The inventor behind I Love NY iconic symbol
Family: Married to Shirley Glaser
Lives: In Manhattan, New York City
What he does: Graphic designer, designer and illustrator
Currently: Published the book Milton Glaser Posters: 427 Examples from 1965 to 2017, the most comprehensive collection of his posters ever produced
Near the corner of 32nd Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan stands a beautiful old narrow building of white stone and red brick, with intricate details and large, deep windows. Nestled between a schoolyard and a tower block, this old building looks a little lonely. Apparently, it used to be one of a long row of similar houses, all since torn down. Still standing though is 207 East 32nd Street, a sole remnant and reminder of what used to be. The building belongs to Milton Glaser and above the door is written “Art is Work.”
Glaser has spent almost every day of the past 53 years working at his desk in this building. Pen in hand, drawing board bursting with ideas, he is one of the greatest graphic designers of our time and has been creating iconic works for decades. The legendary Bob Dylan poster from 1967 (a black profile with the artist’s hair a cascade of different colors) for instance, the now world-famous Brooklyn Brewery logo (you’ll find the squiggly “B” in a green circle at a bar near you) and the graphic profile of the TV show Mad Men (the outline of a suited Don Draper reclining in a chair, cigarette between his fingers) are all classic Glaser creations. To browse one of the books detailing his collected works is to journey through epic graphic extravagances, seductive drawings, experimental fonts, colorful posters, schematically drawn book covers and a flood of illustrations, artwork, letters and graphic design.
A real New Yorker, born and raised
Glaser is like the building he sits in – a sole remnant of a time past. The design industry is now the domain of the young. But while many illustrators and designers are working away from the core of their industries – and as they age, lose their social network and the number of commissions falls away – Glaser, now 89, is as busy as ever (still using pencil, crayons and paint brushes on paper).
“I know too much,” he says. “I do too much. I have too many options. And I’m lucky! I’ve never isolated myself and focused on a single niche – instead I’ve worked across a broad range of subjects.”
He’s wearing suit pants, a turtleneck and a lounge jacket, all the same deep blue as the thundery skies outside the window that have covered the whole of Manhattan in a gloomy darkness. He’s slim with an -expressive, slightly haggard face. His eyes, which -sparkle now and then, are deep set under a furrowed brow. All underneath a bald pate. He has a cool manner, but one -suspects a great sense of humor beneath the surface of that calm exterior.
When Glaser was eight years old and living in the Bronx with his parents (he’s a real New Yorker, “born and raised,” as they say), he was struck down by rheumatic fever, which confined him to his bed for a year. To help pass the time, his parents gave him clay to play with. Sitting in bed with a wooden tray on his lap, he created little worlds from this dark brown clay – -houses, people, trees, animals, creatures and more. Every evening he destroyed what he’d created during the day, so that the next morning he could start afresh with a new world.
“That time made me introspective and it was then, lying in that bed, I realized that by far the greatest source of satisfaction for me in this life is being able to create things. And I still feel that way today.”
Glaser’s parents, Eugene and Eleanor, were working class immigrants from Transylvania. The balance they gave him (“good cop/bad cop”) provided an important foundation on which he later built his successful career. His mother was always supportive, showered him with praise, believed in him at all times and encouraged him along his artistic path. She gave him confidence. His father was more skeptical and thought he should be a dentist or a lawyer. He challenged him. He gave him the ability to work purposefully and really hard.
“It’s good to have a parent who sets you boundaries and says, ‘Prove it to me.’ And another who says, ‘You can do anything.’ It’s a very good combination. Because we need boundaries, we need resistance, something we can overcome. We have to demonstrate and prove the possibilities to ourselves. If all you get is approval and praise from your parents, you’ll suffer as a result. Because you never learn to persevere.”
Breakthrough in 1966
Glaser’s breakthrough came in 1966 when he created the previously mentioned Bob Dylan poster. It was a promotional poster designed to help sell a greatest hits album – a product that usually has a short shelf life. But the psychedelic image hit the mark in a way that very few designs do and achieved immortality. The poster appeared in movies, magazines, everywhere you could think. “It had a life of its own,” as Glaser said, and it made a name for him. A reproduction of the Dylan poster is now the first thing you see when you click through to his online store.
By far his best-known creation though, the one that is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world, came more than a decade later.
Following a strong post-war period, New York’s economy began to decline in the 1960s. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975, but was saved at the last minute by a federal aid package. The city’s parks were crumbling and dangerous. The streets were plagued with crime and 42nd Street (or “The Deuce” as it was known) was infamous as a dirty, risky place where prostitution, drugs and violence abounded. In 1977, the serial killer Son of Sam terrorized the entire city – he became a symbol, a kind of personification, of all the chaos that reigned.
“It was a difficult time,” Glaser says. “People moved away from the city. Those who remained, struggled to earn enough money to survive. They were bad times.”
Change was on the horizon though. The City of New York decided it needed to rise from the ashes.
A campaign to improve New York's reputation
A campaign was launched to improve the city’s reputation and a man by the name of William S. Doyle, who worked for New York’s Department of Economic Development, hired an advertising agency. He also turned to Milton Glaser.
“He came in here to my office and sat at this desk we’re sitting at now (he points down at the tabletop with a long finger) and said, ‘We got a phrase. I love New York. Now we need an image.’ I said, ‘OK.’ They had a budget of $2,000, which is a ridiculously low sum, but I went along with it.”
Glaser went home and designed the logo. Quick and easy. The first version he drew in the back of a taxi using a red crayon on a white piece of paper. He gave it to the client and they accepted it. When he took another look a few days later, he felt it could be improved. He drew a new design, moving NY down onto a second line. When he got in touch with Doyle though, he wasn’t interested in the new version. They already had one and it would take too long. But Glaser kept at him and finally he gave in.
“So the logo almost never existed. I find it funny, because that was in 1977 and the thing is still all around us every day. You can’t escape it! God knows how many of those T-shirts that have been printed!”
It’s been claimed that the New York logo is one of the most copied symbols of all time.
“Well, maybe since the cross. It’s definitely one of the most universally recognized logos. Most icons and logos are just junk. You can soon toss them in the garbage. And of course most of them are designed to persuade you to buy something. What was different about this logo was that it acted as the voice of the people. People really loved their city, they wanted to express that and they wanted change.”
New York’s development since then is, in many ways, a success story. Tourism has mushroomed, Wall Street is handling more money than ever and the crime rate is lower than it has been for several decades. And those white T-shirts with the black-and-red logo are selling as well as ever.
“So much of the work you do in your life just disappears – no one ever sees it again. But the I Love NY logo is proof that these small iconic things, when done right, can be hugely powerful. They can change the way people think. If you manage to create something that speaks to people, that increases their awareness, then you can help to achieve something truly significant.”
Published: March 18, 2019