George Lois: “A Punch In the Mouth”

by NoD Staff | August 15, 2008


George Lois in his New York apartment

When MoMA opened its current exhibition of George Lois’ Esquire covers last spring, the legendary ad man (“I want my MTV”, anyone?) enjoyed a second wave of fame and acclaim. As a new generation discovered the powerful and provocative images he created for Esquire between 1962-1972, even the supremely confident Lois was a little taken back by the response: “In the first month of the show, my web site got 1 million 700 000 hits. Who would have imagined that a graphic design show would have that kind of impact?” he says. But maybe it’s not surprising at all. In today’s climate of impossibly bland magazine art, Lois’ fearless statements offer a refreshing reminder that success does not always equal pandering. “I do stuff that punch you in the mouth sometimes,” he says. However, the fact that his 40-year-old covers are still considered so radical is also a little discouraging. How come not much else has happened since then? To ponder that question, and to revisit the stories behind his most iconic pictures, we sat down with the irrepressibly charming and outspoken 77-year-old native New Yorker in the beautiful West Village apartment he’s lived in for the past four decades.


So let’s begin by asking you what you think about what’s happening with magazine covers today?

Magazine covers? Nothing’s happening. Generally, for hundreds of magazines it’s a cacophony of celebrity pictures along with 10 or 11 stupid blurbs selling individual things.
I mean it’s garbage. For the majority of magazines it’s like that. And the idea that they look like each other is so incredibly stupid. You try to be unique, you try to be exciting, you try to catch people’s eyes. And there’s no way to catch anybody’s eyes when there’s just a pattern of the same cover. Generally, because publishers and editors – and maybe art directors- have all decided that the way to sell magazines is the inane celebrity feature, which is usually a kiss ass piece, and they’re hoping this person will sell 10 000 more copies and this person will sell 12 000 more copies. They’ve handcuffed themselves and it’s been like this for many years now. And you can talk to editors of the most important magazines in America and they will agree with what I’m saying, and still keep doing it.

Some magazines do have a policy to not use celebrities.

Well, that’s just as stupid as only using celebrities. Using celebrities, not using celebrities, the point is to do something that makes sense for what the magazine is all about. I did many celebrity covers. But they’re not sycophantic photographs, you know Tom Cruise and his dumb teeth. It’s Muhammad Ali as St Sebastian and Andy Warhol drowning in a can of soup. It’s Richard Nixon being made up… Covers should have ideas. And that’s the problem. 99% of them have no ideas. Some people do ideas but they’re dumb ideas. Like the New Yorker cover that shows Obama as a Muslim terrorist. It’s not a question of being dumb, actually. It’s intelligent satire but it’s confusing. And it’s confusing in a serious, serious political situation in the world where we have to elect somebody to bring America back to its senses. And a little magazine doing that, an ambigious confusing cover that is satire that can be used against you is a very bad judgment made by David Remnick, who is a terrific editor, but it’s a bad judgment. He won’t admit it now, though. But if he had shown me that I would have said: “David, if you run that I’m gonna punch you in the mouth.”


But your covers were provocative and not always that easy to figure out

Yes that’s absolutely right! But you have to look at every situation. Doing a cover that shows such a strong image, that’s an image that’s hard to get out of your head. And it’s the wrong kind of image to put in peoples’ heads if you want to win an election. I find it very harmful to Obama. I met David Remnick three of four years ago, and he was kind of excited to meet me, because he grew up with my covers when he was in college etc. And he said, “George, a lot of people at Conde Nast are trying to convince me to use photography on my covers.” And I said, “What are you nuts? Everybody else looks the same, and you have a statement. Now, you should be edgy, you should be political…” I was telling him everything he was trying to do with this cover, so he was like a Frankenstein. They did do a couple of terrific ones. When Hillary was talking about the 3 am phone call they did a wonderful one where she was in bed with Obama. That’s terrific. I thought it was wonderful, I wrote him a letter. But the point is, I did some ambiguous ones, the most ambiguous I did was Lieutenant Calley who was responsible for the My Lai Massacre and he was notorious. Here was a young officer sent into a stupid war by a stupid government and he wound up in a situation where his troops killed hundreds of women and children. But what nobody ever really understood about that situation was that… I thought it was racist. When I went to Korea [Lois was drafted in the Korean war] I was on a ship with 5000 men, all 18-20 years old, all American and raised in the American school system. When we got to Yokohama they were looking down at the dock workers, which were mostly women, and they were beautiful. And 4900 of the American soldiers were doing this [makes a squinty face and pulls his eyes and speaks in mock Japanese]. I’ve been shocked in my life but that was the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen. And I thought : What kind of country is this? Look at all these young men, all these terrible young men. And during the Vietnam war, a terrible war, racist war where we involved in a revolution that we had no part of, I showed Calley sitting there with Vietnamese children and I got to him to do this [plasters on a vacant grin] That stupid son of a bitch. I made him smile. Because I told, him: “Lieutenant, if you’re smiling when you’re sitting with these children, it shows that you’re innocent.” He wasn’t innocent, he did it!! And I was nailing him. I was saying he was a beast.

But you were manipulating him?

Oh yeah, big time!


How did you manage to do that?

I told him that I was in the Korean war and that I was involved with troops that killed civilians. And I was. I saw it. I saw guys do it. Big time. Yeah. Young men in war? Are you kidding?


What was the reaction to that cover?

Oh it was a furor. And a lot of the trouble came from liberals, people were saying: “How dare you show him on the cover with people he killed?” But Harold Hayes [Esquire’s editor] said that was the point, we were nailing the guy and at the same we were nailing the people responsible for sending him there. It was an anti-war cover. In the most horrible sense. So that kind of controversy is not the same -as far as I’m concerned- as the Al Qaeda cover with Obama, which is tame compared to what I’m talking about. Talk about a punch in the mouth!

What are the ingredients for a successful cover? Do you think ambiguity is necessary?

First of all there should be clarity in the idea. Andy Warhol drowning in a can of soup, everybody can understand that, he made paintings of Campbell soup and now he’s drowning in it – everybody got it. And you can then interpret it as: Oh that’s just fun! Or pop art is bullshit. Or he’s drowning in his own publicity. There are a lot of ways you can interpret that according to how you feel about it. I don’t mind the interpretations. The point is there’s clarity in the idea; he’s drowning in his own painting. There’s clarity in Richard Nixon being made up. Nobody thought he would ever run again for president after being beat by Kennedy because he looked as evil as he really was when he was on television [ the first TV debates helped the telegenic Kennedy win the election] so when Harold Hayes called me up and said “ I got to tell you something; that Richard Godamn Fucking Nixon is gonna run for president again. We’re doing a piece on it” I said: “I’m gonna nail this son of a bitch.” He said what are you going to do? I’m gonna nail, him!

So we looked for pictures of him with his eyes closed, and I found a photographer that had taken one on Air Force one when he was napping. And I added hands that were fixing him up, getting rid of his 5 o clock shadow etc etc. So everybody saw they understood that he was being made up, because he had lost to Kennedy before because he looked so bad, everybody understood the picture. Except Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, who wound up going to jail for the Watergate cover up, called me up and screaming at me “I know what you left wing SOB’s are trying to do!” And I said “What?” “You’re trying to make him look like a homosexual!” And I said “You’re a stupid motherfucker” and I hung up. That was before photoshop. I had to put these things together manually and it took two days to do it. With photoshop everybody who tries to do ideas makes them so complicated that you don’t know what you’re looking at. There’s no clarity in the visuals. A lot of people have tried to mimic what I’ve done, and almost always, it gets very complicated. When Spy magazine came out Kurt Anderson and Graydon Carter, who created that magazine, terrific magazine, they would call me up and say: “George, we did a George Lois cover! We’re gonna send it over to you.” And I would call them up and say: “I don’t think so.” “Why?” “Too complicated!!”

