Famed Esquire designer pulls no punches

The controversial George Lois gives design archive to RIT’s Vignelli Center

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A. Sue Weisler

Two of George Lois’ famous Esquire covers feature Virna Lisi and Andy Warhol.

The 1960s were a tumultuous time in America. In a country gripped by political turmoil and social change, George Lois conceived art that many believe is some of the most provocative in magazine design history.

Lois, an American art director, designer and author, is best known for the more than 92 magazine covers he designed for Esquire. His cover subjects included Norman Mailer, Muhammad Ali, Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon, among others.

A portion of Lois’ life work—from his Esquire magazine covers to his advertising campaigns for MTV, Stouffers and Jiffy Lube—are on exhibit in RIT’s University Gallery, housed in the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. The exhibition runs through Aug. 31.

One of Lois’ most iconic covers depicts Ali as the martyr St. Sebastian, impaled with arrows. The heading of the 1968 issue read, “The Passion of Muhammad Ali.” The magazine came out after Ali’s refusal to join the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ali, who refused because of his religious beliefs, was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act and was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title.

Lois says the media verbally attacked him for the cover and U.S. senators called him unpatriotic. He says he told them all to “---- themselves.”

It was the second of three Esquire covers defending Ali. Ali’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Adds Lois, “It helped Ali win his case.”

The legendary designer has been inducted into The Art Directors Hall of Fame and The One Club Creative Hall of Fame, and he received lifetime achievement awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Society of Publication Designers.

“My ideas have come from everywhere,” says Lois. “From reading comic books as a kid, to reading The New York Times. This is what I try to teach students, that you have to read to draw inspiration for design. Get your face into the culture.”

Lois, along with world-renowned designer Massimo Vignelli, hosted a master’s design workshop in July at RIT’s Vignelli Center for Design Studies.

Lois has a longstanding relationship both with RIT and Vignelli and has been among the guest lecturers of RIT’s William Reedy Memorial Lecture Series in Photography. Lois’ son, Luke, is also a 1984 graduate of RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences.

Many universities and other historical institutions have been vying for Lois’ archive, but he decided to donate it to RIT.

“I want my archive to be with Vignelli’s archive and other great modern designers whose archives are also at RIT, like Bill Golden from CBS,” says Lois. “Massimo and I changed the culture and the history of the graphic design world.”

“George Lois is certainly a master of advertising,” adds R. Roger Remington, the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design. “A number of prestigious schools with advertising archives were after his collection. George wants his archive to go to a place where it will be used by faculty, students and staff. His donation will broaden our visual communication archival resources beyond graphic and product design.”

University Gallery hours: Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday