Milton Glaser

Graphic designer who created the legendary I NY logo – and then gave it away


It’s the mid-1970s and New York is an inner city nightmare of escalating crime, uncollected garbage littering her graffiti-sprayed streets. The city’s finances are in dire straights but tourists are staying away, so the State hires an advertising agency, Wells Rich Green to change the city’s image. Milton Glaser, already a well-known graphic artist, is tasked with creating a strong visual to go with the campaign.

Glaser’s creation, I NY, will become probably one of the most plagiarised slogans in advertising history. Yet Glaser, who has died aged 91, didn’t make a cent out of the slogan he sketched on the back of an envelope during a taxi journey, donating the idea to his beloved New York.

The black letters with their chunky typeface and the striking red heart epitomise Glaser’s approach: a combination of simplicity and bold design. He described I NY as – “a little puzzle. There is a complete word, ’I’. There is a symbol for an emotion, which is the heart, and there are initials for a place.” It’s a message requiring just three little mental adjustments but it’s so simple that it’s almost impossible not to figure it out.

Milton Glaser was born in the Bronx at the beginning of the Great Depression. His parents, Eugene, who owned a dry-cleaning and tailoring shop, and Eleanor Bergman, a housewife, were both immigrants from Transylvania in Hungary.

The family lived in a Tudor revival apartment building, part of what was at the time a famous co-operative housing experiment. The residents were mainly Jewish families from Eastern Europe. It was a very left-wing environment with Marxists and Trotskyites among them but culture was highly valued – about 95% of the kids went to college.

Glaser decided early on he wanted to be an artist and although he had his mother’s support his father was not keen. “He didn’t think I could make a living. He wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer,” Glaser explained.

But he persisted and enrolled at what was then the Manhattan High School of Music and Art. His original intention was to become a cartoonist but a lecture on Cezanne opened up a new world for him and he discovered “a thing called design”. He then continued his studies at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, graduating in 1951. A Fulbright scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, where he studied etching with the celebrated painter Giorgio Morandi, made him a firm believer in the importance of drawing.

In 1954 he was back in New York where, with some of his Cooper Union classmates, he founded Push Pin Studios, which soon established a reputation for bold images and bright colours.

Glaser designed the covers of the Signet Classic Shakespeare series, magazine illustrations and TV commercials, but the work that marked him out as a true original was his poster for Bob Dylan’s 1966 Greatest Hits album.

His portrait of the singer’s dark silhouetted face, his hair a cascade of psychedelic coils may owe something to both Marcel Duchamp, (the face) and Islamic art, (the hair) but the result is pure Milton Glaser.

Originally conceived as a giveaway, the poster took on a life of its own, becoming a symbol of the 1960s and is still selling as a reproduction.

However, Glaser was already looking further afield and in 1968, with his editor friend Clay Felker, he founded New York magazine which at the beginning was run from Glaser’s townhouse. As its president and design director until 1977, he was instrumental in creating the look that still characterises the magazine today.

With another friend, Jerome Snyder, art director of Scientific American, he also created and wrote the iconic Underground Gourmet feature – first for The New York Herald Tribune – and after its demise, New York Magazine .

A hymn to budget dining, the column scouted out unusual, sometimes exotic and out-of-the-way eateries all over the city, and gained such a following that it even spun a guidebook and a cookbook.

In 1974 Glaser left Push Pin for good to work on his own. As he explained, “one of the great virtues of working for yourself is that you don’t work with people you don’t like.”

A sworn enemy of retirement, for over 50 years every Wednesday night Glaser taught at the School of Visual Arts. Besides writing several books on design, he also collaborated with his wife Shirley Girton on three children’s books, If Apples Had Teeth (1960), The Alphazeds (2003) and The Big Race (2005).

In the course of his career he designed over 400 posters and created logos for the World Health Organization, for plays such as the award-winning Angels in America and even the TV series Mad Men.

In 2009 Glaser made history by becoming the first graphic designer to be awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Although he always fasted on Yom Kippur and held a Passover Seder every year, Glaser was not particularly observant but he credited his typical Jewish outsider mentality for giving him a sense of objectivity, and for instilling in him the concept of generosity towards others.

The city of New York, still making millions from Glaser’s most famous creation, must be giving thanks for that.

He is survived by his wife Shirley, whom he married in 1957.

julie carbonara

Milton Glaser: born June 26, 1929. Died June 26, 2020

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