Adam Moss, Milton Glaser Discuss 40 Years of New York’s Art Direction

“The secret of all activities is that talent attracts talent.”

That was the legendary art director and co-founder of New York magazine, Milton Glaser, speaking last night at The Society of Publication Designer’s futuristically named SPD@FIT panel on New York‘s 40th Anniversary.

Above Mr. Glaser’s head was a rotating slideshow of iconic New York covers. Most were from the magazine’s heyday in the 70’s—a fake newspaper featuring Tom Wolfe heralding “The New Journalism”; “The Undergound Gourmet” featuring a bagel with a whole fish; and some of a more recent vintage like the cast of Gossip Girl with the cover line “Best. Show. Ever.” and Lindsay Lohan as Marilyn Monroe. (More on that later.) Seated next to Mr. Glaser were former art directors Walter Bernard (class of 1970’s) and Robert Newman (class of 1990’s), current New York editor-in-chief Adam Moss and design director Chris Dixon. The crowd for the hour and a half panel—mini Snickers and Peppermint Patties were helpfully provided to keep attendees alert through some of the longer anecdotes—was mostly students, with a smattering of magazine professionals and older admirers of the magazine.

“Everybody that came into that office felt like they were in the right place because there were other talented, engaged, interesting people there,” Mr. Glaser continued. “I mean, the list of writers and artists and photographers is so extraordinary.” Mr. Glaser paused. “Not to over-extend the imagery, but it was like Renaissance Florence or the Hellenistic Period in Greece. People like to cluster where they sense the talent.”

Since it was a panel for art directors—Mr. Moss was the only non-art department representative on stage—the discussion stayed tightly focused on the design of the magazine over the years. “We didn’t feel we had an elegant magazine,” Mr. Glaser said at one point. “Nor did we have an elegant magazine. We had a kind of tough, utilitarian, straight, un-decorative magazine. I’m always amazed that people think that it was well-designed, because we didn’t think we were designing anything. We were just putting it together so we could get it out the door.”

Mr. Moss described the current incarnation of New York as having “density, then this sort of air.”

Some critics have charged that New York is too slick. Radaronline.com’s John Cook wrote in May 2007: “New York is to journalism what The Eagles were to rock: a technically flawless assemblage of expertly crafted elements that look, on paper (as it were), as though they ought to translate into a superb magazine, and yet somehow still manage to suck.”

Yet Mr. Moss and Mr. Dixon described moments of sheer chaos in the crafting of those flawless designs and covers. “The main dynamic of the magazine is exactly what is was in 1968,” Mr. Moss said. “You have no time to do anything. It’s about speed and making decisions on the fly and not even in formal meetings or conversations, it’s just, you know, in the hallways, in the bathroom.”

Mr. Moss told the crowd that he had no idea what next week’s cover would be, but said that there are three possible ideas. Many covers undergo internal focus groups with staff.

Covers are of a particular interest to Mr. Moss, who told MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman in November 2005: “I want our magazine covers to be posters.”

“It is so hard to come up with an arresting visual cover that can sell so many cover stories,” he lamented to the crowd last night. “We’re really the only ones who have to do that. If you’re a fashion magazine, you just throw a, you know, model or an actress on the cover. Vanity Fair doesn’t ever have to worry about the main story, their conceptual story. They sell the magazine through a very attractive individual.”

Speaking of that now-infamous Lindsay Lohan as Marilyn Monroe cover—Mr. Moss’ own attempt to sell magazines with a very attractive individual—the editor said Ms. Lohan was one of several cover girls suggested by photographer Bert Stern. Mr. Moss assumed that Ms. Lohan, who at the time was in and out of rehab and had a spate of bad press, would pass. “Never would she agree to do this ever!” he recalled thinking. “And in a matter of two phone calls, she said ‘Yes.'”

Another cover discussed in depth was Barbara Kruger‘s March 24th, 2008 image of Eliot Spitzer’s “Brain.” Mr. Dixon said Ms. Kruger was paid an “honorarium” of $250. When the crowd laughed at the figure, he joked, “I’m just saying that for Adam’s sake. It might’ve been $500.”

Asked what he thought about Esquire‘s newly unveiled 75th Anniversary electronic cover, Mr. Moss responded, “It’s a sort of inspired novelty. It sounds really cool.”

“It made us a little crazy,” he admitted. “Because we have a fortieth anniversary issue coming out a week after Esquire‘s. We don’t have an electronic cover. It just sits there.”

Update, September 11, 2008: Chris Dixon was mistakenly identified as “Mr. Wilson.” The error has been corrected. Thanks to commenter “Anonymous (Not Verified)” for pointing this error out.

Adam Moss, Milton Glaser Discuss 40 Years of New York’s Art Direction