Milton Glaser on New Yorkers: ‘For Better or Worse You’re Here, and Doomed to Be Here’


Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Milton Glaser, the 82-year-old graphic designer behind, to name just a few, the “I Love New York” logo, the DC Comics “DC bullet” logo, the famous Bob Dylan poster, and, of course, New York Magazine, which he founded with Clay Felker in 1968, for my article in this week’s issue of the Voice, “How to Be a New Yorker.”

Glaser spoke of the early years of New York Magazine and revealed his amazement over the success of his “I Love New York” logo, which he did for free in 1977. (Hilariously or not, the state came after him for copyright violation when he did “I Love New York More Than Ever” after 9/11.) He also shared what he thinks it means to be a New Yorker — and why this is the only place for “real New Yorkers” to live.

Our interview, after the jump.

What do you think makes a “real New Yorker”?
First, have a sense of the ironic. If you don’t have that, nothing else is possible. Usually it’s someone who, for one thing, thinks this is the only place in the world to be. Which is to say, you don’t think of the other options one would have in life, you don’t think of living in a retirement community in Mexico or a villa in Italy — for better or worse you’re here, and doomed to be here.

I almost believe there is no New York; there is only a set of projections, and it can be anything you want. You hear it every day, so it must be true! It has the worst people, it has the best; it’s the worst, it’s the best. After all of these contradicting visions, you have to say there is no place like New York. It is the acceptance of the contradictions and illusions.

The older you get, the more you realize how much of your life is an illusion. If you come to New York, maybe you’re aware of that earlier. In another place, the contradictions are not as apparent, visible, or demanding. You have to get used to the idea of ambiguity here. If you’re not tolerant, it makes it very hard to be here; you start dreaming of other realities. When you are here, you’re here because you don’t have a choice.

I’ve lived in other places, but there is no other place for me. Professionally there’s no other place with the same opportunity. As hard as it is to find, it’s still here. If you are somebody like me, where work is central to your identity and what you’re about, this is the place it happens. For the last 100 years, maybe more, it has been the place of greatest opportunity for those who want something deeply about their lives.

It is that sense that things are possible here that wouldn’t be anywhere else. You even lose your ability to evaluate them. You just assume that if you have a life that is focused on doing work, work of a particular kind, work of the imagination, work of the mind, you will find companions — you won’t be the only painter in town — and you will have the possibility for finding an audience here that you couldn’t find elsewhere. Where you’d be just an eccentric in another town, here, you’re one of millions. Now matter how peculiar you are, you’re still normal by New York standards.

Your “I Love New York” logo made $1.83 million in licensing fees for the state this year. You did it pro-bono, right?
I did it for free. The truth is, I have enough money to live the life I want to live. I don’t think about how it would be if I had another couple million. I have no needs that are not being fulfilled.

But I’m flabbergasted by what happened to this little, simple, nothing of an idea. It just demonstrates that every once in a while you do something that can have enormous consequences…it was a bunch of little scratches on a piece of paper! I am just astonished by the amount of money it’s brought in. I went to Chinatown a few months ago, and it had been transformed to a gazillion “I Love New York” T-shirts on every building and facade. It amazes me.

I’m also amazed by how indifferent the state is to all of that. When I did “I Love New York More Than Ever” [after 9/11], the state threatened to sue me — they said I was infringing on the copyright. You realize when you’re dealing with any bureaucracy that they’re so indifferent to anyone but themselves.

How do you feel the city has changed in your years here?
I was born in the Bronx, and I moved out of the Bronx, but now people are thinking of moving back to the Bronx.

It’s complicated. It’s gotten in some ways worse, in some ways better. In the mid-70s when I did the logo, my wife and I would have discussions about whether or not to go out at night — we were at 67th Street — because it was too dangerous. The city is so much safer now. If you were looking at that one attribute, it’s a much better city than when you were concerned about crime and break-ins and your car windows being smashed. The city is feeling optimistic about itself in many ways. It’s a question of perception. It probably is in worse condition in terms of economics and the way people have to live, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels affirmative and positive. It’s so atmospheric, it’s in the streets, there’s a sense of energy, of looking for pleasure and finding it.

Do you have favorite New York City spots?
We have a neighborhood restaurant, a place where we feel welcome. We like city life; it’s our city. We feel we own it. My life is so connected with New York — I went to school here, I went to Cooper Union, I started New York with Clay Felker. I couldn’t transfer that feeling anywhere else.

Tell us about starting New York.
Clay and I didn’t know what we were doing. There are so many things you stumble into and learn on the job, you don’t know until it’s too late. We put out a terrible magazine for the first year, doing it on a week-to-week basis without a sense of what it was. After a few years we realized we’d invented something that was distinctive and different, and it began to find its own nature. It went through a bad period when Murdoch bought it. I think in the last five years it’s been a terrific magazine — it’s found its path and its voice in a way that doesn’t always happen. Perhaps it’s not the magazine I would have invented, but I’m happy to read it these days.

One thing that is a sadness is the change in media, the decline of media. Print was such a centerpiece, and magazine after magazine has collapsed….But, you find something else.

I have never touched a computer, but I use one every day assisted by some intelligent young people. I can take enormous advantage of the technology because I haven’t been shaped by it. It trains you to do what it wants you to do, basically forcing you to do what it’s most capable of doing. Because I have not been susceptible to its will, it has served me well.

What’s your advice for surviving in New York City?
I think the most simple-minded and fundamental thing is the recognition that things are always changing. This endless capacity for reinventing itself defines the city and also the opportunity that exists here.

The thing about New York is, it’s based on the idea of change. It is the most mutable of places; its strength comes out of that. It doesn’t cling to its own history and has been free to invent new ones. Some changes are horrible, others lead us somewhere. They’re discomfiting because no one likes change, but eventually, you end up somewhere else, and you discover you like that place.

As I look back on my life here, the city seems to have changed and grown and improved and challenged, this pattern of adaptation leading to a new moment, a new population. Look at the nature of the population, enormously affirmative and enhancing of life. You may hate Starbucks, but it’s done something, and eventually it, too, will disappear.

Do you love New York?
In any relationship, you can alternatively love and hate somebody everyday. New York is so mutable and surprising. Even if you don’t love it, it is always compelling, always interesting, and never boring….I do love New York.

“How to Be a New Yorker: Terribly Useful Rules for Life” is online now.