George Lois
Esquire cover and advertising designer, 75, New York City

By Jake Tracer

In the seventy-five years George Lois has been alive, he’s been pissing people off for forty-four of them, ever since the now-legendary adman designed the October 1962 cover of Esquire. It was the first of twenty-three he did for the magazine and its editor, Harold Hayes, and they are now widely considered the best and most innovative covers ever to front an American publication. He got Muhammad Ali to pose as the martyr St. Sebastian (April 1968), had Andy Warhol drown in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup (May 1969), and offered boxer Sonny Liston to the world as a black Santa Claus (December 1963). But in many ways his first cover was the most daring, when he predicted that Liston would beat heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson by showing the champ KO’d in an empty ring. Good thing he was right. Here, Lois talks about that and many other things.

I knew Floyd was a ten-to-one favorite, and I knew he was going to get killed. I just knew it. You had to be deaf, dumb, and blind—which every sportswriter in America was—to think that Floyd had a chance against Liston.

The magazine industry has decided they don’t want magazine covers with ideas. It started twenty, thirty years ago, but it’s now at a point where it’s beyond stupidity. It’s the flavor of the month. It’s the celebrity of the month surrounded by a cacophony of blurbs.

It’s not whether an ad is good or bad, but whether it has stopping power. You’ve got to start with that.

I run into people now who talk to me about how different covers did things to them. So I feel good about doing them. But what’s a crime is, I could’ve done America for forty years—a lot of people say that [the Esquire covers] were America for those years, for that decade. I could’ve done it for four decades. But you need an editor that believes in you. They got rid of Hayes, kicked him out. When he left, they begged me to do one more cover. I did it and they loved it, but they said they wanted to make some changes. And I thought, well, fuck them. I told Hayes, and he died laughing.

I don’t think there’s been any magazine before or since that did that. Possibly the Saturday Evening Post in some way with the Norman Rockwell covers. Could be. I remember going to the newsstand when I was a teenager to see what Rockwell did, because he had the heartbeat of America in his paintings.

Graydon Carter [editor of Vanity Fair] to this day thinks it would be great, but he can’t do it. He’s told me many times. He’s said, “I have the most intelligent people in America reading my magazine. They know what’s in my magazine. They’ll buy my magazine no matter what. The cover with the celebrity, that’s for the dummies.” There’s no use arguing, but that’s so stupid when they could be creating great covers. They handcuff themselves.

Sports players make so much money now—they’re all scumbags. Money makes a normal person a bad person a lot of the time.

The Esquire readership at colleges was incredible. It really was a college magazine. I run into guys today who were in college back then who read every word. Scorsese collects the covers.
3Ninety percent of everybody in the corporate world is full of shit.

The House of Representatives tried to put through a bill admonishing Esquire [for the October 1966 issue’s black cover that referred to the Vietnam War with the words “Oh my God—we hit a little girl”]. It was crazy stuff. You know, “American soldiers are never involved in atrocities.” Obviously we’re very, very good at it, especially with this prick Bush.

When people ask me about what my legacy in the magazine business is, I say nothing. It’s ridiculous. A couple of years ago the Society of Publication Designers called me and wanted to give me a lifetime achievement award. I said, “For what?”


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