SPD@FIT: New York Magazine at 40

SPD@FIT: New York Magazine at 40 Tuesday night was the first of SPD's fall speaker events, and it was a blockbuster: the audience was packed with notables, hopefuls, and everybody in between. It was a testimonial to New York Magazine's powerful influence in our city and in our business.

There was no way I was going to miss this event! I practically cut my teeth on New York Magazine... without giving away my age, suffice it to say I have been a subscriber for ALMOST as long as it has been in existence (now 40 years... can it be true?! I must have subscribed as a mere babe). My subscription to New York Magazine has sustained me and connected me to the city I love for many, many years... far longer than any of my other subscriptions, marriages, jobs, relationships... (but that's another blog entry, and it doesn't belong here).

Just seeing the panel on FIT's Katie Murphy Auditorium stage was toe-tingling: Walter Bernard! New York Magazine co-founder Milton Glaser! Current editor and (still) wunderkind Adam Moss, he of the many ASME awards! Robert Newman! Current Design Director Chris Dixon! (How does he pull this crazily labor-intensive format off, week after undoubtedly sleep-deprived week?!) Okay, I promise that is the last of my homage to Tom Wolfe. (Tom Wolfe rose to great prominence in the [early] pages of New York Magazine, as did many other now-famous writers. But this was an audience of designers, so that, too, is another story.)

Behind the panelists: a mesmerizing slideshow selected from New York Magazine's 2080 covers (that's 40 covers times 52 weeks a year...give or take) and a few historical photographs of Walter and Milton in their younger incarnations. I don't know what was going through the minds of the youngsters in the audience, but for those of us old enough to remember most of those covers, it was like a trip through time, re-living every cover story that defined our lives.

Skillfully moderated by SPD Vice President and Blender CD Dirk Barnett, the panelists touched on everything from practical issues like deadlines and budgets as well as the unique zeitgeist in the beginning days of New York Magazine, and how it all works today. Dirk announced that at the end of the discussion there would be a "McCain presidency cover challenge" for the panelists).

First, Milton Glaser recalled how New York Magazine started: as a Sunday supplement, edited in its last few years by the now-legendary Clay Felker (Felker's recent passing was noted in the pages of New York with a lengthy memorial package including recollections from many prominent contributors).

Milton remembered, "Most of us had no idea what we were doing. It was one of the worst periods of my life." However, it was also a uniquely fertile creative environment: "People liked to cluster where the talent was...we all welcomed that sense of community, the feeling was that if we had enough good people with good ideas we could make a good magazine. The idea was we were all in it together." In those days, Milton recalled, any one could get in to see the editor... "If you could make it up the four flights of stairs, you could talk to someone at the magazine" ...not like today, where getting an appointment with an editor is difficult or even impossible.

Walter recalled all of the illustrators and photographers who participated in the magazine, often for very small fees, and little time for execution, simply because they knew it was a great place to have your work seen, and because there was an excitement about New York Magazine in its early days. "Of course, Pushpin Studios was downstairs...Seymour (Chwast) or Milton could do the illustration for the cover...in fact, Milton was our landlord! That's why we never had any heat," he joked.

Like anything that has been around for so many years, the magazine has had its zeniths and nadirs, and many editors and art directors have had a hand in its look and content. But its low points were barely mentioned by the panel, as New York Magazine is unquestionably on a roll these days: under Adam Moss' stewardship, New York has been lauded and awarded practically every industry honor, and circulation is at an all-time high.

Robert Newman, however, recalled how things had changed by the time he served as the Art Director in the mid '90s: "When I was interviewed, they would not take me into the art department, and after I accepted the job I found out why: it was an open space with drafting tables; everyone sat together, even the messengers; there were no walls. Meanwhile, the editor's office was lavish, with mahogany paneling...this was when the offices were on Second Avenue." Bob also brought up the sore subject of budgets; people who looked at the magazine thought there was a great budget but, he said, "The reality was that the budget was very low and the staff was minimal...it was a real struggle."

Milton remembered that, in the beginning, "The magazine was tough and utilitarian...we didn't feel it was well-designed; we were just trying to put it together and get it out the door. The art department probably wrote sixty percent of the headlines; the hierarchical lines were quite broken down...there were no walls."

Adam Moss said that, in that respect at least, things had not changed that much. "We still make decisions on the fly...we try to have at least five versions of the cover;  on Thursday afternoons we bring in staffers--anyone on the staff can come­to 'edit' the covers, to make sure we have sent a clear message, that we haven't overlooked something; we are sometimes too close to it. That still gives us about six hours to make changes."

Moss complimented the "incredible visual team" and gave us some insight into the redesign executed while Luke Hayman was the Design Director: "I kept saying to Luke and Chris, 'Stuff more in' and the magazine became very dense, but the density was parried with exuberant air. Luke and Chris made an asset of the density. And Randy Minor does a great job with The Strategist, which was more or less created to play off Randy's obsessions." He also acknowledged the important contributions made by Director of Photography Jody Quon (who was modestly in the audience, as was Randy), especially for her 'great optimism' in getting subjects; especially with the recent Bert Stern cover story of Lindsay Lohan re-creating the famous photo session he did with Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death.

Walter said that, when he was the Art Director, "There was no Photo Editor; the Art Director hired the illustrators and the photographers." But, Milton added, despite all of the difficulties, "All of the emergencies and being oppressed by time and circumstance and lack of money gave us all a great sense of purpose in our lives."

Dirk sensed that was a great ender, so now it was time for the McCain presidency cover challenge: If McCain won the presidency, what should New York Magazine's cover image be?

Walter Bernard: "I picture him sitting on the lap of Sarah Palin, looking rather small."

Milton Glaser: "The picture of McCain is seen from behind."

Robert Newman: "It's a big face of Hillary Clinton, with a big smile."

Adam Moss: "It will be close to the New Year; I'd put McCain in diapers."

Chris Dixon: "Those were my four ideas."
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