NOTE FROM DEBBIE:
Hello everyone and Happy Sunday! This is the third in a group of live interviews I am releasing as a special Design Matters Live Summer Series! I've recorded quite a few live shows this year at festivals and conferences with artists, designers, musicians, photographers and more, and these podcasts are all FREE because of your Drip support. (Thank you, thank you!) This third interview is with the world's foremost design critic and writer, Steven Heller. Steve is also the most influential person in my life and my dear friend. We spoke together for the Museum of Design Atlanta at the High Museum of Art. I hope you enjoy what has become an annual ritual for me and Steve on Design Matters!
Steven Heller terrified me.
I was a new editor at PRINT—a magazine he had been contributing to for some five decades—and I was also on staff at HOW, which he had helped launch as a practical craft-based offshoot of PRINT in the 1980s. Steve has long been synonymous with the strange art of design journalism I found myself in, and anyone who has done a modicum of reading about the industry has no doubt happened upon his words. (We attempted to count the number of books he has published on more than one daunting fact-checking binge, and generally gave up as we neared the 200 mark.)
Since the beginning, Steve has catalogued design history while simultaneously being at its front lines and a piece of it himself. My goal was to stay off his radar; to not rock the boat; to not be discovered and dubbed an imposter. In the magazine world, every editor has their own stable of writers—so I assigned him to someone else who had previously worked with him. It was, I reasoned, a sound means of both preserving PRINT’s incredible relationship with him, and keeping myself as far from his intensely skilled critical eye as possible.
But then that editor left to take another job—and my boss assigned Steve to me. I was, after all, PRINT’s new editor-in-chief, so why would I not work alongside one of its most legendary writers? Shit.
With dread, I wrote to him about the change. And though I don’t have the email any longer, I remember his reply being what I now recognize as quintessential Heller: funny, charming, quirky, sweet, generous, and rife with wordplay and a delightful irreverence. I was a fool for not stealing him out from under his former editor the minute I joined the staff.
Every morning, I’d edit The Daily Heller newsletter, which he would file at one odd hour or another. Thus my day would begin with a one-sided conversation with his thoughts and words, which sometimes led me back to the man himself—can you clarify this? Should we move this one to next week? Do you think I’ll get fired for running this? (At the time, the company that owned Print wasn’t a fan of anything that dipped a toe into politics, and The Daily Heller was often a cannonball.)
To read The Daily Heller is to gaze through a keyhole into the mind of its author: Design. History. Books. Ephemera. Sutnar. Sex. War. Nazis and the Holocaust. Comics. SVA. Italy. The list goes on. Many writers tend to develop voices to write in; they channel the art of ventriloquism to fit the mold of whatever market is buying their words. But Steve’s voice is his own. What’s on the page is what you get in life, and vice versa.
His process is uniquely his own, too. There are legends in the design world about the incredible pace with which he produces. They’re all true. When working on a new issue of PRINT, I’d send him the theme and subject we’d be focusing on, and a reply would seemingly ping back into my inbox instantaneously. Before I got used to it, I’d assume it was just an Out-of-Office note. Instead, these emails would contain a medley of on-target pitches. After I’d greenlight one or, greedily, two, Steve would ask for a deadline a few weeks out (contrasting most writers, who usually want at least a month). Then, that afternoon or the next day, an article a couple thousand words long would materialize in my inbox. An hour later: “READ THIS ONE.” After about 20 minutes more: “READ THIS ONE xx.”
His feedback on each issue served as my North Star. While some writers pull punches or are effusive in their praise to editors to score future gigs (which works), nothing can benefit an editor more than honesty. And Steve provided it. Once, during a photoshoot for a special New York City–themed issue of PRINT, I harassed him throughout the week for his opinions on various creatives. “Why are you asking me about all this?” he asked, exasperated, toward the end of the shoot. “Because I trust you,” I replied. No one knows the industry like Steve. And so I leaned heavily on him (on that day, at least, until he left to resume World War II in Colour).
