This is a guest article by Ana Paula Rodrigues* recounting her attendance at the Chip Kidd / Milton Glaser lecture recently held in NYC.
The Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York hosted a lecture between design royalty Milton Glaser and writer/graphic designer Chip Kidd on March 2. The event, titled “Chip Kidd + Milton Glaser,” was held at the Target National Design Education Center and coincided with the “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation” exhibit running through April 4 at the Cooper-Hewitt.
The lecture was held a week after Glaser was awarded the 2009 National Medal of Arts from President Obama at the White House. Glaser is the first graphic designer honored with the nation’s highest medal for his contribution and achievements in the arts.
The agenda for the evening was Glaser’s, “work, ideas and loving New York,” and it stayed the course with Kidd in the driver’s seat. Kidd’s wit and humorous insight set the stage for the journey into the career of a graphic design icon.
The conversation started with Glaser discussing book covers he designed through the years for the distinguished American author Philip Roth. Glaser went beyond dissecting the actual designs and focused on the relationship between a designer and a client. He mentioned that his design partnership with Roth began many years ago through a chance meeting at a softball game in Woodstock, New York. Glaser expressed how he enjoyed working with Roth and that he couldn’t work with someone he didn’t like. When Kidd joked, “I’m not there yet,” Glaser acknowledged it might be difficult to turn away clients.
Glaser also reflected on the different ways authors approach the design process for their book covers. He explained that some authors come with preset concepts and imagery and it’s his job is to set color and type, while others leave the entire process up to him. He mentioned how resistance to his work, for example a marketing department not approving a cover design, has actually served him well. Glaser’s process has been to work through the resistance and design new concepts. He feels that the end result has always been more successful than the original design.
Kidd also shared his experience with working with authors. He said that he has dealt with writers who seem to have, “no problem, no problem and then there’s a problem.” Kidd added that it could get tricky when dealing with authors.
Glaser revealed his design process, he said he starts with a drawing done by hand, scans the image and transfers it into a computer where he modifies it electronically. “I love the computer. I hate stupid work done on the computer,” he also said, “Graphic designers shouldn’t use a computer until they’re 40-45 [years old].”
Kidd asked how Glaser sees New York now, since his ‘70s iconographic logo “I heart New York” helped bring the city out from the shadow of its problems. Glaser responded that it was hard to tell, because in the ‘70s, everyone was moving out, but today something was keeping despair at bay. He mentioned that the liveliness of the city hasn’t dimensioned and pointed out that the “I heart New York” campaign was commissioned by the state to help restore tourism in New York City. When an audience member asked Glaser how he felt about people modifying his work like the “I heart New York” he responded, “I think it’s wonderful, and grateful that it’s become useful,” and he wondered when it was going to go away.
At the age of 81 Glaser has had an illustrious career. He has designed buildings, logos (see below), posters, rugs, magazines, advertisements, direct mail pieces, book jackets, etc., and co-founded Push Pin Studios and New York magazine. “I like the visual world and all manifestations of it,” he said. When asked if he wants to retire, Glaser remarked, “Retirement is death. Retirement is a fraud. I love waking up and having some place to go and learn something new.” In response to a question about the variety of his work, “Curiosity and boredom,” and, “a strange set of opportunities,” was the explanation he gave for the variation. Glaser also mentioned how he loved that Picasso would master something and then abandon it — which is not how Glaser works.
One of the most interesting parts of the evening was Glaser explaining his theory of art, “Art is fundamentally a survival device for the species.” He proclaimed art appears in every culture and helps us survive because it makes us pay attention, “Every work of art we love makes us attentive, if it doesn’t, it’s not art.” Kidd delved deeper into Glaser’s theory by exploring one of his teaching assignments. The exercise consists of his students keeping a precise record of what they’ve eaten in a week. The lists are then collected, mixed and returned to students, but not their own. The assignment then requires each student to create a portrait and write a description of the anonymous person based on the list. Glaser revealed that the results are astonishing. The exercise exposes minute and personal details of a stranger’s life, done solely by the act of reading their dietary list. “Fundamentally everything is connected,” Glaser remarked, “Thought is energy [and] energy is transmittal.” He explained that the point of the assignment is to pay attention, “teaching makes people aware of what they are already doing.”
The audience got a glimpse of the personal side of Glaser and Kidd when they fielded questions from the audience. Bach, Mozart and Ray Charles are some of Glaser’s musical influences and he admitted that, “I like a lot of music.” Kidd expressed his joy in listening to New Order, but prefers classical and jazz when he is working. Both are avid art collectors but focus on different genres. Glaser described his collection as random. It includes lithographs, paintings and African masks, while Kidd described his collection as, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” due in part to his vast collection of comic book art.
The event ended with rousing applause from the audience, who seemed to be celebrating Glaser’s extraordinary career and his generosity in sharing his time and knowledge. The lecture will be available later this month at video.cooperhewitt.org.
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