If you lived in America in the last half of the 20th Century, you saw the country, in part, through the eyes of illustrator and graphic designer Milton Glaser (1929-2020). So prolific and widespread was his visual sense that, for a while, almost all good design looked like his. He co-founded Push Pin Studios, the most successful and influential New York design office from the 1960s to the ‘80s. The Push Pin style was seen on book jackets, album covers, magazine illustrations, letterheads, posters and even product design. His influential work on New York magazine, beginning in 1968 gave it a distinctive look bold images and clean type. Just think of how many variations you’ve seen of his iconic I HEART NY logo. It reduced the idea to the simplest, most direct route to communication.
Glaser was never tied to style; he was as versatile as he was restless. His placid watercolor for Olivetti depicts a dog, a typewriter and two lounging feet in Roman sandals. The elaborate, cross-hatched rendering of a three-piece gent could almost qualify for a dollar bill, except that he has a giant insect head. Glaser’s iconic Bob Dylan silhouette is topped with florid firework trails. His portrait of French modernist Sonia Delauney utilizes her square and circle overlays but softens her Bauhaus severity with richer color choices.
Drawing was central to Glaser’s vision. Like all draftsmen, he worked through the problems on the page, and chose what interested him about the subject and discarded the rest. His linear forms just flowed with a sensual, almost classical line. Art Nouveau was a continuing influence in his drawings, but the geometry of Art Deco was often lurking in his design and layouts.
Yet, as wide as his visual vocabulary, Glaser let the solution dictate the medium and the syntax he used to address it. In 1972, he told interviewer Peter Mayer: “Psychically, I know it has a lot to do with my boredom with my inability to sustain interest in one form of expression for any length of time. At one point in my life I realized that anything I did long enough to master was no longer useful to me.”
Maybe the ultimate tribute is that throughout his varied career, you can look at almost anything he completed and identify it as a Milton Glaser.
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.