Milton Glaser

National Medal of Arts recipient
Milton Glaser

Photo by Richard Frasier

Milton Glaser:  Art serves a purpose even though very often one of the definitions of art in our time is that it has no purpose but I don't agree with that. Well, so what could the purpose of art be if it is so universally present all through history and in every culture? Well, it must be it seems to me a device that aids human survival. Otherwise it would just fade away sometimes and reappear and come back but it's always around. And then the question is okay, so how does it do that? Why should art be something that helps humans survive? How does it do that? It does that by making you attentive in the Buddhist sense, that it helps you understand what is real.

Jo Reed: That was designer and national medal of arts recipient Milton Glaser.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Born in 1929, Milton Glaser is one of the major designers of the the second half 20th century who is still going strong in the 21st…(he just redesigned The Nation Magazine AND designed the cover for January 10 edition of Newsweek). His designs brought a new aesthetic that was influenced by his unyielding curiosity and his appreciation of both the history of art and of design. This play between visual and intellectual concepts informs all his considerable work. He’s designed and illustrated over 300 posters, including the one of famous profile of Bob Dylan with rainbow hair; with Walter Bernard, he’as redesigned many magazines and journals including the Washington Post. He’s designed restaurants, dishware, bottles, labels, and logos, including the iconic I Heart NY which is the most frequently imitated logo design in history. He’s had one-man shows at the Georges Pompidou Center, and the Museum of Modern Arts; his work is in the permanent collection of many museums around the world. And he’s the cofounder New York Magazine where he was design director for a decade. Milton Glaser is the recipient of many many awards, including in 2009, the National Medal of Arts.

I had the opportunity to speak with him in his busy, sometimes noisy, New York studio. I wondered how a boy from the Bronx ended up in art school.

Milton Glaser:  Well, I had two proficiencies. I was very good in science and I was very good in art at least for a young whippersnapper. I went to the High School of Music and Art, a wonderful school in New York that had extraordinary teachers and a wonderful student body and a great spirit. I'll tell you this anecdote, which is one of my favorite anecdotes, which is I had a science teacher at Olinville Junior High School who urged me to become a biologist. He said I had a natural talent for it and I was interested in biology but at the last moment I decided that I would take the test to music and art, that it was perhaps arbitrary or perhaps reflective of some deeper understanding I had of myself. And I took the exam and I passed and a week or so later I was walking through the halls and my science teacher caught my eye and asked me to come in to his room, and I was worried because I thought he would feel betrayed by my decision. He said, "Sit down." I sat down and he sat down behind his desk and he said, "I hear you took the exam for music and art" and I stammered, "Uh… Yes," and he bent over and he reached in to his desk and he pulled out a box of Conte crayons that he had bought for me and he said, "Do good work." And I have to say that was a benediction. I feel emotional every time I tell that story because there was something about the blessing of somebody who acting against his own interest encouraged me to pursue my life. So every time I think of the fact that I've been happy and successful in my career I actually think back on my old junior high school teacher with great affection and appreciation.

Jo Reed:  Milton, let me ask you do you think that could be one reason why you've been so devoted to teaching yourself throughout your career, that sort of innate understanding of how a teacher makes a difference?

Milton Glaser:  Well, I don't know. A friend of mine once said that the mind is a very poor instrument for exploring the self so I don't know whether that was the motivation or not. I know that at one point in my life I started to teach and I've been doing it for 50 years and it's always seemed like an essential part of my life.

Jo Reed:  What is it about teaching that speaks to you?

Milton Glaser:  I don't know. First it makes you think more clearly and develops your capacity to express your ideas more cogently and then you have one degree or another a responsibility to pass it along, whatever you've learned, and I have no children and I suspect the impulse to pass what you've learned on to another generation is a profound, if anything it's a survivor mechanism. And so I suspect that that impulse is in all of us and if you don't do it in your family then you find an alternative way to do it.

Jo Reed:  How did you first get in to design, which is at a very interesting intersection I think between art and business and social commentary? It sort of occupies that place, speaking to all of it I think.

Milton Glaser:  I didn't know what design was when I went to high school. When I went in to Music and Art all I knew is I liked to make things and I liked to draw and that that seemed to be the centerpiece of my life. And then while I was at Music and Art I discovered--and they were to some degree vocationally interested as well as obviously interested in giving you a good art education--the teachers began to teach you what you could learn that you could make a living doing. This was still during the latter parts of the Depression in New York and so the concern for finding a job was very much a part of the teachers' sense of responsibility, and I learned there was such a thing as design, which wasn't very specifically observed. You knew you could design a magazine or you could design lettering or you could design if you were an architect a concert hall but you knew that there was a world out there where your interest in making things could be applied to a vocation and that that would enable you to put bread on the table. And so I began to learn that there was such a thing basically when I was in high school.

