Milton Glaser on Making New Work at 89 and Why ‘Retirement Is a Trap’

The 89-year-old design legend shares his new landscape prints, talks about the changes of his industry and reveals the oddest thing he's ever designed.

Milton Glaser in his studio in New York City.
Milton Glaser in his studio in New York City. Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Milton Glaser is the leading voice in the design world and has no plans of relinquishing that title any time soon.

Glaser is responsible, first and foremost, for the “I <3 NY” logo, but his prolific career also includes book covers for the likes of Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, of course), magazine covers for The New York Review of Books and New York Magazine (which he co-founded in 1968), posters for Mad Men, Vespa, Lincoln Center and Juilliard, and the brightly colored 1968 portrait of Aretha Franklin that was just showcased at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington in honor of the late musician. In 2010, Glaser was bestowed the National Medal of Arts award by Obama, making him the first graphic designer to receive the honor.

At 89, Glaser remains as idealistic and busy as ever. “Every once in a while, very rarely, a work of commerce becomes a work of art,” Glaser tells me. “But that’s so unusual you might as well not even mention it.” On the wooden door of Milton Glaser, Inc., the design studio Glaser established in 1974 and still works at, the phrase, “Art is Work” is inscribed in a perfectly timeless Times New Roman typeface.

Glaser’s most recent body of work, a series of dreamy Landscape Prints of the Hudson Valley, recall the artist’s Italian mentor, Giorgio Morandi, and the late monotypes of Edgar Degas. The grainy images of vibrating trees and hazy fields will go on view at the Edward Hopper House in Nyack, New York on September 7.

Here, the prolific designer discusses his latest work, the perils of laziness, and why he keeps computers at arms-length.

How has your relationship to the city evolved and inspired your work?

It’s an incredibly complex city. I’ve always lived here. It’s my life. I don’t ask too many questions about how it changes, it’s never been exactly the same and it always has been the same as both its ability to change incredibly before your eyes and at the same time retain its old history. Because there is no place like New York and its quality and its diversity, it’s such a complex system. When you talk about New York, every part of it is different.

A work on view in 'Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints' at the Edward Hopper House.
A work included in ‘Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints’ at the Edward Hopper House. Milton Glaser

How does the graphic design environment of the 1950s and ’60s in New Yorkwhen you founded Push Pin Studios and New York Magazinecompare to the field now?

It’s definitely more difficult now for people in the graphic arts, partially because it’s a field that simply has too many practitioners and too little opportunity to really do good work. The graphic arts have a glamour component and people want to be visible and famous, so there are a lot more people than the field can take. The problem is that there are too many graduates, too many aspirants and too few jobs in graphic design. Most of it has moved from the magazine and illustration world to the electronic world, so a lot of it is about living digital material instead of the artwork we once knew that you made by hand. That has changed the characteristic of what is produced. I don’t see many things in my daily life that I find exhilarating, but that, of course, is a characteristic of the old years.

I want to talk about drawing—the importance it has in your work and whether you think it’s disappearing from graphic design.

It is, because drawing is not necessary anymore. The work that you’re given is so largely electronic with so little draftsmanship and drawing. For me, drawing has always been the fundamental instrument by which you understood what you were doing. I mean, when you draw something you have to pay attention, and that’s the characteristic that I see most commonly: people simply not paying attention to what they’re doing. The result is a lot of generic work that basically is not very thoughtful. But that’s also the complaint of the elderly who are looking for excuses for why their work isn’t being used anymore.

How do you feel about the work you’re showcasing at the Edward Hopper House?

It’s strange work for me. It doesn’t look exactly like what I’ve done before and it was a great experience doing it. I loved Hopper and I loved the spirit that ran in him and the quality of his work. Hopper spent a good deal of his life as a commercial artist, 16 to 17 years doing illustrations. And what is interesting about that is that the illustrations were not very good. They were just ordinary drawings. He had so much more skill than he ever manifested in his early work.

'Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints' at the Edward Hopper House.
A work included in ‘Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints’ at the Edward Hopper House. Milton Glaser

Was Hopper a friend?

No, I never met him. But there are some odd coincidences. His painting, Nighthawks, my favorite, was painted two blocks from where I live now. That was on 16th Street and 8th and I live on 17th and 8th. And Edward Hopper had a circle of friends. One of the Soyer brothers, Moses, in order to survive I guess, had a little life class and he was my first art teacher. I just found out about the coincidence actually when I started this show.

You called these your most personal works to date. What is your relationship to the Hudson Valley?

Well my wife and I have had a home in the Hudson Valley for about 60 years that we love and that we’ve been going to with some regularity for decades. We have a house in Woodstock, which has been our alternate living space. We love the beauty of it and the fact that even at this late date it’s undiscovered. What people don’t know is that the Hudson Valley still is the most incredible bargain for buying a home and starting a new life.

You’ve cited Morandi as a big influence. I believe that’s particularly evident in these prints and their attention to form and shape. Can you talk me through your influences for these?

