Monday, April 28, 2008

george lois Esquire covers at the MoMA

The King of Visceral Design

GEORGE LOIS, one of the most influential admen of his generation, is the sort of person who has a dozen brainstorms an hour, at least half of them good and only a few really harebrained. Among the better ones were the early Xerox commercials showing a chimpanzee deftly operating a photocopier, the “Think small” ads for Volkswagen and the “I want my MTV” campaign. He also dreamed up Lean Cuisine and the “I want my Maypo” slogan.

But among certain groups of people — magazine collectors, veterans of the 1960s, admirers of brilliant design — Mr. Lois is best known for the covers he created for Esquire from 1962 to 1972. There were 92 in all, including one that never ran: an antiwar cover intended for the December 1962 issue, which was dropped because the State Department was insisting that American troops would be out of Vietnam by Christmas. Thirty-one of them are part of an exhibition that opened at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday.

The show looks a little like a tidied-up version of a great many college dorm rooms back in the ’60s. There on the wall, neatly mounted instead of just torn out and stuck up with tape, are Tricky Dick having lipstick applied, L.B.J. holding a Hubert Humphrey dummy, Andy Warhol drowning in a Campbell’s soup can, Muhammad Ali posing as St. Sebastian and a grinning Lt. William Calley, the leader of the massacre at My Lai, with four Vietnamese children. There’s also the image Mr. Lois created for the December 1963 issue, in response to a plea from Harold Hayes, Esquire’s editor, for something “Christmassy.” It shows Sonny Liston wearing a Santa hat — probably the last person white Americans hoped to see coming down the chimney in those days.

Many of Mr. Lois’s covers were controversial, not so say irreverent or deliberately provocative. The Liston cover cost the magazine $750,000 in dropped advertising. But they were immensely successful at drawing attention, on the newsstand especially.

“The covers weren’t the only thing going on in those days,” Byron Dobell, Esquire’s managing editor during many of the Lois years, recalled recently. “We thought there was some pretty great stuff inside as well. But the covers proved to be a very effective way of advertising our kind of journalism. They were way out there.”

What was remarkable then — and seems even more so now, when virtually every magazine cover is a thicket of text lines running behind or on top of one celebrity or another — is that the Lois covers were virtually textless. They achieved their effect by communicating a single idea through an image. Some were untouched photographs, but, in an era before Photoshop, some were created by the primitive technique of cutting and pasting, using photographs, clip art and sometimes hand-drawn elements.

“I remember when we were doing the Warhol cover,” Mr. Lois recalled. “I explained to Andy what I had in mind, and he said, ‘Oh, will you have to build a very big can?’ ”

There is a whole generation of current or recent magazine editors who are Lois admirers, including David Remnick, Graydon Carter and Tina Brown. “George was there during a great age,” said Mr. Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. “You didn’t have to put low-grade movie stars on the cover then to move magazines. You could put ideas there.”

He added: “George used people like Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, so you could say he was using the celebrities of the day. And it was probably a little easier then, because everybody had the same frame of reference. They all read and watched the same things. But George was as good as it got.”

Few editors, though, have the nerve to try to imitate what Mr. Lois did. Esquire’s May cover this year, of a woman shaving her face, is a sort of homage to the 1965 Lois cover of Virna Lisi doing the same thing, except that in the background there’s a lot of busy type needlessly explaining, “We Shot This Image to Catch Your Eye.”

Mr. Lois is 76 now, and not quite the hunk he used to be in the days when he was known in the ad business as the Golden Greek. “People see pictures of me back then and ask, ‘What happened?’ ” he said recently. “I’ll tell you what happened. Fifty years is what happened.” But he still plays full-court basketball — against much younger guys, he’s quick to point out — and gets by on four hours of sleep a night.

Mr. Lois grew up in a Greek-speaking household in the Bronx, where his father ran a flower shop, and he is still a bit of a neighborhood guy. He is funny, profane and opinionated, and not shy about poking you in the shoulder or the knee to make sure you’re following his point. He talks very fast, in a rumbling New York voice, but his brain works even faster, so that sometimes there’s a little lag while the words catch up.

Over a long morning interview — monologue really — that stretched into lunch, prepared by Rosemary, his wife of 56 years, Mr. Lois recalled that Martin Scorsese, a huge admirer of the Esquire covers, seemed crushed when he learned that his idol had spent most of his life in advertising. But Mr. Lois said he didn’t see much difference between ads and covers.

“I’ve always been about the big idea, the big idea,” he explained. “I never had any trouble going into a new area. It’s all a matter of creativity. I even made a music video once for Bob Dylan, using 5,000 years of the history of art.”

By CHARLES McGRATH, NYTimes April 27, click to keep reading.

click here to view a slideshow of the Esquire covers


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