Once, my wife and I were having dinner in Florence, Italy, and we looked to our right and saw a young woman reading The Cognoscenti's Guide to Florence by Steve’s brilliant wife, Louise Fili. I complimented her on her selection, and mentioned that I knew the author and her husband, and their recommendations were to be trusted.
I later recounted this in an email to Steve.
“You don’t just know me,” he replied. “You edit me.”
To know Steve and to have him understand the importance of that dynamic meant the world.
Collectively, Steve’s words are the glue in the bindings of design history, and with them, the industry has a past—and, given their influence on the millions who consume them, a future.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Steve: Silverstein hired me for the op-ed page, and to me that was the greatest job I could have thought of, that I could have dreamed of. And for my parents, oy vey, it's like being a doctor. I mean The New York Times, my son. None of the Screw stuff.
Curtis: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. For 14 years now Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about and working on. Design Matters is on summer break, and will be back with the new season in the fall. In the meantime we're sharing some of the live interviews Debbie has recently done in front of an audience. This one with author and art director Seven Heller took place in January 2018 in Atlanta, as part of an AIGA conference.
It was presented by the Museum of Design Atlanta in partnership with the Miami Ad School at Portfolio Center. Here's Debbie Millman live with Steven Heller.
Debbie: I read that when you were a kid, you had a precocious streak, and you made publications and then tried to sell them. What kind of magazines were you making and how much did they cost?
Steve: Well I found the wonders of carbon paper.
Steve: No just carbon and a typewriter.
Debbie: Oh okay.
Steve: And I would do papers that talked about the state of the world. Like why Eisenhower was bald.
Debbie: Real think pieces.
Steve: Very much so, heady pieces. I had written to Eisenhower to invite him to my house for dinner, and he responded. I wish I had the letter it might be worth something. But he said he couldn't come. So I got really pissed off, and that was the first.
Steve: Takedown. I tried selling them for a couple of pennies and people took pity on me, because I wore tatters.
Debbie: Did you wear the tatters because you wanted people to feel sorry for you so that they'd buy the publication? Or did you wear tatters because that's all you had?
Steve: My family didn't feed me or clothe me.
Debbie: So you grew up in Manhattan with this family, this family that didn't feed you. And you did what you described as a middle income housing project that was made for veterans returning from the war. And you were brought up in a very liberal Jewish background, your father which I didn't know worked for the Air Force, and every so often he would take you to an Air Force Base. So for a time you actually thought you might go into the Air Force?
Steve: I thought I'd go to the Air Force Academy, and the romance of it was not to fly planes and go into battle, but to go to officers' clubs and drink Michelob.
Debbie: So what made you change your mind and not pursue going into the Air Force?
Steve: The Vietnam war.
Debbie: Okay, well for a short time after that, after your potential foray into the Air Force, you thought you might want to go into advertising. But then you decided you wanted to be a cartoonist. What kinds of cartoons did you like back then? What were you reading, what were you interested in?
Steve: Well I loved Jules Feiffer. Does everybody know who Jules Feiffer is?
Debbie: Why don't you describe just in case there's one or two people.
Steve: Jules Feiffer was without some of the baggage that Woody Allen of cartoons. In fact Jules was first the introspective, self denigrating, insecure, psychologically fragile-
Steve: ... characters. Jew yes. He published in The Village Voice as well as Playboy and other venues. And he just spoke to the generation that was before me, but he spoke to me specifically. In fact I have on my wall a strip of his. He did comic strips for Will Eisner who was the great comics master of the Spirit. And he worked for him and did traditional comic strips. But when he did his own, he took down the walls, he took down the panels. And he had this character named Bernard. And Bernard was always trying to get girls, and he was always in a fix. He just couldn't succeed.
And so I ended up years later editing Jules's 25th anniversary book. And as one of the things he gave me in exchange is a Bernard cartoon, that basically starts off by saying, "I'm going to do this, this, this and this and then I can pick up girls." And so I wanted to draw and write like him, except I was a little more spiritual because I had this fixation at a certain point that I wanted to be Jesus Christ.
Steve: Well he was the top Jew.
Debbie: Of course.
