By Michelle Trauring
“When I was a kid, I discovered that I had great prestige in the neighborhood. My friends could ask me to draw anything, which turned out to be, almost in all cases, naked ladies. They would describe the exact position and physical characteristics, and I could do that, on request. Sort of a short transition between that beginning and what eventually became my career.” – Milton Glaser, “To Inform & Delight”
Paul Davis knew the name before he knew the man.
Freshly graduated from the School of Visual Arts, Davis walked into the ground-floor studio of a brownstone on 31st Street in Manhattan — the starting point of his career as a graphic artist, and his official introduction to the legendary Milton Glaser.
It was the fall of 1959 and, by that time, Glaser was a household name. His graphic design firm, Push Pin Studios, was an “exciting, young, new studio,” Davis said, and after three months as an assistant, the principal promoted him to an illustrator.
“It was a giant leap forward in my career,” explained Davis, who will participate in a panel on Thursday night following the screening of “Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight” at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. “The work they were doing was not like anything else that was around. At first, I didn’t know anything about Milton personally, but I knew his work. And then we became good friends.”
Arguably the country’s foremost graphic designer, Milton is a native New Yorker, through and through, educated first at the High School of Music and Art, and then The Cooper Union — where he met Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel.
Together, they co-founded Push Pin, which acted as a launch pad for Glaser, who would go on to start New York magazine and design firms WBMG and Milton Glaser, Inc., spawning a prolific body of work, which includes the “I (Heart) New York” logo, described as “the most frequently imitated logo design in human history.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama presented Glaser the National Medal of the Arts — making him the first graphic designer to receive this award.
“Milton is certainly one of the greatest American graphic designers ever,” Davis said. “He’s had more influence over the business than almost anybody that I can think of. I can’t even name all the clients and things he’s done. And he’s still working and growing. He does more and more things, and he’s taken it further than almost anyone.”
During his days at Push Pin, Davis would often watch Glaser at work. He was fluid and gifted, Davis recalled, and never outwardly seemed to struggle. A spontaneous fountain of ideas, Glaser — who is now 88 years old — was the clear leader of the group.
“He was always a very dominant and decisive person. He always seemed to know who he was and he always seemed to be in charge of the situation,” Davis said. “He was very clear and he was always so talented and so able to produce an enormous amount of work in a day or a week or a month. He would be doing three and four and five things at once. It was astonishing to watch.”
One summer, the entire studio moved to Woodstock — “We did it so we could all have a house in the country for a month,” Davis said, “and it was great, but it didn’t work out or become a tradition” — but most of their warm afternoons were spent outdoors in the brownstone’s garden, eating sandwiches from the nearby Italian joint, listening to Glaser play his banjo.
“We’d sing songs. There was one song that I remember that we sort of made up,” Davis recalled with a laugh. “I don’t remember who started it, but it was called ‘Rejection.’ We were pushing borders and doing things that were a little more … Well, our clients would send us a layout and we didn’t always follow it — sometimes we didn’t follow it at all, and we’d do something else. So the art directors would get upset with us and we’d have to do it over.”
Hence “Rejection,” he said — a tongue-in-cheek coping mechanism of sorts.
“There was a lot of experimentation. Our style was so eclectic and, to some extent, it was recycling earlier styles and attitudes that had persisted in graphic art over the years,” Davis said. “I worked there for about three years before I went out on my own. But Milton was really a wonderful mentor to me, and we remain friends to this day.”
“Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight,” a film by Wendy Keys, will screen on Thursday, October 19, at 7 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor, in conjunction with the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival. A panel discussion with four of his former colleagues — Paul and Myrna Davis, Reynold Ruffins, and Walter Bernard — will follow. For more information, call (631) 725-0049 or visit johnjermain.org.