What are you currently working on?
What am I doing today ... I am working on materials for Columbia's private school. I did a drawing for a gin bottle we're designing. I also have to write an introduction for Dr. Gerald Edelman, a friend of mine who has won two Nobel prizes and who is giving the commencement speech at the School of Visual Arts tomorrow.
Is that a typical day?
Yes, it's always a mixed bag.
How long has your studio been in this building?
Since 1965. It was actually first Push Pin's building and I bought it in the early 70s. We started New York Magazine in this building in 1968.
Who has been your longest lasting employee?
This is a whole new generation of employees. Everyone here is in their 30s. People work for me for 20 years. The oldest now is 35!
Do you like working with young people?
It doesn't matter to me. I like working with anyone of any age depending on their temperament and personality.
Why does it say "Art is Work" on the front door?
I wrote a book called Art is Work. It was about the idea of removing art from life by making it a second manifestation of activity. When people put art in a special isolated plane of activity, I feel that they remove it too much from life and what everyday activities demand. Everyone says "art is not work" and they distinguish art as an activity and work as an activity. I said, why don't we view it simply as a manifestation of work? Then you don't worry about the category. Then you judge art on its effect.
Of all the art you produced. Which was the most work?
That is interesting. Some projects were ongoing, like the Grand Union supermarkets I did for a wonderful man, Sir James Goldsmith. That was 20 years worth of work. I had 15 or 20 people working every day for 20 years on the supermarkets and we designed between 200 and 300 of them. That was hard! Fortunately, most of it was done by others.
What are you most proud of?
Staying alive and coming to work every day and still being capable of producing good work; being active in the world.
That's your life. But what piece of work are you most proud of?
I don't think that way. I think of it as a continuity—they stumble into one another. There is a sense of development in my work that is most interesting, not any single piece of my work.
How has your work changed over the years?
It would be difficult to objectively say. It has moved inevitably—as the work of most people has—from the representational to the abstract. But since everything is abstract it is not necessarily a phrase that means anything to anybody. Earlier, I was also more involved with illustration and increasingly moved to the conceptual. So a definite move from the illustrative to the abstract. And a lot of what I do has nothing to do with what I used to do. The work has gotten more about the mind than the hand. Though inevitably you realize they're the same thing.
I am sure you have answered this about a million times, but I have to ask about "I Love New York" or "I Heart New York." I don't even know what to call it! Love or heart?
What you may not realize that is that the heart, a symbol used as a verb, has now entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. This happened a couple of weeks ago. So heart is now a verb. It entered with an acknowledgement that "I Love New York" was the manifestation that did it, the first symbol ever to enter the Oxford Dictionary. You can call it either one as both are correct.
So how did you get that gig?
The state and city were in trouble in 1975. Were you alive in 75?
No, no I was not. 1976, actually. I would fit into your office. I would be the oldest person!
Things were bad financially, spiritually, and metaphysically. And the state knew that it had to do something. One thing that had happened was that the city had become very dangerous and, if you can imagine this, people were literally afraid to go out at night. If you were sitting on 62nd street and you said to your wife you wanted to go out to dinner, you would not go, if it was after dark.
Unimaginable in the New York of today.
Yes! Tourism plummeted and people stopped coming to New York City. The economy was in the toilet and people left; real estate plunged too. It was the greatest time though, to get an apartment! So, the state realized it had a problem. They hired a smart ad agency, Wells Rich Greene, who came up thematically with "I Love New York" and the assistant commissioner of commerce came to the office and said to me "I have an assignment for you." And the assignment was to make a visual equivalent of "I Love New York." That is how it happened.
And now it is everywhere.
Everywhere! Except that you realize how little you know about the nature of the world. Try to figure out why if you go to Chinatown you see ten gazillion "I Heart New York" logos. There is no city in the world you can go to that does not have an "I Heart" shirt or logo.
That is so telling about how important the slogan is. Yesterday in a meeting at Fab, I was telling my team I was coming here to meet you. And the design people all knew your name. But others on my team don't know you as a household name. And I said, "He's most famous for designing 'I Heart New York'" and the employee who did not know your name opened his jacket and he was wearing an "I Heart New York" shirt!
I love it. The great mystery is why that happens. I have done things people remember, the Dylan poster for example, but nothing like this.
Is there anything you can think of that is replicated as widely?
I cannot think of anything as universal. Across borders. Everywhere. The world was waiting for some way of expressing the idea and they had not received it.
It is and it all derives from the heart carved in a tree with initials, but with a minor shift in syntax. I cannot figure it out.
You mentioned the Dylan poster, which is my favorite piece from your body of work. Can you tell that story?
I knew Dylan because of his manager, Albert Grossman, who was every one's manager in the 60s. Albert became a good friend. We were all in Woodstock during the early parts of his fame. The poster was a commission from Columbia Records quite independent of my connection to Dylan. They just wanted a poster.
Describe your desk for me as I am obsessed with the work environments of creatives.
We should just go look at it! I have never had an office. I am always in an open space. The idea is to make the office transparent. There are no memos here. I have never written a memo in my life. Everyone can hear everything. There is no personal life in my studio. It's always just been a big room; I don't like little offices busted into areas of authority. It does not suit me.
I see your picture with Obama. What was it like to meet him?
I was invited to this wonderful party at the Smithsonian and I was among 20 honorees. It was a very distinguished group of people and a thrill meeting Obama. He has an enormous presence and a sense of decency. And he was an impressive guy. He's a cool cat and meeting him was a nice feeling.
Do you have any heroes?
Artistic or otherwise?
In history, certainly Lincoln. Artistic heroes I have many. I studied with Giorgio Morandi. He's the big hero of mine. Actually there are many heroic figures in all fields. Too many actually.
Meeting design legend Milton Glaser was one of those classic moments that can only happen in New York City. I was having lunch with Alan Heller—the man behind the furniture manufacturing company Heller Inc.—when he scribbled Milton Glaser's number on a napkin, insisting I meet him. I called Milton the next day, and in turn, he invited me to his studio on East 32nd Street in Manhattan. I spent a few hours talking about history, both Milton's and New York's in equal measure, and parts of that special day are captured below.
What are you currently working on?