Steve: So I thought we had something in common. And he also had long hair, and I was growing long hair very long. And I was really wanted a mustache, so I drew this character that had long hair and a big mustache, and no genitalia.
Steve: I guess I never saw mine. And he would be in these very weird situations that usually had something to do with crucifixion. So I got work from underground papers doing drawings like that, of these little genitaless Jesus people, going into the miasma of life. And they thought it was very heavy and cool man.
Debbie: I want to talk a little bit about the cartoons and where you were publishing them. But before we go there, I want to ask you one or two questions about what you were doing before you started publishing your cartoons. When you were 10 years old, you worked for the Kennedy campaign in New York, Uptown on 42nd Street, 10 years old. So you walked into the campaign headquarters and were like, "Hi-
Steve: Yeah, more or less.
Debbie: ... Can I help?" 10?
Debbie: So did you go there by yourself? Back in the day you could actually navigate through the city on your own.
Steve: When I was five years old I could navigate Stuyvesant Town which is where I grew up, without any adult supervision. I can't imagine that now. But yeah, I went up to ... When I was 10 years old there was a headquarters where the Philip Morris building is now across from Grand Central. And I went in and I said I wanted to do something for them, and they said, "Can you run a projector?" And I said, "I'm 10 years old."
Debbie: Of course.
Steve: So they taught me how to run a projector and I Did that for a while. Then I stuffed envelopes, then I started doing dirty tricks.
Steve: I'd go to Nixon headquarters which was a block away in the Roosevelt Hotel. And I'd get their leaflets, say I'm going to hand them out, take them and throw them away.
Debbie: Steve you were 10 years old. How did you even become introduced to the idea of politics at that age? I have a 10 year old nephew he's into Batman and Star Wars.
Steve: Yeah we didn't have Batman and Star Wars. We had Adlai Stevenson, who was the liberals dream. And I grew up in a liberal household. I had a uncle who was more or less a communist. I mean he wasn't a Stalinist or anything, but he was ... In the church they call it high Roman Catholic and low. And he was high liberal.
Debbie: I'm a high fan.
Steve: Right. And he introduced me to Mort Sahl the comedian. Some of you in my elderly state might remember him. I just got an education. And so I started when I was younger, seven may be working at a Democratic club near Stuyvesant Town stuffing envelopes. So when Kennedy ran for office, he was just so young and beautiful everybody that I knew fell head over heels, and my parents were like that. So I thought, "This is the guy for me."
Debbie: Were your parents also working for the campaign, or was that just something you were doing on your own?
Steve: Well my father couldn't because he worked for the government, and that was against the law.
Debbie: It doesn't stop anybody now?
Steve: No it doesn't. My mother was supportive, but no she didn't go out and work. But I did meet Kennedy twice.
Debbie: What was that like?
Steve: Well the first time was purely accidental. I had my uncle the almost communist one, had his research assistant, a woman who had a doctorate in statistical analysis. And he had moved to Washington to write a book on academic freedom. And I went down there on a bus when I was eight years old. No I couldn't have been ... I was 10 years old. And I went alone from New York to Washington.
Debbie: You bought your own tickets, it was-
Steve: No my parents bought the ticket and they told the bus driver to keep an eye on me if I got off in Delaware. But I went down and she Lawyer was her name. And she was part Cherokee Indian, she was terrific. She was working as a stringer for Life as well, Life Magazine so she had press credentials to get into Congress. And she took me through the congressional doors to visit, be in the gallery of Congress. We go into this elevator and somebody says hold the door, and who comes around but this very tall not very attractive looking man, with a long nose, very burley. It was Lyndon Johnson, and right after him came John Kennedy.
And I just ... I mean ... I saw Jesus, I saw Moses, I saw everything. It was great. And then the second time, after I had been working at the headquarters. They gave me tickets to go to this huge rally at the Coliseum in New York. And I managed to wiggle my way all the way up to the stage. And there was a congressman who remembered me from the headquarters.
Debbie: Envelope stuffing days.
