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Work / Publication

Ian Birch takes us through a line-up of revolutionary magazine covers

While at MagCulture’s ModMag in London late last year we got chatting to Ian Birch, the recent author of must-have compendium for any magazine fanatic: Uncovered.

During his career, Ian has worked for a collection of publications any reader or designer is sure to have stocked on their shelves. From Time Out to Smash Hits, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and many more in between, Ian is an absolute fountain of knowledge on what makes a mag worthwhile, which he’s helpfully put together in his new book documenting revolutionary magazine covers.

Sitting with Ian at the event and seeing his overall love for magazines of all creative disciplines and journalistic content, it became clear he had tale after tale about fascinating magazine issues, covers, designers and editors too. Below, he shares some of his favourite covers discovered while making his book and the eye-opening conversations that were had while making it.

You can also catch Ian talking about Uncovered while chairing a discussion on magazine covers at Tate Bookshop in London on 16 January.

The one that got away

One of the biggest challenges was securing the rights and permissions to use the covers. Most publishers keep lamentable records so it could take months to hunt down the correct copyright holders.

I wanted to run the June 1957 cover of Playboy, a masterpiece of minimalism designed by the magazine’s first and pioneering art director, Arthur (Art) Paul, who had studied at the Chicago Bauhaus. It was a photograph by Morton Shapiro of a pair of cufflinks inscribed with the trademark bunny rakishly cast aside on a white background. Apart from the logo furniture, there were no sells. Now that’s brand confidence.

Art, then aged 92, told me: “We’d arrived at a level of recognition that allowed us to do such a radical cover. Often the cover design coincided with the issue’s theme or it echoed a standout illustration within.” The cover echoed George Langelaan’s story inside, The Fly, illustrated with a detailed image of a fly, life-size, on an expanse of white, “as if it had just landed there”. “I didn’t use white space as the usual less-is-more formula, but in service of meaning. On the cover, it’s a suggestion of a casually sophisticated lifestyle, with the cufflinks left where dropped.”

We had been given the go-ahead and had negotiated a fee. Then, at the 11th hour, new owners said no. They weren’t interested in print anymore. I was deeply disappointed. Art was furious.

Sadly he died in April 2018.

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Uncovered: One

The one I stumbled across

I was blown away when I stumbled across the August 1958 cover of One, America’s first openly gay magazine, launched in 1953 when McCarthyism raged. The cover line, the illustration, the fact it had been on American newsstands in 1958 seemed revolutionary: I had to find out more.

It turned out that all the original key players were dead but Craig M. Loftin, a lecturer in American studies at California State University (Fullerton), was very much alive and had written extensively about the magazine. We skyped. “This was not a magazine for leisure and fun,” Craig explained. “The underlying idea was to bring all gay people together as one.

“They were hoping that heterosexuals might pick up the magazine and flip through its contents and overcome their own prejudices. They tried to get copies in the hands of influential people in society,” Craig continues. “They would mail it to prominent judges, politicians and famous writers like Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

“Two-thirds of the readers preferred buying their copies at newsstands, largely because they were fearful of being on a subscription list that might get seized by police. One’s artists and editors had to fashion a cover style that would evoke gayness in a recognisable way, yet avoid inciting backlash from postal authorities, vice squads, or censorship groups.

“Their illustrations were non-threatening, a key concept here. These homophile organizations of the 50s were very assimilationist organisations. They wanted to be accepted by society. Kind of like the black Civil Rights Movement in its earlier phases. You dress nice, you speak very professionally, you win over the mainstream by showing them how patriotic and American and normal you are. But to the people who were gay, it winks at them.”

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Uncovered: Esquire, May 1969

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Uncovered: Esquire, May 1968

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Uncovered: Esquire, December 1963

The one I didn’t want to leave

George Lois was the don of magazine covers in the 1960s. Between 1962 and 1972, he art-directed an astonishing 92 covers for American Esquire. They included some of the most ideas-rich and incendiary concept covers in magazine history. He couldn’t have done them without the editor Harold Hayes who gave Lois almost complete creative freedom and shielded him from frequent internal and external attacks.

