Because of its ephemeral nature, printed design is a little like performed music. After a jazz concert the final phrases of Yannick Rieu playing Freedom Suite may ring in your skull, and it might come back to you repeatedly in the day following, but the music that sparked your memories dissipated the mere moments after Mr. Rieu lifted his fingers from the keys of his saxophone. In the club the atoms of the air stopped swinging and applause drowned out the more exotic overtones. That you can hear parts or all of the performance again in your mind is the magic of the interaction, and I'm sure it speaks to a fundamental part of our humanity.
The magazine cover, the pamphlet, the newspaper...rarely do we hold on to them past the point where we have read them. Dog-eared, curled, and food-stained, they get fed into blue bins or trash cans, never to be seen again. I think the world is somehow poorer for this, but it's a fact. But, like the saxophone solo, the magic persists.
And, like music — and all the arts — magazines engage in reinterpretation and quotation.
Like last year (Jan/Feb 2011) we were faced with an excellent, well-balanced issue, but one where there was no story that was an obvious contender for the cover. I have a personal theory that people at newsstands buy us, like they buy other magazines in our category, like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, based on a total view of the offering. If someone doesn't think at first they'll like the story on the Governor General, they might find themselves drawn to a piece about the Apocalypse, and pick up the magazine. (Later, flipping through the issue, they'll come across Charlotte Gray's piece and may decide they like it.) But you need something to build a cover around. Or do you?
Like in 2011 we had a lot of stories of the same level of importance, and a little cover to sell them on. As I sometimes do when I'm stuck, I attacked my archives searching for a toehold, something to start sketching from. Usually these starts are just that. I write a phrase in a notebook and the chain of ideas that it spawns leads nowhere or to a place that has nothing to do with the wild posters of Studio Dumbar or the wood engravings of Dürer that inspired the flight in the first place. Enter George Lois, or more correctly a copy of George Lois: On His Creation of the Big Idea, which was on my shelf. Mr. Lois strode like a giant through Mad Men-era New York and his covers for Esquire were some of the best covers that have ever have been made. The Big Idea put me in mind of Lois's 1962 cover where, instead of a single headline, Lois ran a series of descriptions of the stories inside. It was a damned good idea, and one that did not morph into something else on my pad: it just stayed itself.
But while I may be honoured to quote the great George Lois, this needed a different timbre. Sonny Rollins took his Freedom Suite in one direction, later Mr. Rieu took it in another. This goes to the heart of how ideas are born, and how they circulate and stick. We've all had that moment — for some reason frequently in the morning shower — when something we've been turing over in our minds clicks and, seemingly out of nowhere, a new idea is born. Of course it hasn't been created ex nihilo — your whole life has informed that moment in the shower. But other times a strong idea, like an excellent tune, reasserts itself again and again.
These types of strong ideas that are the warp of culture. Leon Scott invents the Phonoautograph to study sound, Alexander Graham Bell develops the idea into the telephone, Thomas Edison takes Bell's idea and creates the phonograph. Thousands of improvements and modifications, some revolutionary, some small but crucial, and these ideas get put together so that Sonny Rollis can record Freedom Suite for the Riverside label and you, I, or Yannick Rieu can listen to the 1958 recording, reinterpret it, or just let its notes rattle around in our heads. In The Big Idea Lois again and again takes a visual powerful idea — Manet's fallen matador, St. Sebastian martyred by arrows — and takes it farther. In Lois' covers, or Yannick's playing, sometimes we hear the references, sometimes not, but their existence, their frame, binds us all together. Without St. Sebastian, Lois' brilliant Muhammad Ali cover is smart, but with the echo of the symbol it becomes brilliant — and powerful.
Lois used his type, and specifically the blown-up impressions of a manual typewriter, as the glue that held it all together. The images he used to illustrate each of his stories otherwise disparate. A sign, a photograph of a lizard, the Esky (the Esquire mascot). But we needed less of a Dagwood sandwich and more of a Croque-Monsieur: tasty, but controlled. And for the type-only sell to be right — to be lively, to be cheeky — we needed the illustrations to be colourful. Enter the super-talented Edmontonian Genevieve Simms, who had done a gorgeous piece for our book review in the December 2011 issue.
Genevieve's spot illustrations were perfect. And for the type we used a Fleischmann for the type. Made in a period between the Baroque and the Neo-classical, Fleischmann's work can seem stuffy, but it actually has a very playful side, and this needs to be brought to the surface. Genevieve found the perfect palette, the slightly Laurentian felt-marker feel to her shapes blew all of the dust off of Fleischmann’s designs.
And although most of the February 1962 issues of Esquire were carted to the curb — the majority in March, 1962, I’m sure — Lois' idea lives on. We put a spin on it and it rolls a little further; someone else will reinterpret it and take a little further still.