George Lois changed the magazine—and pop culture—forever
as an industry director for Esquire In the 1960s, George Lois attacked Muhammad Ali with an arrow, drowned Andy Warhol in a can of soup, and prepared Richard Nixon’s profile for a close-up. He clamored for attention, creating magazine covers that spoke so urgently, they silenced the bold headlines of an entire newsstand. Through Lois’ work, history was rethought.
I didn’t live through the 60s, but I can tell you that many of the visual markers of the era that are etched in my mind were created by Lois. (And I’m certainly not alone in this—the Museum of Modern Art has secured several of his works for its permanent collection.) He was a fierce and uncompromising visual visionary, a provocateur whose wordless commentary reflected America in dozens of nearly 8-by-8s. -10-inch canvas. He possessed an uncanny ability to channel collective emotion at a time of deep political division, but more than that, he sent a message that America didn’t realize it was ready to receive. Until he died this past weekend at the age of 91, George Lois was the greatest living magazine art director. He will be remembered as a pioneering graphic artist of the 20th century.
before Esquire, made his bones as an advertising man developing the presidential campaigns of Lois Xerox and John F. Kennedy. He was Bronx-born—brash, passionate, and willing to throw down the gauntlet to defend his ideas. Rumored to be the inspiration for crazy peopleof Don Draper, Lois rejected the comparison altogether (Which is fair, because Draper didn’t have nearly as strong a hold on the counterculture as Lois). Through advertising, Lois honed her stylish and daring sensibilities, which would lead her to magazines for a decade and then to MTV, where she rescued a flailing brand and turned it into a zeitgeist-defining entity.
In 2019, when Peter Mendelsund and I started to redesign the atlantic, no designer had more influence on us. Lois’s work occupies a dominant place in our cultural imagination, leaving no choice but to fight it. We sought to bring a similar sensibility, studying its cover the atlantic, which means we often tried to copy him. A common thread in Lois’ most interesting designs is the relationship of typography to imagery. He often relied on a striking central visual element to anchor the cover while the rest of the elements were respectable. It required bravery—as well as immense trust in the public—and shifted responsibility from language. He reduced the cover’s typography to a Lilliputian scale to harness the enormous power of the image.
In 1968, Lois subjected Ali to the fate of St. Sebastian, using arrows to martyr the iconoclastic athlete. In the lower right hand corner of the cover is a small five word title. The most famous magazine cover in American history manages to tackle race, religion and the Vietnam War in a single conceptual image that is as brilliant as it is brutal.
More than a dozen Esquire Trouble is, he didn’t just create iconic images; He set out to distort, rearrange and re-contextualize existing icons. Take his 1964 cover of Kennedy, with a hand photographed in the foreground of the frame, wiping away an imaginary tear. This meta visual move adds friction to a static image; It forces one to confront and process tragedy in a new way. It turns the magazine, 60 cents on newsstands, into something that transcends its form—something more like art.
From Jiffy Lube commercials to the “I Want My MTV” campaign to boxer Sonny Liston wearing a Santa hat on the cover Esquire, contemporary American culture looks and feels the way it does because of Lois’ genius. If you’ve ever been struck by a piece of design on our pages, you now recognize the signs of its impact. Even if you don’t, I can tell you it’s there (us December 2019 And Covers November 2021 Both are valiant attempts at homage). History has no choice but to remember George Lois; He was an integral part of the machinery of remembrance.
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