The Bronx native behind one of the world's most famous logos discusses the city that, to him, is brimming with endless possibilities to unlock the creative challenges of life in conversation for Document No. 8.
Milton Glaser is a legend. A graphic design guru who has influenced his time for over six decades. A thinker whose visual language has shaped the identities of magazines, institutions, museums, and restaurants all over the world. The list of his accomplishments would be too long, but you know them—think Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits or the Angels in America posters, New York magazine and Esquire covers, or the Brooklyn Brewery logo. Glaser also co-founded the legendary Push Pin Studios in the 50s and the cult New York magazine in the late 60s. He studied etching with painter Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, Italy. He is the chairman of the board at the School of Visual Arts, where he still teaches. And he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts by President Obama. One of his most iconic artworks is a symbol of pop culture and an ode to the state and city it celebrates: the glorious ‘I Love NY’ logo, which, as the story goes, Glaser sketched on a paper napkin during a taxi ride in 1977. And New York is what embodies Milton Glaser. The artsy New York, the intellectual New York, the zeitgeist New York. The New York I grew up dreaming about. Glaser is part of that mythology for me. He is featured in the books of my father—an author and journalist—and often spends lunch with my godparents Myrna and Paul Davis, who have known him since the days they collaborated at Push Pin. When you have the pleasure to sit with Glaser, you always learn about humankind. Nearly 87, the sophisticated and captivating Glaser likes to share his philosophical life lessons. Here, he reflects on awareness, purpose, education, renaissance, and how the only thing that worries him these days is politics.
Eglée de Bure—Let’s start with New York—you were born here.
Milton Glaser—In the Bronx, a neighborhood of Italians, Jews from Eastern Europe, and Irish people. There was very little interaction, except every once in a while a gang of Irish kids would come to the Jewish section, beat them up, and then go home. That happened once or twice a year. As much as we love the idea of a united world, people left to their own devices will separate and form their own idea of who is important and who is not. This was early in the days of the flood of immigration that happened in New York. In the mid-20s and early-30s, one out of four citizens of New York was Jewish. One out of four. Incredible. It explains a lot of things about the history and the ethos of the city. That of course is no longer true, but it was an important component in developing New York’s character and identity.
Eglée—And your identity as a New Yorker?
Milton—I don’t know. Certainly there was an identification of being in the Bronx. The boroughs were quite separate and had their own identity. Bronx and Brooklyn were always at odds with one another and battling for who was the best. The idea of a “New Yorker”—I was born in 1929—didn’t coalesce that early; that developed a little later, the identity of the city as a unique place in the world. In those days it was really the epitome of the American ideal of welcoming immigration. Ironically, now it has turned on its head and the country is becoming like every other racist country in the world—beginning to be the opposite of what it was. We’re at a strange point in human history where the tendency for isolation and antagonism is increasing. On the other hand, the French were always proud of their difference and their own achievement, culture, food. They’re a little creepy.
Eglée—Are you saying I’m creepy, Milton?!
Milton—[Laughs]. I’m really insulting you! But that’s what cultural identity produces. It has a great benefit and encourages people to feel they’re worthy. The great drawback is a refusal to recognize the rest of the world. I’m afraid that’s in the cell, not in the mind.
Eglée—You talk about how “the brain knows everything.”
Milton—The brain knows everything because it’s made out of the same primordial matter as everything. Everything was created at once, if you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, which means everything in its origins is made of the same stuff. There isn’t any reality without the original material in it. At least it seems to me to be an acceptable explanation as to why we understand these invisible connections between things.
Eglée—What about inspiration?
Milton—Well, inspiration is not an external signal; it’s all in the brain already. The idea that you’ll see something that will suddenly inspire your work is a figment of the imagination. The brain knows everything; the only issue is how to get to the source.
Eglée—Would you then say New York doesn’t inspire you?
Milton—I get inspired by one thing about New York, which is that it suggests everything is possible. I don’t get inspired by moonlight on the river, but I get inspired by the idea of what is living proof here: this incredible vitality and energy towards making things, producing things. The environment encourages one to do, to be active. As do the very things that make it difficult, like competition; before you kill somebody you’re willing to fight to the death to survive. That energy, when properly harnessed, produces everything: music, art, and its downsides: criminality, viciousness. What you have in New York is this incredible desire to exceed, which certainly stimulates people to achievement. The complexity of the city, the variety of opportunities, and the nature of its population is so complicated you could say it’s the worst place on Earth or the best.
“I like the idea that stories can illuminate a condition. I don’t like them unless they ignite something in your memory, or lead you to an understanding that you didn’t have before.”
Eglée—I heard that you go about your work like you have a problem to solve.
