous … certainly at this age … but to aspire to it seems useful.”
“Art is a way of understanding the world, a survival mechanism,” Glaser tells me during one of our conversations. And one suspects he is surviving the situation better than anyone else in the room.