By Jessica Honikman
"The purpose of art is to inform and delight.” This quote from the Roman poet Horace sums up the philosophy of Milton Glaser, the Godfather of American graphic design. On May 22, Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (Arthouse Films), a new documentary about the designer’s life and work, opens at Cinema Village in New York.
An unmatched inspiration and idol to designers all over the world, Glaser is the driving force behind many iconic brands, magazines, stores, political campaigns and other works that are now part of our everyday landscape, including New York Magazine, campaigns for The Nation, the Brooklyn Brewery’s brand identity, Grand Union supermarket’s logo and interiors, and of course, the iconic “I â™¥ N Y” logo, conceived in 1977 to promote tourism and hometown pride in the then-impoverished city.
Not just a retrospective for design geeks, the film concerns the impact of design as a force for good. Mr. Glaser’s feelings about New York City, life, friendship, food, politics and the human need to create are just some of the subjects intertwined with discussions of his work. Heeb met with this living legend in the offices of Milton Glaser Inc., housed in the same East 32nd Street brownstone since 1974.
How come there hasn’t been a movie about you until now?
What a mysterious question! Well, I guess fundamentally because no one was aroused enough to produce one. There was a movie a long time ago as part of a series about design, for Channel 13, that had a series of movies about six design practitioners, but that was about 25 years ago. I don’t know why people make movies, mostly because they can sell it to somebody. Graphic design is still a rather arcane subject.
True, although the film isn’t about design per se, it’s about the act of making things, working for the public good. I think people will be surprised and interested to learn about all the projects you’ve worked on and the impact they’ve had.
At one point in the film you comment ‘people are desperate to sacrifice themselves for something they believe in.’ Do you feel more hopeful about that kind of thing since our recent election?
Yes, I think the election of Obama was an extraordinarily hopeful moment for us all for any number of reasons, but first of all it represented the end of a period of aggression, self-indulgence, and, more than anything else, a profound cynicism about the way the world operates. And besides the fact that Obama represents, finally, a kind of indication that racism is no longer the most important way that people think about things-something we all wanted to believe was true about the United States, but wasn’t necessarily self-evident-but also that it he is a person who seemed to be decent, without cynicism and optimistic.
We have gone through such a disgraceful period in our history, that the idea that the general public could elect a person of Obama’s temperament and inclination is a greatly encouraging sign about America. And the world has received it that way! People think we have come out of a very dark period and I think we have, at least as far as the eye can see.
People know your work well, but almost nothing about you. Was it strange to have your residence, your wife and other aspects of your personal life filmed?
To some degree because I like to be private, but the truth is that they still don’t know anything about my life…The camera can only reflect a limited amount of information and distort the rest. And my inclination is not to be terribly public about this side of my life.
I think fans of Heeb will be interested in your socialist upbringing in the Bronx. For many of us, there’s a romantic notion about the labor movement and the immigrant experience and all that. So what else can you say about it-what was it like?
Well, when you are growing up, you only know the life you are immersed in. I was in the middle of a politically active left-wing community, and it was the life I knew. They were militant, they were very much part of the growth of the Labor Movement, which had been inert before that. The disconcerting part of the upbringing was the continued support of Stalin and the Left long after it had been shown that their totalitarian instincts were comparable to those of the Right.
So at a certain point after this idea of development of the proletariat, of unions to protect people and so on, you suddenly realize that there was a dark side-as you discover in all things in life-and you realized you had to be more open-minded about everything and susceptible to changing your opinions about everything.
If you develop that elasticity of mind, I think, if you do that, then you realize that belief is a crystalization that prevents you from moving forward in your own perceptions of the world, and that this ability to change your mind and your willingness to not too firmly hold any belief to your chest is one of the great testaments to human freedom-the fact that the brain is capable of changing its mind is a very important manifestation of the possibilities of the human species. After I became more knowledgeable about what happened, I could no longer support the same belief as I had when I was a young man, but my instincts are to be on the Left because it suggests openness.
