Milton Glaser, one of the world's most influential and pioneering graphic designers, has died on his 91st birthday (26 June). With Push Pin Studios he changed the landscape of American graphic design and illustration, setting a path for the industry we know today. Then, Glaser created arguably one of the world’s best known icons and campaigns in I ❤ NY (though its success “went beyond any expectations I had of its reach,” he told It’s Nice That in 2016), although his impact was felt far beyond this renowned work.
Glaser was born 26 June 1929 in the South Bronx, to Hungarian immigrants. He studied at the Cooper Union in 1951, then as a Fulbright scholar, the designer studied with the painter Giorgio Morandi in Bologna from 1952-53.
In 1954, together with fellow Cooper Union graduates Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel, Glaser co-founded Push Pin Studios, a pioneering New York-based graphic design and illustration studio which Chwast still runs today. To drum up clients and give an outlet to its visual experiments, the group put together a monthly publication called the Push Pin Graphic, launched in 1957. The work “rejected tradition in favour of reinvigorated interpretations of historical styles (Victorian, art nouveau, art deco),” says a statement on Push Pin’s website, and “provided a fresh counterpoint to both the numbing rigidity of modernism, and the rote sentimental realism of commercial illustration”.
This work was pioneering in the world of commercial graphic design and paved the way for the industry to transform into what it is today. One of Glaser’s most recognisable works from this era was the poster for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, showing Dylan in silhouette with psychedelic hair. So influential was the studio that the Louvre staged a retrospective of its work in 1970, marking the museum’s first graphic design show, which subsequently travelled around Europe.
Glaser co-founded New York Magazine in 1968 with Clay Felker, Glaser serving as design director and columnist from its first issue in April 1968 until 1977. In the magazine’s 50th birthday article, Glaser described of its beginnings: “I must say how innocent we all were about what a magazine should be. But in some cases that kind of innocence is a benefit. You don’t know what to do, so you invent something.”
In 1974, after two decades running Push Pin with Chwast, Glaser set out on his own. Milton Glaser Inc. remains a formidable force in the graphic design industry today, yet one of its earliest works for New York state will forever be its most impactful and remembered legacy: the I ❤ NY logo. This visual symbol is engrained in the city’s image, easily the most globally successful city tourism campaign, and perpetually described as “the most frequently imitated logo design in human history,” yet was famously conceived in the back of a cab on the way to the pitch.
In our 2016 interview with Glaser, the designer remembered his surprise at the project’s success. “It was strange. The slogan went beyond any expectations I had of its reach. For reasons that are not fully understandable, it’s still everywhere. In 1977, people were moving out by the thousands because the city had become unsafe. What the city needed at that time was an affirmation, a restoration of the feeling that New York was an important place to be.” In 2018, Andre Andreev directed a documentary about Glaser, the I ❤ NY campaign, and the designer’s love for the city, which you can watch here.
In 46 years, Glaser’s agency’s work has spanned identities, posters and campaigns for innumerable brands, exhibitions, events and institutions, from Brooklyn Brewery to Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In 1987, Glaser designed the World Health Organisation’s International AIDS symbol and poster. His agency also expanded to take on architectural projects, including a 15-year project with The Grand Union Company to redesign everything from its interiors to its packaging.
Many of Glaser’s clients came from his home city, too, notably the graphics for the restaurants, observation deck and permanent exhibition in the World Trade Center in 1975, and the overall conceptualisation and interior design of New York Unearthed, a museum located in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, in 1990; not to mention trippy 60s-inspired ads for the final season of Mad Men in 2014. In many ways, his career has made him the design ambassador for New York, a city he refers to in Andreev’s film as “paradise”.
In 1983 he teamed up with Walter Bernard to form WBMG, a separate publication design firm that – among its huge list of book and magazine projects – redesigned three major newspapers: The Washington Post in the US, La Vanguardia in Barcelona, and O Globo in Rio de Janeiro.
Throughout his career, Glaser remained an active educator, a teacher and board member at the School of Visual Arts since 1961, and a member of the board of directors at the Cooper Union. He had solo shows put on at the MoMA and Pompidou Centre. He received the 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, for his “profound and meaningful long-term contribution to the contemporary practice of design”. In 2009 he was the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of the Arts award, presented to him by President Obama.
Katharina Poblotzki for It's Nice That