Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Milton Glaser's "In Search of the Miraculous."

"Picasso wanted everything, Morandi wanted nothing. I'm somewhere between the two." Milton Glaser (left) with distinguished designer Ralph Caplan.
WHEN I spotted a tweet "Milton Glaser talk at the SVA, first-come first-served" I immediately set my alarm to arrive an hour ahead and cancelled all appointments. "There'll be stampede for this!" I tweeted out to whoever might care. There was no way I was going to miss a personal appearance by America's greatest graphic designer.

Glaser's kinetic sculpture that adorns the SVA awning on 23rd Street. "The sculpture rotates every hour on the hour while displaying a commentary about the nature of time. For example, "Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday."

The act of making things that move the mind is our deepest aspiration regarding miracles - Milton Glaser,   In Search of the Miraculous

Born in 1929 (making him a sharp 82), the inventor of the slogan  NY studied under the great Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, founded New York magazine, is distinguished by one-man shows at both MOMA and the Georges Pompidou Center, received a lifetime achievement award from the Cooper Union,  founded Push Pin Studios with celebrated designer Seymour Chwast ... and gave Bob Dylan a psychedelic up-do:
Milton Glaser's seminal book on graphic design, published by Overlook Press
The talk was to be about Glaser's new monograph, In Search of the Miraculous, or One Thing Leads to Another,  a pocket-sized Glaser primer of sorts.

I was first in line, yet there were no signs, or sashed host gesturing "This way to Milton Glaser, this way to Computer Animation Student Show..."

So like a good sheep, I allowed myself to be ushered into the SVA main theater and smugly planted myself in the very front row seat. The lights went down, the show went up: student animation videos. Aha! A nice precursor to the event, after all, Glaser has taught the young and the restless for years at this esteemed college.

The program for the theater I wasn't meant to be sitting in. 
After 30 minutes, I noticed there no mention of Glaser on my program. I got up and exited the theater, and had to ask around before I found the theater "with the author?" said the young man - populated by exactly 6 people. By this time I was 45 minutes late.

Glaser sat on the stage with the founder of iconic and now-folded ID Magazine, Ralph Caplan, who wrote the foreword to Miraculous. I smiled stupidly at the pair as if to say, "I made it!" Glaser responded with an expression that could only be described as, "Yeeeeeeeeeeesssssss?"

A young Asian gal in the front row was struggling in a soft voice to make a statement/question like, "There doesn't seem to be as many styles in your new book?"

"Style? What do you mean by style?"

"Style?" said Glaser, with the patience of a monk. "`What do you mean by style? There's no such thing as style. It's about what is appropriate."

Another pause, and a question about design vs advertising by a young gentleman. Glaser did a lot of advertising work, but found it "less satisfying" due to the often-infuriating restrictions placed on creativity.

Our sparse questions were suddenly punctuated by the sound of loud sawing - a gentleman in a yellow coat was snoring loudly in the front row. Later, I discovered it was the book's publisher, a delightful gentleman called Peter.

Common sense tells us that tomatoes must be moved. The creative impulse tells us that so do people. Milton's Glaser's gift is to satisfy both.
- Ralph Caplan, in his forward to "In Search of the Miraculous"

Feeling obliged to contribute something, I asked why much interactive design today - specifically the "latest, hottest, startup websites" were clean, communicative, but samey, as someone on ycombinator/Hacker News noted here. That is, it's the same package of fonts, rounded corners, Wordpressy layouts and upbeat copywriting. Conversely, there's a magic in Glaser's work that wakes up remote parts of my brain. Some of my favorite pages from the book, Milton Glaser Graphic Design:

A font called "Baby Fat"

Dust jacket for Spanish writer Cela

A cylindrical font

Illustration for a story about a man with his head on one side, for the seminal Audience magazine 
Glaser responded that design today is driven wholly and solely by marketing. Or as he says in Miraculous - "Failure and ambiguity are difficult ideas to sell to a client who simply wants to move more cans of tomatoes."

When a couple of us tried to debate the point, he stopped us in our tracks.

"My dear, what we are doing here is just one small part - look at what's happening in Europe, there are far more important things at stake."

And with that, the talk ended.

More people kept popping up from the stairwell albeit dressed in pinstripes - the catering staff. And like unwavering soldiers, they proceeded to inundate the six of us plus the official event party - including personnel from Mobile Libris and Overlook Press - with painstakingly prepared canapes, getting all misty-eyed over the details.

"Can we offer you a parmesan tuille with fresh field greens?"

"A miniature bahn-mi with pulled pork? De-lish ..."

I went out to buy two of Glaser's books and had to literally grab him by the ankles as he strode calmly through the lobby and out of the building. "Be cool, be cool," he said as I dragged him back inside and excitedly posed for the camera clutching my personal, signed library of the great man's oeuvre.

Be cool, be cool ...
Being a relentless backstory hound, I asked the Milton Glaser Studio what on earth happened with the attendance. His recent talks a couple of months earlier had apparently attracted standing-room-only crowds of 300-400.  Glaser's studio offered that it had been a hasty, last-minute arrangement and that no-one in particular was to blame. Since Glaser is a stickler for following through ("Milton is no fan of cancellations,") the show went on. This alone is one of the greatest lessons in being great:

When you show up, you beat everyone who didn't.


Portrait + Pattern = Shakespeare mashup. From In Search of the Miraculous.

And what of the latest book, In Search of the Miraculous or One Thing Leads To Another?  It's a slim volume that leads the reader by the eyeballs on a "this plus this led to that" exploration of the past five years of Glaser's work. We see how a swatch, doodle or surface texture ends in a rug or book cover or poster or the Rubin Museum bar. New ideas are often rooted in something from the past - a classical form, a pinstripe, a font, perhaps even a conversation or someone you knew, as in the case of a book jacket for his Kundalini yoga teacher, who taught him about "the relationship of art and energy."

Glaser classic stencil font + pattern + number 4 =  a project for an English marketing company.
The book has few words, as if Glaser is inviting you to let your brain join the dots. The work featured does have a somewhat subdued, studied and painterly quality (although I wonder if that's partially due to the paperstock its printed on) harking back to another Glaser book, Drawing is Thinking.

"I don't get it, myself, I just publish it," said the Peter, of Drawing, which features hundreds of pages of renderings and not a single word.  A minor miracle is that nothing in these books looks like just another Wordpress website.

A poster very much at home in the waiting room of Glaser's opthalmologist
The distinguished Ralph Caplan salutes Glaser impeccably in his foreword:

"Common sense tells us that tomatoes must be moved. The creative impulse tells is that so do people. Milton's Glaser's gift is to satisfy both."

Milton Glaser at the Visual Arts Center - a few snapshots from this show among ChelseaGallerista's  Facebook photos

Glaser signs my copy of "Graphic Design"






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