Did Judaism have any kind of role in your life, or was it more like Yiddishkeit mixed in with the socialism?
Well, it’s a funny thing, because, as you know, the Left was very anti-religious–so growing up was a funny reconciliation. My parents were modestly religious; we would celebrate Passover, some rituals like going to shul and that sort of thing, but even there, these beliefs were lightly held. But one of the things you do in life is reconcile contradictions, so it was perfectly all right for me to feel I didn’t have profound Jewish religious belief. Maybe because I have never believed in either position-a repudiation of belief or an acceptance of it-it was always open for discussion. All these profound issues of your life have to be maintained as open for discussion or else, again, you just limit your perception of reality.
For me, being Jewish is cultural as much as anything else, and it also has to do with ideas that I consider significant, one of which is ‘do no harm.’ So I find the culture of Judaism attractive. I find the religious part irrelevant, although it’s a mechanism for sharing experiences and so on. So I will, in fact, go to a Passover dinner. I went to one this year that [New Yorker writer] Judith Thurman gave. [The group was] very intelligent, partially Jewish, mostly non-religious people, but the ritual itself had profound meaning for me.
Well that brings me to our favorite topic, food (discussed at length in the film). I know in the film you won’t reveal the great little lunch spots in your neighborhood, but do you think you could give us one recommendation?
I could give you one-you remember I once wrote "The Underground Gourmet" (the New York column that introduced the city’s middle class to good, cheap, ethnic restaurants and spawned several books). I was always very interested in cheap restaurants-something we all need. I am very interested in the subject of restaurants as a sociological and personal issue, which is to say: What is the meaning of pleasure? Why do you go to certain restaurants and they give you pleasure and others don’t? And how do you create pleasure intentionally? And what is it about eating and talking with others within the context of an architectural framework that produces pleasure?
These questions are the most interesting thing about eating with others, and they are also part of my experience of working for three years with the man who invented the destination restaurant, Joe Baum. He was interesting to work with as a designer, because every time we did a restaurant it was starting from ground zero. Should we put the fork on the left or the right? Or maybe we should use two forks? All those questions as if you didn’t know anything about the subject. I like that idea of innocence when you start any new design project. You enter it almost as though you know nothing about the subject. But I always said I was very interested in food because my mother was such a dreadful cook.
I love that story in the film–about your mother’s spaghetti recipe!
But after all, food is one of the pleasurable moments of everybody’s life. There is almost no moment during the day that is as pleasant as eating something, particularly if it’s in an environment that encourages conversation and affection. You feel well-intended towards people you eat with. And one of the things I discovered early in life is that I couldn’t eat with people I didn’t like. To me it’s all wrapped up in a kind of series of common experiences where the atmosphere, the lighting, the seating, the food, everything moves you to a kind of perception of good will and enjoyment that very few other things create for you. And I’ve always been interested in that subject. I’ve designed a number of restaurants, and I find that the issue for me is always: How do you create pleasure? A great subject.
So is there one spot you can recommend to us?
Well, recently we found something we liked. It’s harder and harder to get good Chinese food in New York; it used to be the great source for good food. I’m sure the good ones have moved to Queens, but I like the Chinatown Brasserie on Lafayette and Great Jones. First because it’s a pleasant, big, professionally run restaurant, and second because the food is really great–better than anything you can get in Chinatown these days.
What are you working on right now?
A great project! I’m redesigning the [old Chelsea Clearview] movie house for the School [of Visual Arts] on West 23rd Street (the theater was recently leased by the School for use as a non-profit venue). And then I have a big kinetic sculpture that’s based on Tatlin’s homage to the Third International, and it revolves and it’s also a clock. On the marquee it says, ‘It’s one o’clock, time to think about the meaning of your life.’ That’s been a great project. It’s in the works. It’s not done yet. [The theater] is already in operation in the sense that people have been going there, but the interior won’t be done for a few weeks. The sculpture is 18 feet tall, and will have to be brought in on a crane.
An additional interview with Milton Glaser, and images of his work can be found here.