Obituary: Milton Glaser, design genius who made people love New York
Milton Glaser, the groundbreaking American graphic designer who adorned Bob Dylan’s silhouette with psychedelic hair and summed up the feelings for his native New York with “I (HEART) NY,” has died on his 91st birthday. The cause was a stroke and Glaser had also had renal failure, his wife, Shirley Glaser, said.
In posters, logos, advertisements and book covers, Glaser’s ideas captured the spirit of the 1960s with a few simple colours and shapes. He was the designer on the team that founded New York magazine in the late 1960s.
“Around our office, of course, he will forever be one of the small team of men and women that, in the late Sixties, yanked New York out of the newspaper morgue and turned it into a great American magazine,” the magazine’s obituary of Glaser said.
Soon city magazines everywhere were sprouting and aping its simple, witty design style. “We have brought about –however small – a change in the visual habits of people,” he told The Washington Post in 1969. “Television conditions people to demand imagination.” But he said he had to work to keep his style fresh: “There’s an enormous pressure to repeat past successes. That’s a sure death.” Referring to a beloved Sixties design motif, he added that he couldn’t do another rainbow “if my life depended on it”.
His pictorial sense was so profound, and his designs so influential, that his works in later years were preserved by collectors and studied as fine art. But he preferred not to use the term “art” at all.
“What I’m suggesting is we eliminate the term ‘art’ and call everything work,” Glaser said in an interview in 2000, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted an exhibit on his career.
“When it’s really extraordinary and moves it in a certain way, we call it great work. We call it good when it accomplishes a task, and we call it bad when it misses a target.”
The bold “I (HEART) NY” logo – cleverly using, for the typeface, typewriter-style letters – was dreamt up as part of an ad campaign begun in 1977 to boost the state’s image when crime and budget troubles dominated the headlines. Glaser did the design free of charge.
Nearly a quarter-century later, just days after the September 11 terror attacks, he revised it, adding a dark scar to the red heart and “more than ever” to the message.
“I woke up Wednesday morning and said, ‘God, I have to do something to respond to this’,” he told the New York Times. “When you have a heart attack, part of your heart dies. When you recover, part of your heart is gone, but the people in your life become much more important, and there is a greater awareness of the value of things.”
Glaser had done design work for the restaurants at the destroyed World Trade Center complex.
His 1966 illustration of Dylan, his face a simple black silhouette but his hair sprouting in a riot of colours in curvilinear fashion, put in graphic form the 1960s philosophy that letting your hair fly free was a way to free your mind. (For him, though, it wasn’t a drug-inspired image: He said he borrowed from Marcel Duchamp and Islamic art.)
The poster was inserted in Dylan’s Greatest Hits album, so it made its way into the hands of millions of fans.
“It was a new use of the poster – a giveaway that was supposed to encourage people to buy the album,” Glaser said in 2001. “Then it took on a life of its own, showing up in films, magazines, whatever. It did not die, as such forms of ephemera usually do.”
Among Glaser’s other noteworthy projects were cover illustrations for Signet paperback editions of Shakespeare; type designs such as Baby Teeth, first used on the Dylan poster, and Glaser Stencil; a poster for the Mostly Mozart Festival featuring a colourful Mozart sneezing; and DC Comics’ famous “bullet” colophon.
His designs also inspired the playbill for Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”.
Glaser was born in 1929 in the Bronx and studied at New York’s Cooper Union art school and in Italy.
In 1954, he co-founded the innovative graphic design firm Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast and others. He stayed with it for 20 years before founding his own firm.
The Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum awarded him a lifetime achievement award in 2004. In 2009, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
In 2016 the design genius gave a public lecture on his career via Skype at Edinburgh Napier University
“I just like to do everything, and I was always interested in seeing how far I could go in stretching the boundaries,” he said.
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