Milton Glaser, the designer whose artwork helped define the visual soul and identity of modern New York City, died Friday. He passed away on his birthday at the age of 91.
His wife Shirley Glaser told the New York Times that he died after having a stroke, and had recently suffered renal failure.
Glaser’s inexhaustible output over decades of work is capped by what is probably his best-known work: the iconic I Love NY logo with a heart in place of the word "love, "recognized by tourists and locals alike.
But for New Yorkers, his work permeates everyday life, from the design of Brooklyn Brewery beer labels to the logo of Stony Brook University to launching New York Magazine and its Underground Gourmet food column devoted to delicious cheap eats.
"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Milton Glaser, a lifelong New Yorker who designed the famous I Love New York logo. The logo was the perfect logo at the time he created it and remains so today,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Saturday. "What Milton Glaser gave to New York will long survive him. On behalf of the family of New York, my thoughts are with Milton's loved ones today, especially his wife Shirley. We lost a brilliant designer and great New Yorker."
Glaser was a quintessential New Yorker from his very bones: “Born in the Bronx on June 26, 1929, he was a public-school kid of the stickball generation, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary,” according to New York Magazine’s Christopher Bonanos.
Glaser studied at what is now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, then attended Cooper Union, and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. When he returned to New York, Glaser formed Push Pin Studios with fellow Cooper Union graduates -- among his notable creations are the covers of Penguin’s Shakespeare, Signet Classic Series, according to the Times.
His career was forever changed in 1966. After being injured in a serious motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan was rumored to be dead. His label CBS Records decided to release “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” and commissioned Glaser to design a poster “to generate positive publicity for his forthcoming album,” according to the Museum of Modern Art’s website.
The resultant artwork of Dylan - standing in profile with his curly strands rendered in psychedelic Medusa locks - employed Islamic artforms in an evocative rebuke to the singer’s supposed demise. “The energetic design with its swirling streams of color evokes the visual effects of the psychedelic drugs that were gaining popularity amongst members of the counterculture,” said MOMA, which has the poster in its permanent collection.
In a 2017 interview with Gothamist in his studio to mark the Dylan poster's 50th anniversary, Glaser said the poster was an example of how design can also achieve the status of art.
"What is it about that image that has made it a desirable object for so long? Yes, it's linked to that moment in time, a nostalgia for that era. But that's not the whole story," he said, delving into "the distinction between design and art, and the importance of understanding that distinction."
"Design is always purposeful. You're addressing an audience, because you want to motivate them to act—to buy something, usually. Art, on the other hand, is a mechanism for transforming the brain so that human beings can find commonalities. Art is a survival mechanism. It was invented to help us learn how to share an experience, meaning we're less likely to kill each other."
In 1968 Glaser teamed up with Clay Felker to launch the current iteration of New York Magazine, creating the publication’s signature sprawling font. He also used his platform in the magazine to champion the incredible variety of affordable immigrant food in New York City that was then ignored by mainstream critics.
“Starting in our first issues, Glaser and his friend Jerome Snyder, the design director of Sports Illustrated, created 'The Underground Gourmet,' becoming very possibly the world’s first columnists covering cheap ethnic restaurants in a sophisticated way,” Bonanos wrote. “That sounds like no big deal now, but it was a minor revolution in 1968. As Glaser himself would explain when asked, nobody back then bothered to cover restaurants outside the white-tablecloth world, because they didn’t advertise. But as hardcore New Yorkers, Glaser and Snyder knew that a whole lot of us love nothing more than a great Chinatown dumpling joint, or a superior taco stand, or a scoop of perfect whitefish salad, or a bowl of udon. He brought all of those and more to New York’s early readership, and everyone — from the Times on down — soon started doing the same. Vernacular rather than dressy food, today, is the dominant restaurant experience in New York, not to mention the dominant subject of the city’s restaurant coverage, and a major branch of its family tree starts with Glaser and Snyder.”
Glaser’s "I Love NY" logo was hastily sketched on a torn envelope in red crayon during a taxi ride. He did the work pro bono for a 1977 ad campaign to help the ailing city boost tourism during a fiscal crisis. “He seems to have enjoyed the endless number of permutations, parodies, and ripoffs it has spawned,” Bonanos wrote. Glaser told the Village Voice in a 2011 interview that “It just demonstrates that every once in a while you do something that can have enormous consequences…it was a bunch of little scratches on a piece of paper! I am just astonished by the amount of money it’s brought in. I went to Chinatown a few months ago, and it had been transformed to a gazillion “I Love New York” T-shirts on every building and facade. It amazes me.”
He also noted that New York state threatened to sue him after Glaser did a version of I Love NY after the September 11th attacks:
“I’m also amazed by how indifferent the state is to all of that. When I did 'I Love New York More Than Ever' [after 9/11], the state threatened to sue me — they said I was infringing on the copyright. You realize when you’re dealing with any bureaucracy that they’re so indifferent to anyone but themselves,” Glaser told the Voice.
Meanwhile, it was his work designing the Brooklyn Brewery logo that kept Glaser financially comfortable. Bonanos wrote: “In the mid-1980s, Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, the founders of a new microbrewery, came to him for a logo design. Glaser took a look at their proposed name — Brooklyn Eagle, recalling the defunct newspaper — and, as he told the story, he offered one key bit of advice. “Anheuser-Busch already has the eagle,” he told them. “You’ve got Brooklyn. That’s enough!” Brooklyn Brewery, with its swoopy baseball-jersey logo evoking both the departed Dodgers and a swirl of beer foam, made its debut in 1988.”
Glaser decided to take a stake in the company because the startup couldn’t afford to pay him a fee. “Today, Brooklyn Brewery is a huge global brand — and, as Glaser told me a couple of years ago, that was the thing that made him financially independent, enough to keep him in taxicabs and then some, enthusiastically sketching, for the rest of his life. “Of all the work I’ve done!” he said, chuckling, in that inimitable voice,” New York Magazine wrote.
In the Voice interview, Glaser said his life was only possible in New York City:
"I’ve lived in other places, but there is no other place for me. Professionally, there’s no other place with the same opportunity. As hard as it is to find, it’s still here. If you are somebody like me, where work is central to your identity and what you’re about, this is the place it happens. For the last 100 years, maybe more, it has been the place of greatest opportunity for those who want something deeply about their lives."