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Milton Glaser, the legendary graphic designer behind the “I ♥ New York” logo, longtime School of Visual Arts faculty member and acting chairman of the SVA Board—whose eclecticism and humanism continually shaped American design over his prolific 65-year career—died on Friday, June 26, 2020, his 91st birthday. He is survived by his wife, Shirley, who served as the director of SVA’s Visual Arts Gallery in the 1960s.
“Our beloved friend and compass Milton Glaser will be missed every day at SVA, around this city and around the world,” SVA President David Rhodes said in a statement to the College community.
A role model to many, Glaser was known as much for his visionary designs and art direction as his love of the creative process itself. At a talk earlier this year, celebrating the recent publication of his book Mag Men: Fifty Years of Making Magazines, co-written with Walter Bernard (1961 Graphic Design) and Anne Quito (MFA 2014 Design Criticism), Glaser reiterated his allegiance to the words of Roman critic Horace: that an artist’s aim is “to inform and delight”—a credo that also serves as the title to a 2009 documentary about Glaser.
“The idea that you can both learn and be exhilarated by something is so wonderful,” he said. “What else could you hope for?”
Glaser set the tone for his influential career early, in 1954, when he co-founded the trailblazing Push Pin Studios with Cooper Union classmates Seymour Chwast, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins. Push Pin soon became known for its embrace of “the things Modernism taught us to hate,” as Glaser put it—ornament, illustration, storytelling, playful reappropriations of historical styles—as well as its rejection of the sentimental realism of contemporary commercial illustration. Push Pin and Glaser’s work throughout the 1960s arguably helped establish the look of the decade’s counterculture and its psychedelic aesthetics, exemplified by Glaser’s poster for Bob Dylan’s 1966 Greatest Hits album: a black silhouette of the musician’s face in profile, electrified by a head of kaleidoscopic curls and a custom, chunky typeface. (In 2014 Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner commissioned Glaser to create the on-air and print graphics for the series’ final season.) He left Push Pin in 1974, when he felt the studio had developed too much a fixed style, and formed Milton Glaser, Inc.
In 1968, Glaser co-founded New York magazine with editor Clay Felker. Glaser art-directed the publication—including designing its iconic logotype—for nine years, and wrote its “Underground Gourmet” column, as it became the model for other city magazines and service journalism.
In 1977, a time when New York was in dire financial straits, the state’s Board of Economic Development recruited Glaser to design a promotional campaign for the city. After submitting one solution, Glaser had a better idea and scribbled the now-iconic “I ♥ NY” in red pencil while in a cab. (After the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001, Glaser amended the design to read “I ♥ NY More Than Ever,” with a small black mark, a bruise, over the lower-left area of the heart.)
While his most-famous design’s persistence and resonance over the years surprised him, he was proud of what it accomplished (and he did it pro bono). “What the city needed at that time was an affirmation, a restoration of the feeling that New York was an important place to be,” he said in 2018. “Graphic designers hope that their work will have an effect. Well, this did.”
Born in the South Bronx in 1929 to Jewish-Hungarian immigrants, Glaser grew up in a politically active, left-wing milieu amongst a community of Eastern European refugees, to which he credited his belief in collective action. He attended what is now the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and went to college at The Cooper Union, both in Manhattan. A Fulbright Scholarship after graduation took him to Bologna, Italy, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts with artist Giorgio Morandi.
Versatility, inventiveness and great productivity were Glaser’s hallmarks. In addition to his own illustration and print work, he designed countless posters, album and magazine covers, book jackets, newspaper identities and even restaurants; his clients included the Brooklyn Brewery, Knoll, Olivetti, the Metropolitan Opera, the Olympic Games, MGM, and the city of Rimini, Italy. In 1983, he and Walter Bernard formed WBMG, a publication design firm that designed or redesigned more than 50 magazines, newspapers and periodicals around the world, including Time, Fortune, The Nation and Paris Match. Glaser liked designing for supermarkets, too—as he did for Grand Union beginning in the ’70s—because of the role they played in our daily lives.
Glaser equated being a good designer with being a good citizen. He designed campaigns to raise awareness about humanitarian crises like the conflict in Darfur, climate change, and get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2005 he and fellow SVA faculty member Mirko Ilić published The Design of Dissent (republished in 2017), a collection of politically minded posters from around the world.
In 1960, Glaser joined the SVA faculty. His Design and Personality course, offered through the Continuing Education division, was open to all by interview and quickly became known as a launching pad for a broad constellation of successful and consequential creative professionals. Despite the demands of his own multifaceted career, he taught this course every Wednesday evening until 2002, when he began teaching in the MFA Design program.
In 1982, Glaser joined the College’s Board of Trustees, and in 2007 he succeeded SVA founder Silas H. Rhodes as the board’s chair. Over his long tenure at SVA, Glaser created countless works for the College, including a record 27 “Subway Series” posters (made for display in New York City’s subway system) and interior and exterior designs for the SVA Theatre.
“I feel better when I’m teaching than when I’m not,” Glaser said in 2008. “I think through teaching I have taught my students not to believe what anyone tells you, including me, but to instead learn to understand the world by observing it. That may be the most significant thing I have done.”
Glaser never retired, working from the East 32nd Street townhouse that served as home to Push Pin Studios, then New York, then his own studio, for more than five decades, before moving his offices to SVA last year. His many recognitions include exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art (1975), the Georges Pompidou Center (1977), Lincoln Center (1981), and as part of the SVA Masters Series (1989). Along with Mag Men, his books include Drawing Is Thinking (2008) and In Search of the Miraculous: Or, One Thing Leads to Another (2012). Glaser received lifetime achievement awards from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2004) and the Fulbright Association (2011), and in 2009 was the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of the Arts. Glaser was a member of The Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame and the AIGA and is represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Archive, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.; and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, among other institutions. The Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives, housed at the SVA Library, is the primary repository for Glaser’s vast body of work, holding thousands of posters, book jackets, album covers, magazine illustrations, print samples, interior designs, plus sketches and original art.
We strive to honor Milton’s legacy by upholding his own mantra: “Do good work.”