In Conversation with George Lois


Hailing from the Bronx and nicknamed “the golden Greek”, George Lois was one of the pioneers of the “Creative Revolution”. He is best known for the striking Esquire covers during the 1960s and 70s,. He described himself as the young kid in the group” and spoke with fondness and casualness about the other famous figures from that period, including Paul Rand who he described as his hero. He reminisced about how when he was 24 Reyner Banham said, “Lois is a 4 letter word for talent”

Until I visited George Lois in his home in midtown New York, I had never been in an apartment with such an eclectic mix of objects. I was surrounded by art deco lacquered screens, an art nouveau desk, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs, cowboy boots, African masks, editorial photography and contemporary paintings done by Lois’s wife Rosemary. I wanted to discover from Lois what it takes to be a great designer and creative director but from the minute I walked in the room I got a good sense of what his answer would be. Lois is passionate about his belief that it is a designer’s duty not only to know about design but also to immerse themselves in art, literature, film and sports. He spoke about visiting design students in New York – “I’d say how many of you have been to the Metropolitan this year? Silence. How many of you have been to the Museum of Modern Art? Maybe one. What the fuck is wrong with you kids? You’re spending all this money and you don’t know how go to a museum. I’m talking to a class of dummies.”

I had been warned that George swears profusely. And he did. I had brought him balaclava, on account of his Greek heritage and to sweeten him up, but he didn’t need it. He was in no way intimidating. He swore with the enthusiasm of an excited teenager. Impressively, despite beginning his career early, now at 79 years old, Lois continues to work and not just in a consulting capacity. He still retains the same enthusiasm, flair and passion as a fresh-faced junior designer.

But he is disheartened by the current state of the design industry, particularly the magazine industry. He despises glossy celebrity covers with an over abundance of blurbs and headlines. He has even created his own name for the phenomenon – not sycophant but rather “the ‘sickofan’ cover, where they’re kissing idiot celebrity’s celebrities’ asses.”

In April 2008, his Esquire covers became a part of MoMA’s collection. In 2010, he was induced into the Media Industry News hall of fame. He finds all the praise and admiration simultaneously honorable and insulting. “I say: You’d honor me more if one of you would go back to your offices now and go to the most talented person in your design department, take off their handcuffs, let them do a cover for you.” He holds designers and editors to a high standard and does not accept excuses and believes the same powerful statements he made through his cover design can still be made today. “They genuflect at my covers and at me for them but they’re full of shit because they won’t learn anything from me. They said you did it and that’s it and that it’s not possible today. But that’s a lie.”

His fearlessness translated into much of the work he designed. He was also a political activist. He openly opposed the war in Vietnam and used his design skills and creative vision to produce some of the most memorable and controversial covers against the war, provoking much public debate.

Lois’s fearlessness made me lament. The creative revolution was also a creative rebellion. Lois’s belief in the transformative power of design and his insistence to never create generic design is an inspiration. But understandably, the risks associated with being a creative rebel makes it a difficult role to fill. The amount of fear in all creative industries, stemming from concerns about job security, inhibits designers from doing any daring work.

Just as I was leaving I noticed that Lois’s casual attire is from the Everlast brand, so fitting since their advertising slogan is “Nothing soft comes out of the Bronx.”

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