Complicated in what way?

Visually. Conceptually it can be complicated. But visually you should be able to look at it and get it. The visual should be clear as a bell. Roy Cohn, who was a bad terrible man, he was Joe McCarthy’s mouthpiece, when he left the shoot he said “I guess you left wingers are gonna make me look as bad I can look.” And I said: “You bet your ass we will. I hate your guts!”

You’re talking about interpretation being left to the public, but you yourself had a very strong opinion on everything.

Yeah I’m doing state propaganda. In my mind – and maybe it wasn’t always successful- I’m a cultural provocateur. Harold Hayes called my covers pictorial Zolas, you know, “J’Accuse”. I couldn’t have done anything that I did without him. He loved my covers. And I had a pact with him. During all those years I had my ad agency. I can’t tell you all the articles that came out after the MoMA show that says that I was an art director at Esquire. I was never an art director there, I had an ad agency. The reason Hayes came to me was that he had heard about this young art director who had created an agency, I left Doyle, Dane, & Bernbach (now DDB), where I was a star and formed Papert, Koenig, Lois. It was the second creative agency in the world. Bill Bernbach said “There can only be one creative agency in the world.” “And I said, “Bill, I think there can be two. I think there can be ten.” He said “No, how do you figure that?” And I said “ Well, the way you did it. Where a creative man runs the agency.” Not the sons of bitches, the account guys and the bullshit this, marketing people. The creative person runs the agency. I decide. Nobody can make me run a bad ad. We were successful in two weeks. I started in January 1960. In 1962, Harold Hayes had been reading about this wunderkind [in a hushed, semi-embarrassed voice] people would write about me being a Greek god…. but that’s redundant.. It was the first ad agency that had an art director’s name in it. Art directors weren’t important then, they were layout men, you had writers that would come up and say “Here’s the copy – lay it out!”. So I made it so the art director had power, you have to have power where you work, you can be talented but if you work in someplace where they don’t understand it, you are nothing! So Harold was watching this, and they were doing covers and they were done the same way everybody does it. Everyone gets together and they decide what the most important story is and then they go away to decide what they are going to do and two days later they have a meeting and they all say “ I think we should do this and I think we should do this..” So Harold asked me for advice on covers. And I had never done a cover in my life. So I asked them how they did it and he described the process and I said: “Oh my God! Group fucking grope!” He said:” What do you mean?” And I said: “Is that the way you work with Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer? And Gay Talese? You all sit around and talk about what he should write? And he said: “Of course not!” I said: “Give it to one person! Outside.” He said: “Outside?? But how could he understand what was going on???” I said: “When I first meet my advertising clients I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Two days later I know more than they know! And then I can tell them something that they don’t know.” So he said: “OK, who?” And I said “Hell, let me think about it, and I started writing down names. He said “Listen Pal, could you do me a favor, one favor, could you do me just one cover because I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” And I said “OK, what’s in the next issue?” He told me there was a page about the big fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. So I went away and made the cover.

So you sketched it?

Nah I didn’t sketch it. I can do it, I do it for advertising clients. But I wasn’t going to give sketch to an editor. People are blind, they don’t know what they’re looking at, including editors. So I knew immediately what I was going to do, because I knew the whole world was saying that Floyd Patterson was going to defeat Sonny Liston. And I knew they were all nuts. I knew Floyd Patterson, I saw him train all the time, I just knew. So I called up a photographer and asked him to get a guy who looked like Patterson and we shot it at St Nicholas arena, which was terrific because it didn’t have any columns, and I took a picture of Patterson look-alike lying in the area. Dead, alone, everybody’s gone. So we took the picture, I sent it to him. He called me up and said: “You’re calling the fight?” I said: “No shit.” He said “You’re crazy!” and I said: “You’re crazy because you’re gonna run it!” He said “You know what – you’re right!” because he realized what a ballsy statement it was. And the cover came out and it was lambasted. And a week later the fight came out and Liston beat the hell out of Patterson in the first round. The sold out of the magazine and did a reprint. And I found years later that if their newsstand circulation hadn’t improved within a few weeks they would have closed down the magazine. They were that far in the red.


