Spring 2001

Glaser’s genial self-portrait

Milton Glaser: Art is Work

Designed and written by Milton Glaser
Thames & Hudson, £48

I know I’m not alone when I say that Milton Glaser was the first graphic designer I could identify by name. At school, in the mid-1970s, we used the Signet Classic paperback editions of Shakespeare. Glaser’s cover images were set like jewels within a formal black border and his sinuous linework and splashes of colour played beautifully against the white backgrounds, austere typography and constant frame. His credit, I noticed, was always to be found in the image’s corner. Its presence suggested these were no ordinary illustrations; they were made by someone of consequence.

By that time, as I wasn’t then aware, Glaser – Pushpin iconoclast, co-founder of New York magazine – was an international figure and one of the design stars of his day. His first book, Milton Glaser: Graphic Design, had appeared in 1973 (the Signet Classics receive a spread) and it would guide and influence a whole generation of designers. There can be few studios established in the 1970s and early 1980s without a copy, and 28 years later, Glaser’s genial tour of his early output is still in print – an extraordinary achievement, in the relentless blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world of graphic design.

The new book picks up where the first left off, covering projects from roughly the last 25 years. This makes sense on one level, but at this stage in Glaser’s career – he is now in his early seventies – it is a little disappointing. There was a strong case for a study that surveyed and reviewed his entire body of work. The inevitable repetition of material in the first book would have been less of a problem than Glaser and his publisher possibly think. Much of it is shown in black and white or two-colour and it would have been illuminating to see new, properly dated colour pictures of these and less familiar early designs.

Another odd decision, for a designer of Glaser’s editorial sophistication, is that he has once again chosen to assemble the book himself. Art is Work has no editor and contains no essays by impartial observers, still less the long, well researched, critical biography that a figure of his stature could sustain. Glaser writes his own captions, as before, and these are often revealing, but at times the tone and information feel more appropriate to a slide-based lecture than a book. It’s regrettable, too, that such basic information as a project’s date has to be extracted from the index at the back.

The section dealing with Glaser’s projects for the Grand Union chain of supermarkets and L’Express magazine, both owned by the late Sir James Goldsmith, typifies this lack of perspective. Many regarded Goldsmith as a right-wing bully, so it is a surprise to hear Glaser, a liberal who has taken admirable stands on editorial freedom, speak so warmly about a proprietor who “dominated” his editors “through charm or fear”. This is not to suggest there was anything improper about their alliance, but a less partial text could have explored a relationship that it’s hard to square with Glaser’s critical views of culture and commerce – at least as he presents it here.

One of Art is Work’s strengths is that these views do emerge with clarity and force. Anything Glaser writes is worth reading and he includes the text of several essays and talks. The clearsightedness and wisdom packed into “Design and Business – The War is Over”, written in 1995, should make it required reading for anyone entering design, and a vital refresher for any designer, of any age, who has mislaid early idealism. In “The Truth”, an essay published last year, Glaser describes opening a fortune cookie to find an ad for an e-commerce company instead of the traditional fortune. “All of these messages intend to sell rather than inform,” he writes, “and tend to distend or modify the truth in ways that we can no longer see. Our brains and sense of truth cannot be unaffected by this onslaught.” There is a natural affinity between Adbusters- and No Logo-reading dissidents, and liberals of Glaser’s generation, who had the experience of working for corporations that used to cherish goals other than the maximisation of shareholder profits, at any cost.

Olivetti was one such company and Glaser reprints his classic poster for the Valentine typewriter (1968), showing a mourning dog based on a section of a painting by Piero di Cosimo. Glaser draws like an angel – he has a particular gift for animals – and the sombre, cross-hatched hound is a superb reinterpretation, which he has assimilated as his own. His portraits – Beethoven, Elvis, Duke Ellington, Albert King – are often vigorous and compelling. He doesn’t regard himself as an illustrator, but his approach to design is indivisibly grounded in drawing and, for me, the music and editorial projects that display his versatile mastery of styles and techniques are easily the most satisfying. Glaser’s problem is that in the 1960s his fluent graphic line helped to define the look of the times, and such a distinction always comes at a price. Design’s lack of sympathy for drawing in the past fifteen years meant that his commitment to it was bound to look dated. It’s probably still too soon to achieve the distance needed to make a fair assessment of much of the work shown in the book.

Glaser is surely right, though, when he observes that drawing is the closest kind of looking and that form-making without it is impoverished. The computer is no substitute for the instantaneous connection and tactile feedback possible between hand, eye and brain. We are still too much in love with the screen to apprehend this clearly, but there are signs that the mood might change. Young image-makers are making drawings that celebrate the hand’s expressive power, and it was heartening to see Glaser and his I ♥ NY logo revisited in a recent issue of Dazed & Confused. There is a more detailed, probing, historically minded and persuasive book to be written about Glaser’s central achievement in postwar American and international design. Until then, Art is Work boasts a wealth of inspiring images and some timely, impassioned polemic.