In 1962, Esquire editor Harold Hayes asked graphic designer George Lois to create a magazine cover, and the idea Lois came up with was extremely risky. Weeks before the heavyweight boxing world championship between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, Lois produced a design depicting a defeated Patterson in black boxing shorts. The cover was a gamble in calling both the outcome of the fight and the color of the boxing shorts Patterson would wear.
Luckily for Lois’ budding career, Patterson appeared in the ring in black shorts on the evening of the championship and, surely enough, was knocked out by Liston in the first round.
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Last Thursday, Lois brought his artistic daring to Yale to give a lecture at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library titled “The Lost Art of the Magazine Cover.” The talk focused on Lois’ career designing the iconic Esquire covers during the 1960s and 1970s and his role in the advertising industry.
“I stand before you an unrepentant ad man,” Lois told the audience in his New York accent. Indeed, Lois’ designs were anything but repentant or careful.
The Esquire covers were simple, free of the busy blurbs that decorate today’s magazines and often distract from the thematic relevance. The designs were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York from April 2008 to March 2009, and Lois recently authored a book on the exhibition. His work includes an image of Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell soup, a young woman frowning in a trashcan and a morbid-looking Richard Nixon being doused in make-up and perfume, accompanied by the statement “Nixon’s last chance. (This time he’d better look right!)”
At Thursday’s talk, Lois called his covers “uncensored commentaries on serious issues.” He stressed that design must, above all things, be an idea and that this idea must be communicated within a nanosecond.
Christopher Pullman, a senior critic at the School of Art graphic design department, related Lois’ success to his “hard-wired” personality combined with good, off-beat ideas.
“Brash, optimistic, humorous, profane, bad-boy, do-it-yourself, take no prisoners, my way or the highway, ego big as all outdoors,” Pullman wrote in an e-mail describing Lois. “His best ads used clever, punchy, colloquial language, combined with the right image to make a total, memorable, repeatable impression.”
Rachel Kauder ’13, who attended Lois’ talk, named the April 1968 cover of Esquire, featuring Muhammad Ali in a reference to Saint Sebastian, as her favorite of Lois’ works. She cited Lois’ homage to classical art as something to aspire to.
“Magazine covers today suffer from bland monotony, driven by [designers] going with what they think people want, not what they think people should see,” Luke Harris ART ’10 said, echoing a point Lois made in his talk.
But Pullman said he thought Lois overlooked certain successful recent magazines in his critique. Though Lois criticized Vanity Fair for not matching its strong writing with interesting covers, Pullman recalled a striking cover featuring a naked and pregnant Demi Moore. He also noted a list of “delightfully provocative” covers for the New Yorker, including “Ahmadinejad being solicited while on the toilet” and “Obama and Clinton in bed at 3 in the morning reaching for the red phone.”
In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art installed 38 of Lois’s Esquire covers in its permanent collection after dismantling the year-long exhibition.