The study of Buddhism, certainly my time in Italy with Morandi, the Arts and Crafts movement. I am totally a believer in the idea that style is a limitation of perception and understanding. And what I’ve tried in my life is to avoid style and find an essential reason for making things. The most important reason is that you affect society and create a space that people agree they want to be in. It’s a way of avoiding destruction and selfishness because the work itself provides a common space. I’ve been teaching for over 60 years as well. For me the role of sharing what you’ve learned is an essential part of the act of making things. You feel differently towards the world when you make things. I’m still working every day. I know that the day I can’t walk up the stairs will be the day I have to put my pencil down. But if I woke up in the morning and didn’t have a place to go, I’d go nuts. It’s a great reason to keep on living. Retirement is a trap. What you want to [make] is work that has some usefulness to others. It’s been a busy life.

A work on view in 'Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints' at the Edward Hopper House.
A work on view in ‘Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints’ at the Edward Hopper House. Milton Glaser

I’d like to talk about the process for these prints. You make the drawings and then apply digital processes?

The thing that I hate is drawings that look as though they were made on the computer. The computer makes you work the way that it likes to work. If you’re not careful you are gradually pushed into those areas that the computer is most comfortable with and most joyous doing. It’s a perverse slave. So my problem is that I love the computer, but I know that it is a willful instrument and I have to be cautious. So what I do is I make drawings, which I love to do and I’ve done for all my life, and then I take that drawing and I apply certain tricks and repetitions that the computer can do, like overlapping. More than anything else, the ability to see a color change before your eyes in the place of doing prints, where you usually have to wait a week before you can see the effect of one color overlapping another. With the computer the beauty is seen instantaneously and the result is an extraordinary instrument for learning about the properties of color. You have to use your time effectively, though, because the thing is not to do more mediocre work. The thing is to use that time to improve your work.

Does it eliminate that element of surprise of hand-printing a piece of work?

It makes you lazy. Like all instruments that are time-saving and efficient. You have to be careful that laziness does not translate into laziness of mind where you stop being curious and get more involved with effects than themes or ideas. Once you move from effects and away from ideas, you’re in big trouble.

I’m curious to know how your relationship to technology has evolved throughout your career.

See, I have a trick. My trick is I never touch the computer. I have never touched a computer in my life. There is always someone at my side, to my right, who I tell what to do. As a result, I am at arms-length to what the computer can do, which makes me much more objective about my intentions. I don’t ever intend to make anything electronic with my own hands. I have to use an intermediary to do that. It gives you objectivity and distance and it doesn’t enable the computer to trap you in its virtues.

People think that art is a matter of either tension or materials. They think if something is done on canvas, it’s art. Or if something is drawn, it’s art. And it’s nonsense. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Art only occurs when you are transformed. You have to be careful when you use that word. Anyone can call themselves an artist because it’s self-appointed.

A work on view in 'Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints' at the Edward Hopper House.
A work on view in ‘Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints’ at the Edward Hopper House. Milton Glaser

What do you think of categorical distinctions within the arts separating your work into fine art and commercial work?

The idea of fine art and commercial art is a silly idea. And it’s been set up in order to serve some people’s purposes. Most of the stuff you see is not art, including the stuff you see in the galleries. For me, something can only be designated art when you feel yourself changed by the experience of looking at it. It only occurs when you are transformed. That is the role of art. If that doesn’t happen, you’re doing something else. You’re being amused or you’re being informed, but you’re not necessarily experiencing art.

Tell me about your brilliant new design for Trump’s Space Force.

I’ll tell you very truthfully what happened. A guy said on the phone, ‘We’re doing a feature on Trump and space.’ And as he was saying that, I was drawing a picture of Trump and the word space. I sent it out that day, within hours, because that’s actually the way the brain works. Everything you do is in there already, you just have to find it. I always believed in the vast memory and retainability that our minds have. We know everything. It’s just very hard to dig it out sometimes.

A work on view in 'Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints' at the Edward Hopper House.
A work on view in ‘Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints’ at the Edward Hopper House. Milton Glaser

What is the oddest thing you’ve ever designed?

I’ve designed so many strange things. I think the strangest thing I’ve designed physically is a cork holder for Alessi. You buy a fancy bottle of wine, they bring the cork for you to smell, make sure that it’s not spoiled. Alessi commissioned me to design one that sells today. It’s just two sort of silver-plated circular forms and the cork fits in between.

What are you working on now?

All sorts of stuff. The last few years I’ve really devoted myself to printmaking, which I started doing when I went to Italy and studied with Giorgio Morandi, who was a great man. I’ve never made that separation in my life. The great things about having skill in the visual world is if you don’t narrow your objectives you can do so many wonderful things. And they’re not necessarily identical. I’ve designed furniture, interiors, restaurants, all of which have some relation. Now I’m working on a series of rugs. A lot of people become specialized early and they have to be the best people you go to if you want, say, a drawing of a cocker spaniel. I can’t stand the idea of repeating what I already know how to do. So I’ve always tried to move to another realm, do something else, start a magazine like New York. I like the variety and I like the challenge and I like trying things I don’t already know how to do.

Milton Glaser: Landscape Prints opens to the public on September 7. 

Milton Glaser on Making New Work at 89 and Why ‘Retirement Is a Trap’