So they were brave to take you on

Because Hayes got it. He said “Wow, this is risky – but what a move!” And when Harold showed everybody the cover they told him he couldn’t run it. And then he told them he’d quit. So they let him run it but they wrote a disclaimer on the credits page, saying something like: “See that cover, we had nothing to do with it! It’s not what we think. It was made by a designer named George Lois.” That’s how scared they all were. But it changed the magazine, it made people understand that it was hot stuff.


But to go back to the ingredients of a successful cover, the Floyd Patterson image wasn’t ambiguous at all.

What this image said was 1) We at Esquire think that Floyd Patterson will get his ass kicked and 2) We’re making a statement about boxing as a metaphor for life. As in, when you’re a loser, you’re left for dead. And after he saw it, Harold had a sportswriter write a story that talked about fighting a s a metaphor. He was so smart. I told Harold “I’m gonna sell your magazine, your magazine is too good not to be read. I’m going to make a great package for it.” Because that’s what I do, I communicate to the masses, I understand how to get people to think a certain way. So my job was to sell a magazine. But it had to reflect the attitude of the magazine. And every few months I would do a cover that would be so shocking that they’d lose advertisers. Because I was saying this is who we are! And they got them back. And Harold understood that.


But today the whole reasoning behind having celebrities on every cover and making them non-offensive to as many people as possible is that’s how magazines make money?

They think they make money, but they’re looking like everybody else so how can you differentiate yourself? I’ve had this discussion with Graydon Carter [Vanity Fair editor-in-chief] He says he would have loved to have covers like I did. And I said “What’s the problem? Your circulation is incredible!” And there’s no answer. You know what they do with the covers for these magazines? They test them! They research them! They go out and ask people: “What do you think of this cover, do you like it? What do you think of the red logo? Would blue be better?” But it’s about selling the attitude of the magazine. So the argument with a guy like Graydon Carter is that he can do a cover with a picture by Annie Lebovitz and it can be a big seller, for some reason, because he’s got some great stuff inside! He did anti-war stuff from the beginning. He can do an issue that sells well. But it still doesn’t do anything for the magazine besides sell that issue. You don’t sit there and say: “Wow – this is what Vanity Fair is all about.” Vanity Fair can’t be Angelina Jolie, I’ve got nothing against her, but that’s not what the magazine is about! It doesn’t have an iconic view of the world.

We’re in a time of great political consciousness and tension, not just in America, but also throughout the world. Do you think there’s any hope that magazines will start to reflect that?

Three years ago publication I got a lifetime achievement award by a design publication gave me a lifetime achievement award for my Esquire covers. And I gave talk about covers to a crowd full of designers and editors. And I really lambasted them, I really told them what covers should be like. And a year later the ASME [American Society of Magazines] begged me to come and give a similar talk to them. I went down there and I talked and showed them my covers. And there were 3000 people there. And I said “”Other than Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, everyone in this room is complicit in the Iraq war. Shame on you. “ And I really ripped into them not only for that but also for their covers. And I got an incredible response! I had people calling me and every editor you can think of thinks I’m God. But nothing happened. Nothing changes!

It seems so strange because everyone seems frustrated. So why doesn’t it change?

A year or two ago, there was a debate on the Internet between art directors saying ”Why can’t we do George Lois covers anymore?” And people were saying you can’t do that now because there are too many magazines. Tina Brown was telling me that too. And I said “Tina, look at that newsstand. It’s a pattern. They’re all the same. If you put any one of my covers in there it would knock you on your ass!” There’s always a million of reasons why you can’t do it. The topper was when the current editor of Esquire, David Granger, said something like: “Sure George Lois is a genius. But the covers didn’t work.” So he was trying to say to everybody that they didn’t sell. Are you crazy?? I couldn’t have done the second cover of it didn’t sell!

This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.

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