Milton Glaser - Final Love Letters to his Beloved City
“Design is moving an existing condition to a preferred one.”
— MILTON GLASER
Visionary New York-based graphic designer Milton Glaser died on June 26 2020, his 91st birthday.
Largely considered to be the godfather of modern graphic design, Milton Glaser’s prolific artistry is firmly embedded within the cultural tapestry of our collective living memory. A kaleidoscope of vivid styles, wild colour, and dynamic volume, Glaser’s trademark visual vocabulary helped shape the pop-era and psychedelic aesthetics. His illustrious and celebrated career spanned some 65 years, culminating in the creation of some of the world's most iconic posters, logos and print art - none more recognisable than his revolutionary Bob Dylan silhouette and the signature 1977 motif, ‘I ♥ NY’.
Born in the Bronx on June 26 1929 as the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, Milton grew up amidst a hotbed of leftist thought during the Great Depression. At age 9, rheumatic fever left him bed-ridden for a year. Forced into the discovery of art out of necessity, he soon developed a passion and innate ability to draw practically anything. After studying at Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art and The Cooper Union School of Art, Glaser accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to study with revolutionary still-life painter Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, Italy.
POSTER, DYLAN, 1966
“I wanted to do work that was public. I wanted to do work that was on the street. I wanted to do work that people saw.”
Upon his return to NYC in 1954, he faced the arduous dilemma on whether to focus on fine art or commercial pursuits. The decision was made when Glaser and his college classmates co-founded Push Pin Studios, a graphic design house deft in defining a contemporary era in visual culture. They were a collective of radicals, drawing wide stimulus and subverting classical ideas and form through a new lens; surreal juxtaposition, trippy palettes, narrative illustration, and bold ornamentation - constituting a distinct modern movement. Glaser went on to launch his own design firm Milton Glaser Inc. in 1974, followed shortly by a successful one man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Milton’s body of work is immense. His skill in redefining and elevating design to a higher art was unprecedented. A maverick who, at every stage of his career, morphed to the myriad of an evolving spectrum. Developing an idea from a drawing is considered his masterstroke of wisdom - being able to engage in what is real first lies the challenge in any creative objective. In 2009, Milton was awarded the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama, the first graphic designer to ever be bestowed with the accolade.
“New York is a mind-set, and we’re all arrogantly proud of what that represents.”
New York City was home and Milton’s talents firmly implanted themselves within the blueprint of its visual architecture. Signage, sculptures, and symbols. Interiors, icons, and facades. From the Bronx to Staten Island, every turn of the head provides some flicker of Glaser’s brilliant mind at work - the Rainbow Room, Brooklyn Brewery, Trattoria Dell’Arte and The Rubin Museum. Every Times Square souvenir stand is selling overpriced knockoffs of his trademark logo on a t-shirt - a creation he was never paid for. In 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he revised that proverbial motto with the update the city was calling for: ‘I ♥ NY More Than Ever.’
“Art is Work”
Those three words are etched above the door of his studio. And, true to that mantra, he never stopped.
Still, weeks ago at age 90, despite requiring dialysis three times a week, Milton ventured into the office each day, surrendering to the sparks and swarms of creativity.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, amidst so much world discussion of “we’re all in this together”, Glaser took to working an idea around that theme, reflecting on how each of us are intrinsically linked in our shared experience. ‘Together’. A single word. Seemingly simple. A jumble of mismatched letters, all radical in contrast yet oddly complementary. Like human beings. Different. Connected. One.
He shared some insight in one of his final interviews that we feel is particularly potent.
“I have no faith in my own prediction. I don’t think there’s any way of telling what’s going to happen. I know this [pandemic] is a cosmic change and that nothing will ever be the same again. But I do know that if there’s a collective consciousness, if we realize we are all related and we need one another, that would be the best thing that could happen.”
Milton had already left us a legacy. Perhaps Together was a small parting gift, a P.S. to his city before signing off. A motto, like his others before, that would go on to be replicated and universalised when needed. On the outset, a footnote. Beneath the surface, a timely bequest.
His obituary in The New York Times can be read here.