In 1976, graphic designer Milton Glaser sat in the back of a taxicab with a red crayon, a torn envelope and an idea that would become central to the creation of modern New York.
Facing a billion-dollar deficit and on the verge of bankruptcy, the city was in a state of panic about crime, filth and the lack of public services. ‘Those were especially tough years for the city,’ Glaser tells me. ‘I remember having dinners with my wife and saying, “Let’s go out for a walk,” and she wouldn’t want to go because she was afraid of all the robberies that were occurring on a daily basis.’ Residents were fleeing in huge numbers and the once vibrant city seemed to have lost its lustre. ‘It was a great time to buy an apartment,’ smiles Glaser, now 86, who was living on the Upper West Side at the time.
The man who helped the world fall back in love with New York refuses to see his hometown as simply another destination
Desperate to increase tourism to transform the city’s grim image, the New York State Department of Economic Development hired the ad agency Wells, Rich, Greene, who in turn approached Glaser, and he came up with an initial version of a logo on a pro-bono freelance basis (two red lozenges, side by side, with ‘I love’ written in one, and ‘NY’ in the other).
One week later, in the back of a cab, Glaser discovered a more effective approach. He scribbled his idea on the back of an envelope and rushed over to commissioner Bill Doyle’s office. That envelope now lives in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art Glaser, who expected the subsequent 1977 ad campaign to last three months, is amused by the world’s reluctance to let it go. ‘Sometimes when I go to Chinatown, I think it’s an ad for ‘I love NY’ because in some places it literally covers every wall. The mystery of why certain things persist in the memory is irrational.’
Let’s hear it for New York
Glaser’s design has made its way onto various memorabilia, sold by street vendors and bought by enthusiastic tourists eager to own their very own slice of the city. There was also a song brought out in 1977 to go alongside the logo – it’s still the state song of New York.Book a trip to New York
New York originally decided not to copyright the logo, in order to encourage its use, but in 1994 Empire State Development began collecting licensing fees, currently earning the state millions each year through its collection efforts. Merchandise branded with the logo earns more than $30m a year, none of which goes to Glaser. But he is pragmatic: ‘I’m not a guy who’s suffering from lack of money. I made a nice living from other things. We all live to feel as though we have had some effect on others. And I get that demonstration all the time.’
With ‘I love NY,’ Glaser believes that the form is often more significant than the message: ‘It’s a response to an abstraction – something about the nature of the confinement of those geometric shapes and the voluptuousness of the heart. Art is about touching those parts of the brain that have an emotional response.’It all began at the age of five, when his older cousin showed him an inflated paper bag and asked if he wanted to see a bird. ‘I thought he had a bird in the bag,’ recalls Glaser. ‘But he didn’t; he had a pencil. And he took the pencil out of the bag and he drew a bird on the side. Suddenly, the idea that you could create life with a pencil, or something that very much approximated it, overwhelmed me. And I remember at that moment, almost fainting.’
Once the spell was cast, Glaser found himself on an ineluctable path towards a career in the arts: ‘I was never as happy as I was when I was making something,’ he says.
More than a symbol
The logo and ad campaign was part of a bigger project to clean up the dangerous streets of the city in the 1970s, transforming Manhattan into the tourist capital it is today.Plan a New York city break
The Cooper Union Building is a prestigious architecture and engineering college in the East Village, New York. It’s notoriously hard for students to get into, with an acceptance rate of below 10 per cent.Book flights to New York
Over the course of the next eight decades, Glaser watched New York transform from various different vantage points. During 17 years in the East Village, following his time studying art at The Cooper Union, and later in Bologna, his neighbours were Allen Ginsberg and WH Auden. ‘Back then, everything was about the Downtown scene. Everything. From Andy Warhol to the Grateful Dead,’ says Glaser. After more than 30 years on the Upper West Side, he currently lives with his wife, Shirley, in Chelsea.
Recently, Glaser was the designer of the poster for the final season of Mad Men – a psychedelic image referencing his own 1966 poster for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. Looking back at the advertising world of the 1960s, he found Matthew Weiner’s series to be right on target: ‘It was validating. It made me realise how accurate my observations were at the time. I was in those offices and the people were like that, setting up deals and calling girls in. It was really a gang of lunatics. Those people were nuts. All that stuff was so irrational, but it seemed so ordinary at the time.’
Currently working on the visual identity for the state of Rhode Island, Glaser recently wrote a note to Governor Gina Raimondo, explaining the essential elements of effective design. ‘I said, “Not only do you have to create something that’s memorable, but you have to make something that generates affection. People need to feel good when they look at it.”’
The man who helped the world fall back in love with his hometown refuses to see New York as simply another destination. ‘It doesn’t have the characteristic singularity that makes a place. It’s everything – the highs, the lows, the best, the worst – all at once,’ he argues. ‘And the one thing you do if you’re a New Yorker is withhold judgment. You don’t buy into everything that’s offered to you because you’ve been lied to too often and you’re constantly seeing things change.
‘I think you could become wise in New York because of its contradictions and complexities,’ offers Glaser, who says he can’t imagine living anywhere else. ‘There’s nothing simple here.’ And yet, Glaser’s career is a reminder of one all-important truth: sometimes the simplest gesture can have the greatest impact on the world.