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New York City was an urban basket case in the 1970s. Crime soared, businesses were shuttered, neighborhoods deteriorated, and 10% of the city's population fled. New York government was essentially bankrupt, and Washington shunned a bailout, a decision memorably captured by the Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Desperate to bring in tourist dollars, the New York State Commerce Dept. approached graphic designer Milton Glaser to design, pro bono, a logo to sell the city.
The result, "I??NY," is one of the most widely recognized logos in history. And its creator gets much of the credit for fusing fine arts and pop culture into a uniquely American brand of graphic design. A prolific illustrator of books and albums, his poster of Bob Dylan in silhouette with multicolored hair decorated many a college dorm room in the 1960s and 1970s. The revolutionary look he created for New York Magazine in 1968 defined the state of the art. He also helped shape The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Village Voice, and The Nation -- as well as crafting the graphic look of the Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia and supermarkets for James Goldsmith.
Born in New York City in 1929, Glaser attended the Cooper Union's art school in Manhattan and studied art in Italy on a Fulbright grant. American design at the time was under the sway of modernist European ideas and sensibilities. Glaser broke with all that but kept the insights from his studies. Fascinated by the Baroque, Romanesque, and other periods, he rummaged through art history, absorbing the narratives that could convey emotion. History and literature informed his illustrations, even as he trampled traditional barriers between high art and commercial design. "I am thinking of changing my self-definition from a designer who occasionally practiced art to an artist who practices design," he told an audience of graphic artists last year.
In 1954, Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Edward Sorel formed the influential Pushpin Studios in New York, which became a magnet for talented clients in music and publishing circles. In 1968, Glaser and editor Clay Felker created New York Magazine. Glaser felt that a magazine wasn't a lot different from a supermarket. The design has to be compelling. The customers can't get bored. They must be drawn from the beginning of an aisle to the end, from the front to the back. In the early years of the magazine, 70 editors and writers were crowded onto one floor with one bathroom, wearing coats in the winter because there was no heat, and fighting constantly because there was no precedent to follow. "Out of the intensity, the tension, we created a magazine that reflected that energy," says Glaser. "It was the best time of our lives."
Glaser is among a handful of designers who have pushed for the marriage of design and commerce, now common in stores such as Starbucks (SBUX
) and Target (TGT
). He is working on a youth center in Chicago that will be an artistic and educational haven for children at the margins of society. And he's part of an effort to turn a state college in Southampton, N.Y., into a model for "sustainable education," from the design of dorms to the use of electricity. Many of his recent posters are protests against war, AIDS, and other tragedies. Last year he and co-author Mirko Ilic came out with a book, The Design of Dissent, documenting visual challenges mounted against everything from Soviet hegemony to the war in Iraq.
At a recent book signing, says Elizabeth Lupton, a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, young people crowded around Glaser, wanting "to touch genius." Yet Glaser can't claim to truly speak their language. He loves computers but worries that they narrow creativity, which thrives on ambiguity, fuzziness, and the borders between ideas. Computers, he explains, are all about clarity and defined boundaries. Even now, boundaries beckon to Glaser to come and break them down.
Corrections and Clarifications
"Why we love Milton" (Voices of Innovation, May 15) quotes a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The correct name is Ellen Lupton, not Elizabeth.
By Christopher Farrell