Jo Reed: You were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and you studied art in Italy.

Milton Glaser:  Yes. I had gotten a Fulbright. I was assigned to one of the great painters of the Italian art movement. There was Giorgio Morandi, perhaps the greatest twentieth-century painters. Basically when they gave me the award it was really for graphic arts. In that case, what it really meant in that application was printmaking and Morandi was teaching etching in public school. They weren't even art students. They were ordinary kids who wanted to learn how to etch and I was in their class and it was a profound experience for me. He was a great man. As I've often said, we talked about art very rarely but one learns that the teachers teach by being something rather than by saying something, and it was his aspiration, his intelligence, his commitment—those were the things that really taught me how to engage life and why they were so important to me.

Jo Reed:  What happened when you came back from Italy?

Milton Glaser:  Well, I was there for a while and learned how much I didn't know. I mean I was a smart-ass kid from the Bronx. I thought I knew everything and then at the age of 20 or 21 you go to Europe, you discover you have no idea of what the world is made up of, and I came back and I started occasionally to work for some freelance- on some freelance accounts. At that same time some friends of mine who I was at school with started a small studio. What they actually started doing was they produced a little publication called The Pushpin Monthly, and they were sending it out to get work and that was Ed Sorel, Reynold Ruffins and Seymour Chwast, and they were getting a little work by doing sort of period illustration. And after I was home for a while they invited me to join in producing their publication and we did and at one point in a year or two we decided to take the plunge and become a small studio called Pushpin Studio, which had a long lifetime. It's still run by Seymour Chwast, albeit more modestly than it used to be run, but it was an important part of my life. I was there for 20 years and we were doing graphics that sort of deviated from what was then the dominance of the Bauhaus and modernism. We were kind of period things and my own interest has always been in the historical references of the graphic arts. I'd never felt parochial about sources and well, I loved modernism. I thought it was just a manifestation of style and that you didn't have to cling to it as your central obsession. The great thing about visual history in America is you have access to all these extraordinary things that have happened since the dawn of history and I was interested in those things. I was interested in the idea of style and communication and I didn't feel that modernism was as an idea enough for me to devote my life to. So it just became another style and I went on to see what I could do.

 Jo Reed: You designed obviously many iconic pieces of work and one of them of course is the great Bob Dylan poster with the psychedelic hair. Can you walk me through that a little bit?

Milton Glaser:  There was a piece by Duchamp which was a profile they had cut out of a piece of paper that had enormous visual power and like many things that I have seen in my life I sort of put that at the back of my head as something to take advantage of. And then years later I was very interested in art nouveau. In fact, I did a cover for Esquire showing an art nouveau fashion figure. It was back in the fifties- early fifties and I remember getting a phone call from a fashion forecaster who said, "That's what they call art nouveau what you did?" And I said, "Well, it sort of derives from that." "Do you think that's going to be a hot thing in the fashion world?" and I said, "Well, I don't know if it's going to be a hot thing but it's something I'm interested in at the moment," and that was the end of that conversation. And then of course art nouveau sort of came back under the guise of psychedelia and other things and it was one of the styles that was picked up during that period. But for me the confluence of all these ideas, the idea that art has a historical meaning and that it is not style that you're interested in. It's its meaning and content and form and I've always been fascinated by changes of manner and mannerism and I've always thought that that is what the world offers you, this range of opportunities. Why should you always eat meat and potatoes? Sushi could be a whole new adventure for you and so on. And it's very interesting now because of course it has become a literary idea. This is some 40 years after I had made my personal discovery but you can take anything you want from anyone and use it intelligently and effectively. Of course, the question of plagiarism always arises but now people seem to be soft on plagiarism as they explore the possibilities that history offers us too much to ignore.

Jo Reed:  Was it a leap to start New York magazine with Clay Felker?

Milton Glaser:  Well, it was a leap but I've been talking about something recently that I find really interesting, which was that not too long ago I thought that the great difference between artists and professional artists, if I can use that distinction, or artists and applied artists is that in the world of art if you're a real artist what you do is you move towards failure. You do a painting, you fail, you observe what you failed at, you do another painting, you integrate what you've learned, you fail again, you go on to another painting, you take what you've learned, you fail again, and so the possibility for development is always there and you use failure as a means of understanding what you're doing. In the professional world, the world of applied arts, you develop a product, which is you become the best person for doing cocker spaniels. Once having mastered that, you have a product to sell and people say, "That guy does the best cocker spaniels" and you discover that if you're a professional and you want to minimize your failure you begin to get better and better at doing cocker spaniels but at some cost. The cost is in the move towards success you damage the possibility for development so you learn less and less, and the professional artist basically reaches a plateau and then goes on cruise control and does what they know how to do guaranteeing success. Well, this may be good for your professional art but it's not very good for your personal art or for your growth as an artist or- if that's what you want to be. So that was an important discovery for me and I made that discovery intuitively a long time ago. And so my whole professional life has really been to move towards things that I knew, towards things that I didn't know, and I didn't know very much about being an art director of a magazine but Clay was a good friend. We started the magazine here in this very building. Clay was a good friend and when the magazine folded the Sunday supplement in the Herald Tribune he said, "Let's do a couple of dummies on what it would be to do a freestanding magazine. It would have to be a little different than what we were doing in the paper" and I said, "Great." Then we started working on dummies of all kinds, different names and so on, and Clay was successful in finding people to invest and before I knew it I was the art director of New York magazine and the president of the company and God knows what else.