Lois calls himself “a graphic communicator”. Take a look at 1963’s December issue with a glowering Sonny Liston, the world-champion boxer in a Father Christmas hat photographed by Carl Fischer. It was a ferociously controversial image for the magazine’s predominantly white readership in, as Hayes puts it, a “national climate thick with racial fear”. And at October 1966 with its blood-curdling quote from the feature by John Stack which told the story of a military unit as it moved from basic training in New Jersey to first combat in Vietnam.

The most revered is probably April 68’s Muhammad Ali cover (also shot by Carl Fischer) which has been described as “not just a great idea, but visually elegant, economical, perfect”. Lois portrays Ali as a martyr for his newly adopted Islam faith and for the punishment he received after refusing to do military service. He posed Ali as a contemporary St Sebastian, after the 15th Century painting by Francesco Botticini. St Sebastian was a martyr for his Christian faith. And finally, 1969’s May issue, a brilliant visual joke – part mocking, part homage – of Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s soup. “But George,” asked Andy, “aren’t you gonna have to build a giant can of soup?”

Lois invited me to do the interview at his home in Greenwich Village, New York. Everyone is asked to take their shoes off before entering and it’s immediately obvious why. The space is huge; the wood floor immaculately polished. Lois bought two apartments in the late 50s, knocked them into one and over the next 60 years has filled it with breathtaking art, furniture, posters, his many awards and, he once claimed, “over 10,000 fucking books”. There’s an Alexander Calder mobile; a Carlo Mollino table; African masks; Japanese screens; a Saarinen side table; a bronze Corinthian helmet dating from 560BC; a poster of Garry Kasparov vs Anatoly Karpov 1990 World Class Championship; a Polaroid of Lois with Jean-Paul Goude taken by Andy Warhol during dinner. Mid-century modernism abounds. He specialises in chairs many of which he forbids you to sit in, quite reasonably, because “they’re works of art”. They are chairs by the likes of Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and the Wiener Werkstatte. He lives with things he loves. I did not want to leave.

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Will Robson-Scott: George Lois in his apartment

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Will Robson-Scott: George Lois in his apartment

The one that shows how to handle a sensitive subject

There are few topics more inflammatory and divisive than refugees. Zeit Magazin, which comes with Germany’s weekly newspaper Die Zeit, can only be praised for its calm, respectful and rigorous handling of the subject in its 25 May 2015 issue.

The idea was brilliant. Make it bi-lingual: do the text in German and Arabic. Sensibly, editor-in-chief Christoph Amend hired journalist Mohamed Amjahid as a guest editor. Mohamed was one of the few German journalists who spoke Arabic as a mother language. “I felt a huge pressure,” he told me, “that I would be the one to be blamed if there was a mistake in the Arabic part. It was hard to translate the texts so they correspond and make sense at the same time. Irony in Arabic is more complex and has other nuances than in German.

“All the text had something to do with the new lives of refugees in Germany: learning a new language, fighting German bureaucracy, getting over homesickness, trying to get settled and facing racism. The issue featured many new citizens, not only those from Arabic speaking countries. However, Zeit Magazin decided to publish the texts in Arabic and German since most of the new arriving people in 2015 spoke Arabic as their mother language.”

The magazine always has a unique double cover, introduced by Christoph in 2007 when he became EIC, using two consecutive photographs or type treatments that create a narrative which delivers a twist, a surprise, a sharp comment. In this bi-lingual issue, there were design challenges: German reads left to right, Arabic right to left. So they spilt pages into two with a central yellow stripe. On the left was German. Flip it upside down to read Arabic.

Here, the first cover translates: “Every day, people start out in the hope of a better life. We dedicate this issue to you. Especially the many refugees leaving Arab countries for Germany.” The second: “That’s why Zeit magazine appears in German and Arabic.”

“Friends from the magazine industry in New York wrote emails saying we could never do that in America,” Christoph added. “It was quite a ride to publish half of a magazine that you can’t read yourself.”

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Zeit Magazin: 25 May, 2015

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Zeit Magazin: 25 May, 2015