by Clare Ultimo
No doubt there are many people talking about Milton Glaser right now. He loomed large in the world of communication, design, illustration, and art (his work is at the Louvre after all). I’m sure there will be lots more discussion about his influence on American and International design culture in the months to come. Milton was a formidable presence in the world of design, and I have had the good fortune of spending time with him through the years and learning a lot from his uncommon wisdom and brilliant mind.
Like many young designers in the 1980s, and before the digital age, I first came to know Glaser’s work through magazines like “Graphis” and “Communication Arts”, through his time with Seymour Chwast, Pushpin Studios and of course books published about his work, outlining what seemed like his best projects at that time. The books were compelling visual experiences outlining his thought process and the fortunate intersection of a good idea, a good client, and a successful production.
But what I was seeing at that time, and particularly admired about him early on, was his inability to see any limitations in the world of design. For Glaser, design didn’t stop at illustration, or posters or packages or logos or magazines. Milton designed storefronts, lamps, and supermarkets, right down to the cat food cans. I didn’t know too many designers at the time that did this, so his work left a big impression on my young mind. At the time, I was working as an Assistant at a media company, one of 25 people in the Art Department, dreaming of a future where I would do something like Glaser was doing. No idea how I would do that, but dreaming nonetheless.
Many are familiar with an evening course Glaser taught at SVA called “Design and Personality’ which I took for Fall and Spring semesters in 1984. Those that know this class, will remember an assignment given to “Visualize your Work Life Five Years From Now – write about it in as much detail as you can and bring in a piece of work that you will be creating at that time”. As Milton announced this, the class revolted: “How can we imagine something we have not worked on yet?” “How do I know what I’ll be doing in five years?” But I was excited about it…using our creative imaginations for our futures. I thought it was a magical kind of idea and little did I know it would set my entire life in a new direction.
What I imagined was having my own design studio someday, detailing as much as I could about it, describing myself down to the white jumpsuit I was wearing on that particular day, and amazingly enough, less than two years later, without a dime in my pocket or any clients to start with, this imaginary design studio became real (sans the white jumpsuit, however). In my assignment, I even said I had help at the beginning (having no idea where it would come from at the time). Somehow, a typesetter on 34 street (Lance Booth) offers me free rent in his office for 6 months to get started. It was hard, it was scary, but it was pretty magical.
Once I saw this little assignment become my reality, I reached out to Milton to tell him my story. Of course, he had already heard this from many others who had taken his class. In fact, he said that when he began to give the assignment, he didn’t specify “work” life and so people were coming back to tell him how their “whole” life had changed because of his assignment; how they left their wife/husband, moved to Italy or some such place, gave up drinking, gave up design and started a horse farm, etc. He said these were major life changes and since people were attributing those changes to his assignment and to him, he began to say specifically ”work-life”. “I didn’t want that responsibility” he laughed.
In that initial meeting, I figured I would take the opportunity to ask him how to maintain standards in the work we did, despite dumb clients and low budgets. I will never forget what he said. “A lot of things have to work together in our profession for a project to be successful. A brilliant idea isn’t enough; your talent isn’t even enough. Graphic Design is a humble profession. There are all kinds of things that affect the end result of your idea, including budgets and production expertise. It all has to come together to make the thing great. It doesn’t always. We’re not brain surgeons after all. Don’t forget that.”
By 1988, lunches, letters, and postcard exchanges began to happen, and over the next 20 years, I would find myself at some restaurant looking at Milton across the table: me, a rookie design entrepreneur with a lot to learn, and a lot of mistakes to make. And while I was thrilled to have opportunities to talk with him and get his advice, I don’t think I ever stopped feeling intimidated by the respect he received from so many and the huge range of work he was continually creating. The man never stopped working, even up until the end.
While I never considered this a “friendship” in the classical sense, it was the most important student/teacher relationship I have ever had. Even though I respected him, I enjoyed a kind of informality that seemed unique, though I’m sure others would have similar stories about Milton.
