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George Lois: A Conversation with The World’s Greatest Art Director


Advertising legend sits down to discuss the genesis of the Big Idea Esquire covers from pencil on paper to Warhol and Muhammad Ali

George Lois: A Conversation with The World’s Greatest Art Director
George Lois is perhaps one of advertising’s greatest minds and most provocative art directors. One of the real-life advertising ‘Mad Men’, he is amongst the rare few people in the world who have made the blurred line between commercial creativity and art invisible. In 2008, his groundbreaking Esquire covers from the 1960s and '70s were immortalised in the Museum of Modern Art in a permanent exhibition. Having recently donated his archives to The City College of New York (CCNY), an exciting new discovery was made. Stashed in the archive trunks that had been in storage in Long Island for over 40 years, are 27 long lost sketches – the germination of some of Lois’ most iconic Esquire covers.

George intends to debut the drawings at the One Show Creative Summit on 11th May 2017 during Creative Week in New York. Catching up with the advertising legend, the ardent New Yorker reveals all about his Esquire covers and what’s really behind the man who created some of the most successful and socially antagonistic ads ever produced…

Opening the discussion on his sketches and the upcoming talk, it is clear that Lois is still as enthusiastic about his work and the advertising industry as the day he first started working.  

“I’ve always worked with a pencil,” explains Lois, in his charming Bronx, New York accent. “So those drawings [the Esquire cover sketches] were a real find. I had boxes and boxes of my archives and a cabinet full of stuff shoved in a warehouse in Long Island. So, when they reached CCNY and they uncovered the sketches it was an amazing moment. If I’m honest, I hadn’t looked at the drawings since the day that I did them!” 

Contrary to the assumption that these thought-provoking covers might have required stacks of working drawings, Lois assures the opposite.

“They call me Mr. Big Idea because throughout my career I have always sat down with pencil in hand and drawn my thoughts. When I get the big idea it is always almost exactly what I produce. You’d be shocked at how close these sketches are to the finished covers. It’s exciting to be able to show the young people of today what they can do without a computer screen in front of them.”

Looking to understand the connection between the CCNY, The One Show, and the Art Director’s Club, Lois explains that his background as a son of Greek immigrants to New York City meant he has always been a supporter of talent and diversity, as well as giving back to the local education systems. 

“I donated my archives to the CCNY because the kids that go to that school are my kind of kids. They are people from less well-off backgrounds, who can’t afford to go to college - some of them immigrants or children of immigrants, like me. CCNY gives those people real opportunities. It’s a great public school in America.” 

When it comes to why he has decided to reveal the sketches at The One Show Creative Summit, Lois reveals that he was not only the youngest ever president of the Art Director’s Club (now part of the One Club for Creativity), he was in fact a pivotal figure in creating what we now know as the One Show.

“The One Club and the Art Director’s Club is doing a great job of continuing the educational history of graphic design in the world. They always have. When they heard about my drawings they got very excited and I’m really looking forward to being involved with them more often. I have always supported the shows since they started. I even helped launch it. Back when I was president of the Art Directors Club, there was also the Copy Club. Ed McCabe was president of the Copy Club at the time and both clubs ran their own separate awards. We thought it would be interesting to merge the two, so that people who won awards at both would come under ‘The One Show’. They still use my original logo,” he smiles, “the double-ended pencil.”

When Lois launched agency Papert Koenig Lois in 1960, it was the first agency to ever include an art director’s name in the mast head. By 1962, the agency had racked up millions of dollars’ worth of accounts - most famously including Xerox. It became the second ever agency to go public. During this time, George tells us that his campaigns were being covered almost weekly by the New York Times and it was this coverage that triggered a call from the then editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes.

“Esquire were almost bankrupt when Harold [Hayes] first reached out to me. The day he became editor, he called me up and invited me to lunch. He wanted to know how to do better covers. When I heard how they currently did them, I told him it sounded like a group groping session – with everyone in the company putting in their two cents as to what should be on it. My advice was to get a graphic designer from outside the company to do the covers. He asked, ‘how can someone who doesn’t work here understand my magazine?’. I replied: ‘Why do they have to?’.  All they had to be able to do was understand the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Then he asked if I’d do it. I said: ‘Tell me what’s in the issue.’ He was shocked I didn’t want to take notes but as he went through the topics he came to Liston vs Patterson for the Heavyweight title.”

George’s first cover for Esquire comes with a notorious story in which he predicted the outcome of the title bout boxing match against all odds. Reigning champion Floyd Patterson was the bookies’ favourite but George designed the cover showing Patterson face down and left for dead in the boxing ring.

“Everyone hated the idea. People were laughing at Esquire. They thought it would ruin the magazine. Anyway, I was right and a week later Patterson got destroyed in the first round. In those days, the fighters would wear either black or white trunks. I even had him wearing the right colour trunks –white.”