Jo Reed:  It's become such a model that I think it's hard to remember what a paradigm buster it was at the time. Nobody had really seen a magazine like that.

Milton Glaser:  It was. Of course, it started in the Trib and it had some of the character that it retained when it went to a freestanding magazine although I have to say a lot more had to be changed than we anticipated.

Jo Reed:  I would think, yeah.

Milton Glaser:  It was a very different product in the confines of the Herald Tribune newspaper than it became as it developed but it took us at least a year to develop its voice. We didn't know what the hell we were doing in the first- for the first year.

Jo Reed:  Something that was very near and dear to my heart in that magazine  was the Underground Gourmet because like you I had a mother. At the age of eight I was in the kitchen saying, "I'll cook dinner, Mom. Don't worry about it."

Milton Glaser:  <laughs> That's funny.

Jo Reed:  Can you share your mother's spaghetti recipe?

Milton Glaser:  Oh, yeah. This is my mother's famous spaghetti recipe. People love it for some reason but she would take a pound of Mueller's spaghetti. She used Mueller's because it sounded vaguely Jewish as opposed to Ronzoni and she would boil it until most of the water had evaporated from the pot. It was about an hour or so and then she would add a three-quarters of a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup and a- about half pound of Velveeta cheese and keep cooking until it had amalgamated. And then she would allow it to cool and she had to get it out of the pot, which was almost a demolding process, but it came out as I said looking very much like the dome of St. Peter's and then she would slice it and fry it in chicken fat. That was my mother's spaghetti and it was pretty good.

Jo Reed:  Can we just go back to Italy- when you arrived in Italy and somebody handed you a plate of pasta? Were you confused?

Milton Glaser:  <laughs> Well, I had had pasta in the United States before that but I remember the first time I went to an Italian restaurant and I asked for spaghetti and the waiter brought me this funny strands of something and I said, "No, no, spaghetti, spaghetti. I wanted spaghetti," but Italy was startling for many reasons including I really discovered what good food was and what good cooking was and I became very interested in food and cooking. And when I came back to New York I was standing two blocks from here with my friend, Jerome, and we were trying to out-cool each other with the cheap restaurants we knew about town and then one of us said, "This would make a good column. Everybody in the city wants to know about good cheap restaurants and there's not anyone who ever writes about them 'cause they don't advertise so why don't we see if we could sell it to Clay Felker, your pal?" So I went to Clay and I said, "We want to do a piece on cheap restaurants" and that got us started on the Underground Gourmet, which we wrote regularly for New York magazine and I have to say it was one of the most amusing parts of my life.

Jo Reed:  You then teamed with Walter Bernard and started another company, another studio, WBMG.

Milton Glaser:  Yeah. Yeah. Walter still had space upstairs.

Jo Reed:  Upstairs. Yeah.

Milton Glaser: And we started specializing in magazines and newspapers and we did loads of them all over the United States and Europe.

Jo Reed:  This might be an obvious question but with WBMG you're mostly looking at the design of newspapers and magazines but you've also done record albums for example and created posters. What's the difference between designing for a publication versus designing for an album?

Milton Glaser:  Oh, that's a good question, what the differences are. There are probably more similarities than differences. I spent 20 years designing supermarkets as well, which was a good part of my life, and I learned a lot about what people expect and how to communicate clearly. There are formal distinctions of course. I learned how to draw very early in my life at a time when drawing was considered an appropriate introduction to the applied arts including design, and so I really can represent anything that I have in my head on a piece of paper. This unfortunately is not an attribute that you could say is characteristic of designers who mostly work now of course with computers but with models in other ways because they can't represent- well, they have to hire somebody to do that so I always have the advantage of being able to represent what I'm thinking of whether it's a bottle or whether it's an interior or whether it's anything. I've always had that skill, which is beneficial, and then the differences are really sometimes profound. Designing a three-dimensional object is a very different experience and I've done bottles and jars and dinnerware and all that kind of stuff, and I'm very often over my head in doing that but as I say one of the things that always attracts me about any job is that I don't know how to do it very well, and I figure I can bluff my way through.

I Love New York jingle up and hot, under….

Jo Reed:  Well, "I Love New York" – it's probably the most iconic logo and it's hard to imagine how it could be simpler. How did that come to be?