Milton—Along with this idea that we are connected to everything, I assume that I have the answer before I begin. It’s just the question of finding the right road to get there. To stumble along the way because you don’t know exactly what it is until you’re there—there is no way of planning it. It is not rational. It’s not logical. It’s not deductive—that is not the way you arrive at imaginative solutions. I hesitate to use the word “creative.” I hate that word! The city provides endless opportunities, essentially because of ambiguity. Because our problem in general is preconception; we have an idea about everything, like a person before we meet them, we make judgments about that person. This prevents us from understanding what we’re looking at. One of the secrets to life is not to have preconceptions: to allow the experience to occur and not decide what it is before you’ve had the experience. You will find that with most things in your life, you have already preconceived what you’ve thought before encountering it. I try not to do that. I’m not entirely successful.
Eglée—It must be discipline.
Milton—You have to have an open mind and be able to challenge everything, including your idea that belief is bad. Everything is open for grabs; you can’t close your mind to any possibility. That idea of accepting what is—you have to understand what is and not try to reshape it into what it isn’t. I think that Buddhist thought helps you. It makes you withdraw from this idea that you understand everything completely before you experience it. Meditation is a suspension of preconception and can be applied to your life if you’re willing to. It makes you anxious to do that, because as human beings we want clarity and precision.
Milton—For someone like myself, it’s the only way to progress. It’s also why my work is so—in some ways—styleless. I learned from Picasso that you can give up everything and start as though you’d never done it before; you don’t have to be attached to your work in terms of believing that it’s true. It is just a way of seeing. You can abandon it overnight. I never understood this allegiance to pointillism, to futurism, to modernism—what are you being loyal to? I move around a lot in my work, from architecture, to interiors, to textiles. I give up a lot of what I used to do. The idea that you can abandon something once you’ve mastered it is a great idea.
Eglée—Does it have to do with staying relevant as well?
Milton—I think it does. Sometimes things change and you have to adapt to that change and acknowledge it. Sometimes it only has to do with your own personal development. You’ve had enough of expressing this idea; it exists in the world now—you don’t have to keep going or make any more. There is an enormous drive to maintain the skill and continue articulating, developing, and getting better at it. But it means you also void an alternative engagement with something else that you might want to do. It’s a personal issue and linked to the rest of your life. Not everybody is free to choose their way of earning a living. It’s tough.
Eglée—I know the feeling. What was it like to publish New York magazine?
Milton—We bought it with the idea that we would make a weekly magazine out of it. It was a Sunday supplement in the old New York Herald Tribune. It was here in the building and we built it. What drives a weekly magazine is that every day is full of deadlines. You have to get into the rhythm of doing it and work harmoniously with others. It was fortunate because we had a lot of people who liked one another and sensed we were all in this together, which is one of the greatest experiences of life. It was very exciting because you have to reflect what’s going on around you. Also, weekly is different. You have less time to refine. You have to get it right the first time; you don’t always succeed, but you produce it, two days later it’s on the newsstand, and people are talking about it. Then next week is something else! That idea of the excitement of journalism, reporting, and telling people what’s going on, still prevails even though print is disappearing.
Eglée—Do you still look at it? At magazines in general?
Milton—I like New York. It’s found its voice again after a while where it lost it. I read The New Yorker, which has superb writers.
Eglée—I really like The New York Times Magazine.
Milton—I agree with you—they’re trying to do something unusual and expand the idea of what magazine design is. For an establishment product, for the best newspaper in the United States, they’re remarkably adventurous. Usually when you become the king, you become very conservative, meaning that there are more rules, more limitations.
Eglée—You are a great storyteller yourself.
Milton—I like stories and telling stories. I like the idea that stories can illuminate a condition. I don’t like them unless they ignite something in your memory, or lead you to an understanding that you didn’t have before. I’ve been teaching for 55 years, and it’s very hard to teach without stories. It’s not that part of teaching that’s didactic where you say, “First you do this, then you do this.” It’s almost by inference that you tell a story which shows fear or dependency. Does the story have a purpose? The purpose in most cases is to understand the world, at least understand that moment, in some way. Many graphic designers think about the way something looks as the objective. For me, I think: “What is it that can be understood better through this than now?” To some degree there is always a narrative or a storytelling quality in much of my work. It’s why for so much of the beginning of my professional life—although I didn’t see an alternative to that—it was based on illustration. In recent years, there is a more generalized way of informing people that is not illustrative in the same way it was 20 or 30 years ago. When I look at abstraction, I think of reality, or what fits into that abstraction. And when I think of reality, I think of abstraction: “What can you abstract from that?” I find that the abstract and the real have become one thing. This is one of the reasons why I love [Giorgio] Morandi—you shift from the abstract to the real constantly. It’s harder to do for us because we’re in a kind of a difference business. I cannot pretend that I’m in the art business. I’m in the communication business, and if I fail at that purpose, I’m out of it. There is no pretending you’re an artist. You’re someone who is, at best, informing people.
“I get inspired by one thing about New York, which is that it suggests everything is possible.”
Eglée—You don’t consider yourself an artist?