What mustn’t be forgotten is that during the time Lois was producing the covers, there wasn’t the photo retouching software available that we have today. When thinking logistics, covers that particularly sprang to mind were the martyrised Muhammad Ali and Andy Warhol drowning in a tin of Campbell’s soup. For the Muhammad Ali cover, George explains that the piercing arrows were actually hung by thin wires as if they were piercing Ali for the shoot. The wires were then removed with very basic photo retouching techniques. When it came to the Campbell soup cover, George recounts that the famous artist himself wasn’t even sure how the effects could be achieved. Feigning Warhol’s unique accent George retells the moment he asked Warhol to be in the shoot.

“He was a big fan of my covers. I called him up one day and said ‘Andy, I'm going to put you on the cover of Esquire’. He said ‘Oooooh you're gonna put me on the cover of Esquire!’ -  He was talking on the phone from his factory and he shouted out, “Hey everyone, George Lois is going to put me on the cover of Esquire!” Then he said “Well, wait a minute George. What's the idea? I said, ‘Andy, I'm going to have you drowning in your own soup, in a can of Campbell's. He said, ‘Won't you have to build a giant can?! I said ‘No, you shmuck! You take two separate pictures and carefully overlay them – one of you drowning and one of the can’. He said “Ohh you're so clever!”

On top of the many famous faces immortalised in George’s Esquire covers are some of the most poignant social and cultural events of the time-period.

“I did six anti-war covers for the Vietnam war – before it was considered a terrible war. I would do covers that would get Esquire into real, giant difficulty. I did one cover that was just a black background with white text. A quote from a GI or something: ‘Oh my God - We hit a little girl.’ Every congressman in America was calling it a communist plot. I’ve spent most of my life sticking it to the power.”

George was drafted into the Korean War in 1950. He largely attributes his distaste for war as fuelling his need to be socially provocative in work and leisure. “They were wars of genocide. The first was Korea and the second was Vietnam – and now they’re unending. They are terrible. I do controversial work because I’m speaking the truth.”

War was not the only provocative topic George was passionate about. His advertising challenged everything from sexism to racism, throughout a turbulent few decades. “My advertising is provocative. I did a campaign for Coty lipstick and I showed a (not a conventionally good looking) female comedian [Alice Pearce], putting on lipstick. After she puts it on, she turns into this beautiful young woman [Joey Heatherton]. The pretext being that you put on this lipstick and every part of you becomes a beautiful woman. It was so ridiculous. It was a parody on cosmetics advertising and my client let me do it and they had the largest sale of lipstick in the history. Women understood the joke of ‘Hey, you put on this lipstick and, all of a sudden, you are beautiful!’ I shook up what was going on in culture and not just in my Esquire covers! I’m known as a cultural provocateur and I’m proud of it.”

Today, many of us would think ‘How did you get away with that??’ - a question George tells me he gets asked often. “Everyone says they’d never be allowed to do that kind of advertising today but honestly I don’t think it is any different today as it was then. Being a good advertiser isn’t just learning how to create an advert, it’s about learning how to sell it. It’s about learning how to inspire people to want to look at and question your work - being a part of real culture and conversation. Young people need to learn how to sell in their ideas.”

George, now 86, is far from retired. Still stuck into his work, I ask what his typical day is like. “I supposedly ‘retired’ in 2000,” He laughs. “By the second day I said, ‘I can’t do this’. My son is a terrific photographer and, since we started working together, has become a wonderful designer as well. We start work at 9am and work until 5pm. We sit next to each other. I’m writing and drawing and he’s on the computer. We do branding and ad campaigns, book designs and logos, etc... and we’ve been doing that for the last 17 years. I’m still working with the same enthusiasm I always worked with. Every hour is important.  And my wife doesn’t complain. She knows exactly what I’m doing. She was an Art Director herself and then she became a terrific painter.”

Married for 66 years, George tells me the best thing he ever did was marry early. “We were 20 when we married. I would have done it earlier if it wasn’t for legally needing my parents’ permission. Coming from a Greek family, they would have been shocked if their son did not marry a Greek girl. So we eloped! When we met in school in Brooklyn I just knew I never wanted to leave her – and so far, so good!”

To see George talk in person – something most certainly not to be missed - you can see him speak next at the One Show Creative Summit on 11th May.

George Lois is the only person in the world inducted into The Art Directors Hall of Fame, The One Club Creative Hall of Fame, with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, The Herb Lubalin Award (Society of Publication Designers), CLIO, as well as a subject of the Master Series at the School of Visual Arts. In 2013, Lois was voted The Most Influential Art Director of the Past 50 Years by Graphic Design USA. Playboy recently called him "The greatest adman who ever lived."

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The One Club for Creativity, Wed, 10 May 2017 15:34:50 GMT