You many know him best by his ubiquitous “I heart New York” logo. As important as it’s iconography is to the lexicon of late 20th century popular culture, there is so much more to Glaser’s body of work. He is one of the greatest creative minds of our time. I had the priviege of studying with him at School of Visual Arts a few years ago, where I experienced firsthand his understated magnificence. I’ve been crushing on him ever since.
Interview: Zoë Kors
Zoë Kors: I learned a lot from you at School of Visual Arts about creative process. What is your creative process?
Milton Glaser: There’s that old expression that we’ve all grown up with: The mind is the slayer of the soul. When you begin to examine the idea of how the mind works, you find that intuition and logic are very often at odds with one and another. The brain’s division into a methodology of a logical process, then the abandonment of logic in favor of something else—in order to make something that basically has no precedent or that is not susceptible to logic—is an experience that we’ve all had. We know that the best things we do are really done without an objective procedure, right? Objectivity only takes you a certain distance. The imagination really lives in that part of the world, where you don’t know how to get there and you’re stumbling in the dark.
ZK: There is uncertainty in the process of accessing imagination.
MG: I always use the phrase that, “Certainty is a closing of the mind.” So, as soon as you really know how to do something—Picasso’s always been my example of this—you have to abandon it and go on to something else. Fundamentally, when you are sure of what you’re doing, you have lost a good deal of the capacity for astonishment. And astonishment is one of the indications that you’re in the presence of the imagination.
This is, of course, the opposite goal of professionalism. You teach people to be professionals. Meaning, they know what they’re doing. And they have to follow an orderly process to get there. Design, by and large, is an orderly process. I once read a great definition of design—moving from an existing condition to a preferred one. In other words, I’m here and I want to be there, and how do I get there? That’s logic, so you figure out a process. But you can go from here to there without creating beauty. Because beauty, in that case, is sort of gratuitous. But for me, getting from here to there is not enough if you don’t create beauty, because for me the issue of beauty became central in the satisfaction of work. And so, if you just solved the problem, well, it’s primary—it is not sufficient.
So I always have been obsessed—A, with what is beauty to begin with? And B, how do you integrate that into the design process, when it is not essential, but—to me—necessary?
ZK: You just articulated what makes you great. So what is beauty?
MG: Well, you know, I was wondering about that recently when I was reading some studies on brain activities, and what the neurological response was to certain conditions. And that under certain circumstances there’s more neurological activity in the brain when it looks at certain things. I was wondering whether, in the presence of art, what we call art, or as a way of defining what we call art, the brain was stimulated into more activity. So you could see these neurological explosions occurring when art stimulated the brain. In fact, it might be the only way we can come to some agreement about what is art and what isn’t art—which is to say, there’s something in the nature of what you’re looking at that moves the brain to be more active. And the question of what that could be gets very complex indeed. A certain kind of relationship before form and color and shape and so on. At this point, I think we’re at the beginning of this understanding, too complex to quantify.
I do know that experientially, in the presence of beauty—and we can use the word, I use the word interchangeably, art and beauty—something happens that doesn’t happen in their absence. So you can show somebody a work of design where there is no art. There is a solution to a problem, and sometimes very appropriately, but there is no beauty. So that aspect of it is just not there. But it doesn’t mean that the problem has not been solved. It does mean that the aspect of beauty has not been introduced. So to some degree, you could say that they’re really parallel activities, and not necessarily combined into a single experience. I think you can do something beautiful and not solve the problem, and I think you can do something that solves the problem that’s not beautiful. Any combination thereof. But for me, the most interesting and satisfying result is when you do something that both solves the problem—functions objectively—and create a work of beauty that satisfies another need.
ZK: Yes. This reminds me of a conversation we had one time about art versus commerce. You said to me, “Zoë, make no mistake—what we do as designers, most often, is not art. It’s selling biscuits.”
MG: For sure. The practice of design is intended to persuade. But that is not the practice of art. Art doesn’t attempt to persuade you of anything. It intends to change you.
ZK: To inform and inspire?
MG: It depends on what you mean by “inform” but mostly it intends to transform.
ZK: I am always inspired by Stefan Sagmeister’s astonishing ability to play in the space where art meets commerce. As if there is no difference. I say the same about you. Somehow you sell biscuits and you do it with beauty.
MG: Well, I don’t always succeed. I think if you’re a practitioner and you’re not doing art shows and you’re making a living doing it—I mean, one of the problems is you have to put bread on the table and you have to operate in the real world. We’re living in capitalist environment, and that means that you’re selling things, and you’re producing objects for sale, and somebody has to make a profit, and people have to be persuaded to buy and so on.
If you’re doing projects, which is different, and you’re not selling goods, and you’re having shows, and you can afford to work and build a studio operation around that assumption, then you’re in another kind of business. And if you’re keeping a small operation going, and you can do it with an occasional job and exhibitions—I think you have to first understand the economics of any operation. And once you understand the economics, then you can examine how people are able to marginally survive by not playing the big design ball, which involves doing corporate identity programs and the kind of stuff that the big agencies do. But they become the work, the professional work, of our time. I’ve never quite fit in exactly into that category and I don’t think Stefan has, either.
ZK: I am dying to talk to you about New York magazine, which you founded in 1968. I grew up on New York magazine. Every week, my family would pore over the latest issue. Origin is a different kind of publication, but we turn a magazine out every two months, and it’s a major effort. I think about you doing one weekly. That must have been some intense time.
