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Uncovering George Lois

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George Lois In Conversation

This is a guest article by Ana Paula Rodrigues* recounting her attendance at the George Lois Esquire Covers lecture recently held in NYC. Enjoy.

“I was a cultural provocateur,” proclaimed George Lois during a lecture at FIT last week. The acclaimed and controversial Art Director spoke candidly about designing Esquire magazines most iconic covers in the 1960s and early 1970s. The event sponsored by the Society of Publication Designers coincided with the release of Lois’ book, “George Lois The Esquire Covers @ MoMA.”

George Lois The Esquire Covers at MoMA

The foul-mouthed Lois’ was charismatic and unabashful as he recounted the people and historical events that shaped his most incendiary and poignant covers, including one of his uncompromising covers, the December 1963 issue of Esquire (shown below). Lois had African-American world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston photographed wearing a Santa hat. He described how the cover “shocked the nation,” since America was still in the grips of the Jim Crow law’s. “It was my comment on what was happening,” Lois said. “To be a great designer, you have to be courageous.” He also revealed that his covers were void of design because they were about the idea — “not just an idea, but one that can change the world.”

Esquire Santa Cover

Lois impersonated Andy Warhol’s low pitch voice as he described the Pop Artists reaction to a cover concept, “I love it. I love it.” Lois’ iconic image of Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup graced Esquire’s May 1969 issue (shown below). Warhol was photographed for the cover and then Lois superimposed the image onto a photo of a soup can. “I had to do Photoshop before there was Photoshop.” After the issue hit the newsstands, Lois recalled how Warhol offered 6 Brillo Boxes in exchange for the original cover art, but he declined. Warhol called again and offered one of his paintings, but Lois told Warhol, “No, it’s going to be in the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art, NYC] one day.” Warhol’s response was, “Oh, I’ll be in the MoMA?”

Esquire Tomato Soup Cover

Lois touched upon the state of editorial design by noting that 95 out of 100 magazine covers look alike each month and, “that’s fucking stupid,” he said. “Anything you work on should be a shocking surprise.” Lois believes today, “every design director and art director are handcuffed” because of the restrictions placed on them. “You don’t create a magazine for the readers or advertisers – you create it for yourself,” he advised. By following that mantra, Lois was able to increase Esquire’s circulation from 500,000 to 2 million during his 10-year reign. He also expressed he was, “sick of hearing magazines are dead,” and that he continues to enjoy his interaction with a magazine. “If you put a magazine on your lap, it’s like a lap dance.”

Lois explained he viewed his covers like a canvas and that any good designer “starts with drawing.” He also revealed that out of the 92 covers he designed for Esquire, he thought 50 were great. “I don’t think I did a bad one, or admit if I did,” he said. Even if he did admit to it, Lois’ philosophy is to forget mistakes quickly. “If you make a mistake, quickly forget about it. Mistakes make you be careful.”

George Lois’ Esquire covers are a visual timeline of America’s tumultuous history. Lois ignited controversy by exposing hypocrisy and created a national dialogue in the belief that “creativity can solve anything.”

*Ana Paula Rodrigues is an award-winning designer who is currently employed at Nielsen Business Media as an Art Director. Rodrigues can be reached by at ana AT anapaularodrigues DOT com. You can also read her recount of the Milton Glaser vs Chip Kidd lecture.


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5 JUST™ Creative Comments

  • Devlin Reply

    Thanks Jacob and Ana for all the great articles reviewing design talks (like the Kidd-Glaser article). It helps us designers in the hinterlands feel connected. Just living vicariously through your articles. One quick question, what’s with all the water bottles on the table? Was that apart of the talk or were they just really thirsty? Thanks again!

  • Bruce Zimmerly Reply

    Very cool article. I also followed the link and visited the George Lois site, which would have been very cool as well, had the Esquire cover images displayed for me. Just the same; I enjoy to read interviews and historic pieces on designers. Thank you.

  • jurgen Wolff Reply

    George Lois was generous enough some years ago to give me time for an interview for a VERY modest little newsletter I was starting. He was a dynamo at the time and it’s great to find he’s still the same. Thanks for sharing this account.

  • janeen Bellafiore Reply

    I had the privilege of seeing this exhibit at MOMA-it was brilliant! Thanks for sharing.

  • Jacob Cass Reply

    Devlin,
    Guess they must have been thirsty.

    Jurgen,
    Great to hear that… I’m sure you still have it to this day.

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