NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Five weeks ago, I received a call from Milton Glaser. Wed never met, but he was kindly answering an email Id sent his studio a few hours prior. At best, I expected a response from his assistant. Instead, I got a FaceTime Audio call from the 90-year-old graphic designer. The result was a conversation that ranged from the confounding nature of his success to the motivation for his latest project. It would be one of his last interviews before his death Friday, his 91st birthday.
Only a few weeks before our conversation, New York had hit its COVID-19 apex. The infection and death rates were slowing, but the citys future remained in question. My prompt to Glaser, and the impetus for my initial email, was simple: In this moment of despair, could some form of artistic expression similar to his 1977 I (HEART) NY logo, scratched out in the back of a taxicab help galvanize an ailing city?
Glaser was already grappling with some version of the same question. In between dialysis, he had been working on a project he hoped to distribute to public school students across the city and ultimately the country. It was a graphical treatment of the word Together.
There was no business plan, said Ignacio Serrano, Glasers graphic designer and studio manager. It was about connecting people through art. He would use the example of, If you like Mozart and I like Mozart, we already have something in common. We have a bridge.
Glasers health was already in decline when the Black Lives Matter protests spread throughout the city and then the world. If he had more time, Serrano said, Im sure he would have come to the office with some ideas.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with Glaser. They have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: First, how have you been managing throughout the pandemic?
A: Well, Im in dialysis three days a week. Im at a facility that basically takes care of all your needs and excludes the world. Its as though youre suspended in space. But I realize that the whole world is now suspended in space, so its not so unusual. At the same time, Im trying to acquire a new studio next door to a new apartment we bought. So that is the height of optimism, to buy a new apartment at the age of 90.
Q: Is it hard to do culturally relevant work, the type youre focusing on, while being excluded from the world?
A: You still have the same issues as any design, which is effectiveness. And you still have to invent stuff out of your own psyche and assume that people will be equally moved or challenged by the idea. Im actually developing something I havent shown to anyone, which is simply a treatment of the word Together.
Q: What gave you the idea for Together?
A: When you watch television now its so depressing. This sense of inertia, of not being able to determine your own future, its very eroding. All we can do is have this sense that we are not alone.
Were all in this together has been reiterated a thousand times, but you can create the symbolic equivalent of that phrase by just using the word together, and then making those letters [look] as though they are all different, but all related. So if you want to use the word together it evokes the entire phrase and the idea that we have something in common.
vQ: Whats absent from Together is an overt reference to New York, the city thats been the focus of much of your previous work.
A: I did that in order for it to be universal in the same way that I (HEART) NY was. I want this identity to be adapted by others who are not New Yorkers. This is of course a world problem, not a New York problem.
Q: You developed the iconic I (HEART) NY logo in 1977 and revisited it after the attacks of Sept. 11 with I (HEART) NY More Than Ever. Could Together have a similar impact?
A: Well, Ive done a lot of work in my life, but nothing was as durable as I (HEART) NY. For some reason, and its a great mystery, that idea went all around the world. It hasnt disappeared into the pit of advertising material or sloganism; its still all around.
Particularly in advertising, were in a cycle of a month per idea, and its gone, and then theres something else to replace it. After all these years, I dont understand what it is that makes an idea compelling enough to move a person to a different perception.
Q: Youre skeptical that your current project can have an impact, but youre still doing it? There must be some sense that it can break through.
A: I have no idea. Actually, Im surprised by how these pieces of art can affect people, and can affect their mood or attitude. Design starts with a desire to change an existing condition, but as I said, the shift is something you hope for, and most of the time dont get it.
Q: The I (HEART) NY logo started with a city commissioner coming together with an advertising agency. Would you like to see Mayor [Bill] de Blasio or Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo do more to engage the artistic community in this moment?
A: Well, I think they dont understand the power of these ideas. And what they do is they hire perfectly competent people and agencies that specialize in professional work. And to some degree, this is not professional. Its quite the opposite. Professional work guarantees results, and this has no guarantee, but we hope it opens the heart. And so its very hard to quantify, and its certainly very hard for a government to select people that its comfortable with, who are also extraordinary. You need people who go beyond what is objective and what is logical. I suppose you have to call them artists.
Q: Youre a lifelong New Yorker. Is there something inherent in this city that will enable it to recover from the devastation of the pandemic?
New York is full of diversity and complexity, and its very hard to analyze because of that. New York is a mindset, and were all arrogantly proud of what that represents. The word theyve used is toughness, but its also a combination of cynicism and generosity. Its unprecedented anywhere in the world. So it really cannot be characterized as just another city, somewhere. Its a kind of self-contained universe, and by virtue of that, it makes decisions that other places dont.
Q: What advice would you give younger creatives, especially those who have been particularly active and engaged during this time?
A: Theres an odd combination of intuition and intelligence that has to be mustered to do this work. The part that is logical is only half the job. The other half is truly intuitive and comes out of some part of the brain that you cant control. Its the reconciliation of those two aspects that make things happen. But since the brain is an instrument that holds everything in the universe, its there somewhere.
Q: Do you have any predictions as to how we come out of this moment?
A: I have no faith in my own prediction. I dont think theres any way of telling whats going to happen. I know this [pandemic] is a cosmic change and that nothing will ever be the same again. But I do know that if theres a collective consciousness, if we realize we are all related and we need one another, that would be the best thing that could happen.
© 2020 The New York Times Company