He was quick to correct my pronunciation of words in conversation (which always embarrassed me). He told me to stop fidgeting once, at a restaurant (me…mortified since I didn’t realize I was fidgeting). At the now-defunct “Coffee Shop” on 16th Street, I blurted out why he insisted on combining the weirdest colors (evergreen – navy blue – gold) in his apparel (quote me: “what’s with these colors Milton?”) He said he liked them and besides, he knew they bothered other designers (like me)!
He always seemed curious; he always asked great questions that kept me thinking long after he was gone. Once, in a conversation about Western religious ideas and God (yes, he had a lot to say about such things) he asked, “So what is the point of Purgatory anyway?” I explained what I knew, being a Catholic, but I remember laughing because no matter what I said, he was shaking his head in disbelief. Nonetheless, he continued to question me, and I took that as an example of what great designers did – they asked questions. Clearly, he liked to entertain ideas he was not familiar with. He would observe random things, everyday things, as though they were new. He would say things like “I’m watching TV in a dark room and thinking, what IS this thing, this blue rectangle we are all staring at? What is this glowing light we are all mesmerized with?” Stuff like that.
Then, when my mother was dying, he said something truly unusual, something I have never heard before from anyone about death. I asked him for some way to deal with her inevitable passing, and he said ”When my mother was dying, I would look at my hands when I woke up, to make sure they were there.” The death of a parent is psychically disorienting (especially if you were very close, as I was to my mom), this was a way of reminding ourselves that we have the power to create something new, even when things around us are ending. Artists looking at their hands…it gave me an entirely different perspective on the whole thing.
Almost every conversation happened over a table filled with food. Of course, everyone knows Milton was a “foodie” so he always knew what the best stuff was on any menu, no matter what kind of cuisine it was. (Another reason why lunch with him was so enlightening). He told me to order the Broccoli Rabe and Pasta when we were at Trattoria Dell’Arte, the Lentilles soup at an east side French bistro and seemed to really like my mother’s homemade Strufoli, which I gave him at Christmas for many years. I paid attention to his knowledge about food, lest we forget he pioneered the enjoyment of local dives and cheap amazing meals in NYC with a paperback bestseller “The Underground Gourmet” in the 1970s.
Once we were walking down Lexington Avenue and we passed Kalustyan’s, an international food shop. He motioned to go in and said “I want to show you something”, so I followed him. He took me over to a wall of bins with loose beans, peas, nuts, and fresh spices neatly stacked up, one above the other. He looked at the beans, looked back at me, and said, “Only God can make such colors. Do you see them?” But I just stood there, not knowing what to say, made a little nod and weak smile, and felt really uncomfortable. I wanted to say something smart in response, but couldn’t think of anything. Fortunately, he left and started walking around the store when I thought, “oh, I know what I’ll do, I’ll buy him a gift from this place”. I got him a pastry and felt relieved when we left. Hours later, after we said goodbye, the simplest thing hit me. I realized he just wanted to show how color was a real thing, made in nature before any artist recreated it, how important and beautiful that was. Eyes of an artist. It wasn’t so difficult to understand, and there was me trying to be so clever in front of the chickpeas!
In my life, Milton personified the qualities of a true artist and a great teacher. Others who knew him in a different way might have other stories to tell, and that’s all right. I will be forever grateful for the time I spent in his company and the short time I had to enjoy his thoughts. Now that he is no longer around, there are a few things I will always remember that he told me long ago:
- Stay curious
- The right questions are more valuable than the right answers.
- Apply ruthless examination to topics you think you know (i.e. you will always be learning, so don’t be a smartass!)
And finally…life requires “coraggio”. Milton often ended his letters to me with this word, which is “courage” in Italian. In the mad, cutthroat world of NY design, this word reminded me to be hopeful. It was worth a lot.
God bless you in Design Heaven, Milton. Hope you are hanging with interdimensional friends, having a good time. You will be missed but never forgotten.
To see more of Milton Glaser and Clare Ultimo’s work, please visit their websites:
Milton Glaser: https://www.miltonglaser.com/the-work
Clare Ultimo: https://altpick.com/ultimo