Milton Glaser: Design and every other human activity really engages both parts of your brain, the rational, objective, logical part, which you develop by reading and teaching and talking and all the rest of them, and then the intuitive part, it is the meeting of those two impulses or two natures of the brain that produces everything and it's nice to have both of them functional. So there are a lot of people who are very rational, very objective, and have an undeveloped imagination very often they are in opposition with it as you know and it's not new, but I've always been able to accept what I don't know rationally and objectively and let my intuition work out the details. The I Love New York—I've told this story and this is not much of a story but I did a solution for it. I thought it was going to be a six-week project. I did a typographical something. The board of commerce or whatever accepted it. My friend, Bill Doyle, who brought it to me said, "Well, they've accepted it. Why don't you just do some layouts with it?" And the next day I was in a cab and I said, "That's not good enough" and I just scribbled the little "I (Heart) New York."    It just seemed something that was a good- a better equivalent than what I had done. I called him and he said, "Oh, they've met already. They've approved it. Don't bug them." I said, "Let me come over" and I said, "Look." And I showed it to him. He said, "You're right. That's better." He went back to the board, one of those few cases where something that already had been accepted was then put aside and something else replaced it. So I don't know. The answer to the question is where the ideas come from beats the hell out of me.

Jo Reed:  How is design different from art? Clearly, it encompasses art but it does other things too. Can you just…

Milton Glaser:  Well, I finally developed a field theory for the distinction which is my own. If art is a survival mechanism, which I think it is, otherwise it would not be so prevalent throughout human history, in every culture. Obviously, it does something. Right? It does something. Art makes you attentive; it helps you understand what is real, and I use the example of trying to draw my mother once and realizing as I looked at her at the age of 17 I had no idea what she looked like until my mind shifted in to its observing phase and I could see her at that moment more accurately than I had been able to see her before. Right? And when you walk by a forest if you have seen a Cezanne a day earlier you suddenly notice that the forest looks like what Cezanne has pointed out to you, that you were unable to see until he said, "Look at this and then go outside and look at the forest." The real issue in art and everything else is understanding what is real and art helps us do that by making us attentive so the distinction between art is not whether it's done on the canvas or whether it's in a museum but whether it makes you attentive. And you will observe through your own experience that some art does not make you attentive in which case it's not art, it's something else, and some designs make you attentive in which case they are art. So that's my field theory of the distinction between what is art and what is not.

Jo Reed:  I like it.

Milton Glaser:  Thank you. It's taken a lifetime.

Jo Reed: Above the door of this building you have Art is Work, which was also the title of one of your books.

Milton Glaser:  Right. Well, that was before I came upon this theory. This theory's only a year old. What I was trying to do there is to deparochialize it and demystify it so it could be understood. It's not disengaged from all of the human activities but part of human activity.

Jo Reed: You've had a long, wonderful career, you still have a wonderful career, but is there something that you've done that you're particularly proud of?

Milton Glaser:  Well, I like the work I've done as a generality. What I'm proud of is having lived through it all and having arrived in to my eighties and still looking forward to learning something every day and the fact that you can have a very long career and not burn out and not feel that you've said everything you want to say and feel that there's still an enormous amount to learn. Making things is one of the great, great pleasures of life and I have never lost my zest for that or my enthusiasm for it, and I have a wonderful office with wonderful people and I come to work each day and I say, "Maybe I can find out something that I didn't know before." And right now we're in the middle of an exercise of finding something about color and overprinting color that I'd never thought of before. It's so exciting I can't tell you. And I think the idea that you don't have to burn out, you don't have to become cynical, you don't have to put yourself on cruise control and above all you don't have to retire is the thing that I'm most proud of.

Jo Reed: When you found out you were given the National Medal of Arts--  You've gotten many honors, but ….

Milton Glaser:  Oh, well, this is the big one. There's nothing like it. No. I was thrilled. I was absolutely thrilled and I'd like to be cooler about it, well, I couldn't be cool about it. it was a great, great moment for me.

Jo Reed:  Well, clearly it's so well-deserved, Milton Glaser.

Milton Glaser:  Oh, well, who knows? Who knows?

Jo Reed:  I do. I think it is. Thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.

Milton Glaser:  Oh, it's been fun.

Jo Reed: That was designer and National Medal of Arts recipient Milton Glaser.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from "I Love New York" music and lyrics by Steve Karmen courtesy of Elsmere Music Inc.

Excerpt from "Padded Walls (reEdit)" from the album Transmit by Floating Spirits, licensed through Creative Commons.

Excerpt from "Appetite" from Proviant Audio from the album Mushrooms,  licensed through Creative Commons.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes u….just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, we’re talking jazz with bassist Christian McBride.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

A talk about art and design with National Medal of Arts recipient, Milton Glaser. [29:22]