Milton—I’m an aspiring artist. But whether I am or not is not my judgment. Whenever I can use the work to be expressive on an artistic level, I push for that. It’s the main reason I work. But I can’t pretend that it’s always successful. Again, that’s a judgment of history and not of your desire. Everybody wants to be an artist, but somebody else will determine that, not you.
Eglée—Well, you were awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama.
Milton—That’s a great medal; I wish my mother were alive to see that. It is hard to get. That was a great validation.
Eglée—You are an artist after all, Milton!
Milton—[Laughs]. Because I like Obama so much, coming from him it was very different than if I had gotten it from Bush, who was a moron. We’ve had very few equally intelligent presidents. How rationally and compassionately Obama has behaved in the world is amazing. We’re very lucky to have him, and when I see the acrimony and hatred he has generated, that whole old guard—right wing, crazy, murderous people—and how much of what the situation we’re in now comes out of the Republican hatred of Obama. They would never admit that it’s primarily a racial response. They’ve made life miserable for him and for us in turn, because they would not allow anything to happen. I’ll be very sad to see him go.
Eglée—You have been teaching for 55 years. What is it that you most like about it?
Milton—Being useful. The only two things that matter in life are the quality of your friendships—your love and affection towards someone—and the feeling that you could have left something behind so the world is slightly better than it was before you entered it. There’s nothing else. If you can be helpful to others, certainly to students, that’s a great source of strength and feeling that your life hasn’t been worthless. There was no reason on Earth for Morandi to teach. He taught by his presence, by what he was, not by what he said—there is a big difference. It had nothing to do with teaching how to etch a plate or something like that, even though there was obviously some material contact with things you had to do to physically produce something. But his benefit to me was just seeing him in life, seeing him as a person, seeing him sit in class and patiently look at these inept works by these kids who had never studied art and accepting them. Amazing.
Eglée—That is what you aspire to?
Milton—I would hope that people felt I created an opportunity for them to grow and to move onward in their life. Also, not to get stuck in this idea of belief. I’m very cynical about what people believe. When you see either religious belief or political belief you realize how nonsensical and dangerous it is. To be a Republican at this time you have to be a lunatic, a mad person. I’ve never been as conscious of the madness of a culture as I am now in the United States, with an idiot like Donald Trump who is basically flogging this idea of what they call “nativism.” All these crazy people supporting him, hoping that he’s going to change their life by declaring war on the Middle East or whatever it is. How do you explain this?
Eglée—It never struck you before?
Milton—Bush never seemed quite as bad. It struck me with Hitler. I always wondered how it was possible for Hitler and Mussolini to get people to follow them. Under the right conditions of fear you can make people do anything. Now we’re at a point where it’s coming around again—the possibility for a kind of tyrant on the scale of Hitler. He’s ready, the world is ready for it in a terrible way. You say, “How stupid can people be?” And well, here’s an example of how stupid.
Eglée—It sounds like a joke.
Milton—But it’s getting more and more plausible as the case goes on. I really worry about the stupidity of this behavior and that a guy like that could become President. Trump? Amazing. Anyhow, what do you want to do with this stuff?
“As much as we love the idea of a united world, people left to their own devices will separate and form their own idea of who is important and who is not.”
Milton—[Laughs]. Sure! I did something for Trump 10 years ago. He came here one day and said, “I need a bottle for my great vodka.” So I did it and he liked it and paid me. A couple of months later I got a call from a journalist who asked, “So how is it to work for Trump?” I said, “It was very easy.” The journalist said, “Was there anything unusual?” And I said, “No, it was a perfectly good job to do. One thing that I was curious about was that I could never figure out where his hair came from. Usually when somebody has a comb-over you can tell where it begins. But there is something weird, you can’t figure out where the roots are.” They published that in the article, and then I got a note from Trump which said: “Not nice, Milton.” I wrote him a letter and said,“I know, it was inappropriate to talk about a client’s physical characteristics in a business story. Please excuse me.” That was the end of it [Laughs].
Eglée—What are you working on right now?
Milton—I just finished an identity for Rhode Island. It was an arduous process, largely because working with government is not encouraging. [Laughs]. Anything to do with government, there is a horrible characteristic of human beings to hold onto little fragments of power as if their life depended on it and to try to make sure that they have the control. The government is hierarchical, so there’s this step-by-step and bureaucracies where there are 10 people for a single task. It’s inefficient but that comes out of human behavior rather than any institutional form, right?!
Eglée—What do you dedicate your time to these days?
Milton—Making things. I still like to make things and still like to do prints. But now I want to finish my house and move and see what it’s like to spend a little more time in the country.
Eglée—You like the idea of moving all your stuff?
Milton—I like the idea of giving. We’ve lived in the house over 50 years. It’s a spectacular house, but there is too much of it and everything in it. I want to simplify. Everybody does at a certain point. If you can, you’re lucky—you basically reduce the complexity of your life.