A Mad Man: Get to Know George Lois
By Andrea Farr
What kind of risk can be taken by a man who always seems to know what he’s doing? George Lois is the indefinite and infallible risk-taker who built a career by jumping into the creative space of American media headfirst and came out swimming in a crystal-clear reflection pool of mid-century Western culture.
He built his legacy on campaigns as revolutionary as they were provocative but they pale in comparison to the decade of covers he directed for Esquire magazine beginning in 1962. These covers, 92 in total, were visually gripping and often textless. Compiling his covers in a time before Photoshop, Lois utilized primitive editing to create work that looked like Bauhaus propaganda—strikingly simple designs with a street-smart aesthetic of satire and wit.
The covers came about when Harold Hayes called Lois for advice about Esquire magazine, then nearing bankruptcy. Lois was appalled at the “group grope” way of using teams of people to crowdsource art direction for each cover and suggested an individual approach with none of the corporate teamwork. Hayes approached Lois shortly after in 1962, to explain “what the hell he was talking about” , and Lois delivered. Anticipating the upcoming boxing match between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, Lois set out to create a cover that would have an impact—and call the results of the fight before it happened. With experts heavily predicting Patterson to win, Lois hurried to get a group together to shoot a scene of Patterson, on his back, in the middle of a deserted ring. Lois’s cover was released just days before the fight, stunning a skeptical crowd and putting Esquire in the hands of thousands of Americans, propelling the ad-man into art direction during a time of new rules—his own.
Several years later, Lois featured another fighter in the April 1968 issue of Esquire, Mohammad Ali, who had just converted to Islam and been stripped of his world heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the military under religious obligation. Lois had an idea. But had to clear it with the Nation of Islam first to see if Ali could pose as a Christian figure. Arms behind his back, Ali was modeled after the Botticini painting of Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint who was killed with arrows. Lois carefully affixed each arrow to the body of the boxer, and during the shoot, Ali named each one after someone who was persecuting him— Lyndon Johnson, General [William] Westmoreland (who lead the Vietnam operation), and Robert McNamara.
Controversy and wit soon became Lois’ personal brand. After getting a stock image of Nixon asleep on Air Force One, Lois designed a pointed appraisal of Nixon as he ran once again for office, harkening back to his shortcomings during the first-ever televised debates with John F. Kennedy in September 1960. He also covered the late president following his assassination. It provided a specific assessment of JFK’s political life. This cover published in 1964, with the headline “Kennedy without tears,” features a monochrome portrait of JFK and a single hand, in color, whipping his own tears from Kennedy’s face.
Lois did not reject the engagement of celebrities to sell magazine covers, but did so in a way that was characteristically ironic. However, the most iconic image engages the idea of fame sharply, drowning Andy Warhol in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. The two met when Warhol was still Warhola but many years passed before he asked him to be the subject of the May cover in 1969. Ultimately, the scene was created, using a C-print technique to combine the two images, and Warhol was drowned in his soup. It’s a clever image, and one that has the poignancy of truth behind the spectacle of Warhol meeting his end in the crucial figure of his success. It questioned American fame from the perspective of the famous in a palpable, accessible, Lois, way.
Lois’s creative ambition is also his greatest strength—to understand people, brands, and business better than they knew themselves. In the time that he was producing these covers, Esquire’s circulation went from 400,000 to 2 million, leading to what is written on Mr. Lois’s website as the “Golden Age of Journalism in America.” He certainly took chances, and chances were taken on him, but does risk define George Lois, or has George Lois defined risk? For a man whose career has been defined by wave-making, it is hard to tell which defines the other.
This article has been condensed and edited. Read the full article in our latest issue RISK.