George Lois and Esquire
George Lois in his New York City apartment.
George Lois, one of the most influential admen of his generation, is known for his early Xerox commercials showing a chimpanzee deftly operating a photocopier, the “Think small” ads for Volkswagen and the “I want my MTV” campaign. He also dreamed up Lean Cuisine and the ‘I want my Maypo’ slogan.
John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King on the cover of the October 1968 issue.
But among certain groups of people — magazine collectors, veterans of the 1960s, admirers of brilliant design — Mr. Lois is best known for the 92 covers he created for Esquire from 1962 to 1972. Thirty-one of them are part of a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Muhammad Ali, April 1968
The show looks a little like a tidied-up version of a great many college dorm rooms back in the ’60s. There on the wall, neatly mounted instead of just torn out and stuck up with tape, are Tricky Dick having lipstick applied, L.B.J. holding a Hubert Humphrey dummy, Andy Warhol drowning in a Campbell’s soup can and Muhammad Ali posing as St. Sebastian.
Andy Warhol, May 1969
The Lois covers were virtually textless. They achieved their effect by communicating a single idea through an image. Some were untouched photographs, but, in an era before Photoshop, some were created by the primitive technique of cutting and pasting, using photographs, clip art and sometimes hand-drawn elements.
“I remember when we were doing the Warhol cover,” Mr. Lois recalled. “I explained to Andy what I had in mind, and he said, “Oh, will you have to build a very big can?”
Richard Nixon, May 1968
There is a whole generation of current or recent magazine editors who are Lois admirers, including David Remnick, Graydon Carter and Tina Brown. “George was there during a great age,” said Mr. Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. “You didn’t have to put low-grade movie stars on the cover then to move magazines. You could put ideas there.”
He added: “George used people like Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, so you could say he was using the celebrities of the day. And it was probably a little easier then, because everybody had the same frame of reference. They all read and watched the same things. But George was as good as it got.”
Over a long morning interview, Mr. Lois recalled that Martin Scorsese, a huge admirer of the Esquire covers, seemed crushed when he learned that his idol had spent most of his life in advertising. But Mr. Lois said he didn’t see much difference between ads and covers.
Esquire’s Feb. 1967 issue
“I’ve always been about the big idea, the big idea,” he explained. “I never had any trouble going into a new area. It’s all a matter of creativity. I even made a music video once for Bob Dylan, using 5,000 years of the history of art.”
The Esquire connection came about, he recalled, in June 1962, when the editor Harold Hayes called looking for advice about covers. When Mr. Lois learned that Esquire covers were conceived and assigned by an editorial committee, he said: ‘Is that what you do when you assign a story to Talese or to Mailer — you have a group grope? You need to get one guy who understands the culture, who likes comic strips, goes to the ballet, visits the Metropolitan Museum.
According to Mr. Lois, Mr. Hayes replied, “Hey, pal, could you do me a favor? Could you do just do me one cover — to show me what the hell you’re talking about?”
The cover Mr. Lois did — for the October issue, which came out a few days before the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight that year — showed a Patterson look-alike sprawled, possibly dead, in an empty boxing ring. This was a huge gamble, because most experts had picked Patterson to win. “But I knew,” Mr. Lois said. “I just knew that Liston was going to wade through him.”
The cover was a hit, and Mr. Lois had a job, which he kept until Mr. Hayes stepped down in 1972.
The August 1970 issue of Esquire
Lee Eisenberg, an editorial assistant in the early ’70s who eventually became editor of Esquire, said: “The Lois covers were one of the key reasons I and a lot of people there were drawn to Esquire in the first place. We loved them. They set a visual tone that complemented the distinctiveness of the rest of the magazine.”
Roy Cohn, Feb. 1988
Mr. Lois recalled: “Harold used to say that we were doing was ‘pictorial Zolas’ — you know, ‘J’accuse.’ ” He added: ‘People ask me, ‘Did you know when you were doing this that you were making an important statement?’ Yeah, I knew. I’m a designer. I know what I’m doing. I have designs on things.” N.Y. Times