MG: It was. But if you don’t know that you’re not supposed to do a weekly, you just do it. We used to do five book jackets a day at Pushpin, because we didn’t know it was too fast. I mean, we didn’t have any experience so we just started doing things at what any rate seemed appropriate. If you don’t know what the standard rate is, you just arrive at your own conclusions about that. And so, yeah, a weekly magazine was just, you turned around—now everyone works on a weekly. Except we had a very small staff, we only had a couple people doing it. But once you believe that it’s possible, it becomes possible.
ZK: Right. That’s something that I learned from you in an experiential way.
MG: Expectation conditions reality. You have a short-order chef at a diner who’s turning out a hundred meals at lunch time, with four burner stove in the back—how can he do it? Well, he never thought it wasn’t possible, so he could do it.
The degree to which your attitude towards performance conditions possibility is overwhelming. Belief changes reality. That’s one thing you learn in life. If you don’t believe you can do something, it doesn’t matter whether it’s hard or easy—you can’t do it.
ZK: The mind is the slayer of the soul. Are you still designing rugs?
MG: Yeah. Still going on. A new line for a Spanish rug maker that’s going to be—I think revealed in a month or two in New York, part of her line. Still doing that line I did for the company in Portland. That’s fun. I like doing that. Having an exhibition in a gallery, which is a nice idea—they’re showing the rugs and they’re showing the preliminary drawings for them.
ZK: I actually saw a photograph of that exhibit and it was impressive, and so distinctly Milton Glaser.
MG: Well, thank you. This exhibition hasn’t happened yet. That was the one, I think, in Santa Monica at the museum. This one is happening in a month or two in Cincinnati.
ZK: What inspires you?
MG: People are always asking me that question and I hate that question, because it’s so—it’s so specific. Who knows what inspires you? It’s anything. A sheet of paper because of the way it’s lying on the desk catching the sun. I went to see a show, Matisse, at the Metropolitan two weeks ago. I hadn’t looked at these Matisses in twenty years. Just referentially. They were wonderful but the thing that really inspired me in my visit to the museum was a small series of terra cotta heads in the Hellenic collection. They were tiny little things, maybe three inches tall. But the way the light reflected off the terra cotta was so breathtaking, and they were more inspirational than the Matisses. Everything has the potential for inspiration. For me it has always been eclectic and random.
ZK: What makes you feel vulnerable?
MG: I guess life makes you vulnerable, unless you spend your time defending yourself, which is what most of life is like. I don’t know how vulnerable I am, I guess. Someone asked me once, what do you do when you encounter doubt? I said, Embrace it. Because that’s where you start, with doubt. That’s like what I was saying earlier about certainty being a closing of the mind. If you’re certain of anything, you stop experiencing things.
ZK: Shoshin. Beginner’s Mind.
MG: You have to stay that way, right? You can’t think you’ve gotten there, because there’s no there to get. If you’ve gotten there, you’re beginning. I’ve been doing this forever, and I’m at a very nice point, where I realized I know almost nothing about what I’m doing. So the work I’m doing is very nice, because it’s surprising me, and I’m really stumbling around trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing. And it’s really nice.
ZK: Simple and pure. There’s a purity
MG: Well, it’s a mess, actually. It’s not so pure. It’s lacking resolution. And then all of a sudden, something will happen and you don’t know what made it happen. It just sort of—it’s, now that I’m talking about it, because I haven’t thought much about it. Again, it is a Buddhist idea of allowing things to happen or the accepting what is kind of Buddhist idea. It’s always difficult to talk about it. You try to allow what is to be what it is. I don’t know how you get to that without intervening. But it produces a different result.
ZK: Any projects that you’re particularly passionate about right now?
MG: Well, I’m doing some odd stuff, like I designed three clocks that I’m very fond of, for the Museum of Modern Art gift shop and they’re selling. They really look cool and they’re going to make wristwatches out of them. They’re really nice. Recently I designed a cork presenter for Alessi, which is the most absurd thing anybody could design. And then I have a new poster for the Hermitage Museum that really is terrific.
ZK: Hey, Milton, if you were a fruit, what fruit would you be?
MG: A melon of some sort.
ZK: [laughing] Yeah, I see that. Do you have a chair collection?
MG: No, but I love chairs.
ZK: Are your favorite chairs the most comfortable to sit in?
MG: Never. Quite the contrary, I find that I choose chairs inevitably by appearance and not by comfort. In fact, I’ve never chosen a chair because it was comfortable.
ZK: Yeah, there’s a little irony there, huh?
MG: There’s always irony.
ZK: The endless debate of form and function.
MG: Yeah, and in the case of chairs, I’ve never been able to find a chair that I was comfortable in that I like to look at.
ZK: There’s a lot of Milton Glaser to hold, if you were a chair. How tall are you?
MG: [chuckles] Well, I’m 6’2” but I’m not as bulky as I used to be. I think I’ve probably lost about forty or fifty pounds since you’ve seen me. So I’m skinnier now than I was in the old days.
ZK: Wow! So less work for the chairs. Is there anything that you want me to ask you?
MG: Outside of the meaning of life? No.
ZK: Do you want to comment on the meaning of life? I’d love to hear it.
MG: I decline.
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