Steve: Yeah, and he pulled me up on stage, and I was right next to Kennedy as he's going off stage.
Debbie: Are there any pictures of this anywhere?
Steve: Just in my mind. But if you've seen Dark Mirror, you know you can take those pictures out of your mind, and put them into your computer.
Debbie: Good to know. You were in high school in the 1960s. And it was then that you started showing your cartooning work around, and were hired by an underground paper called The New York Free Press. You were hired there when you were 17. How did you originally get that job?
Steve: Well I was doing cartoons for other underground newspapers prior to that. But I just want to around and I'd leave a portfolio. And I tried The New Yorker, I tried a lot of places, no one would call back. And then one day we had a housekeeper, and she said somebody from the New York Times called. And she always got messages wrong, every time she would get a message wrong. And she took the number down correctly, and I called and they said come on in. And it was this man named J.C. Suarez who later became an art director at The Times. Very well known art director of books and magazines. And he said, "I don't like your cartoons, but I'd like you to do mechanicals and paste ups."
Debbie: And this was at the New York Free Press?
Steve: Yeah. And I said, "Oh sure, okay." And then I had to go find out what mechanical and paste ups were?
Debbie: You didn't know how to do them. So how did you manage in those early days when you were there extensively to do paste up and mechanicals?
Steve: I learned.
Debbie: Did you just watch other people?
Steve: I watched the person he fired to hire me. Which still makes no sense. And then he quit to start a satiric magazine and I became the art director within two weeks.
Debbie: Now this was a confusing tidbit that I found. So you might have to correct me because it doesn't I feel like it could possibly be true, but I want to share it with you and see what you say. From what I understand your cartoons ran in The New York Free Press, but they were running as a payment. Because you were supposed to get $50 a week from the New York Free Press as payment for doing your paste up and mechanicals. But rather than pay you they printed your cartoons, is that correct?
Steve: Well not exactly. They printed my cartoons because the editor actually liked them despite what J.C. said. They called it a 'Heller' and he called me 'the kid'. There was once a great cartoon in The New Yorker of a little hobby horse, tied onto one of those horse things that you people in Georgia know about. And it was in front of a saloon, and these two guys are talking and it says. "I guess the kid is back in town." It was funny, you had to be there. Any-
Debbie: Tell him I said Heller.
Steve: Well I-
Debbie: That was funny.
Steve: We have to tell them what's funny.
Debbie: Bob Gill actually had a great line in front ... He was saying something to an audience, and they didn't laugh as much as he thought that they should. And he said, "What are you an audience or a jury?" So you stopped drawing cartoons. Now from what I understand you stopped drawing cartoons because you didn't think you were very good. Now was that true or were you just being your sort of overly critical self?
Steve: No, I wasn't very good.
Debbie: But Brad Holland one of your mentors disagreed. He thought they were good.
Steve: He never told me that until after I stopped.
Steve: But if it wasn't for Brad Holland I wouldn't be sitting here ,I wouldn't have been an art director, I wouldn't have known about type. I wouldn't have ever heard of Herb Lubalin.
Debbie: You've said that he taught you how to think, and that then he got you off the rail.
Steve: He got me interested in making magazines happen. And got me interested in illustration and what illustration could say rather than what it did. What it did was illuminate something that was written. His belief was that illustration had its own life. And that it should complement not supplement. And speak not illustrate it. And that was always very important to me to do it his way because he became my father figure, so he was who I wanted to please. And he ended up going to the New York Times before I did, and I was always in awe of his stuff. He's my oldest professional friend. We talk every so often, he only lives a few blocks away and I haven't seen him in five years.
Debbie: We know which call you need to make when you get home. You started working at Interview Magazine in 1971. How did you get that job, and what we hired to do there? I'm assuming it wasn't paste up and mechanicals.
Steve: Well it was in part. I'm trying to remember the sequence of events. So I worked for the Free Press. At some point I worked for a bunch of other publications. I worked for one publication under the name Stephanie Heller because they just wanted a woman.
Debbie: I have something else I want to follow up and ask you about.
Steve: I was doing ... I was art director of Rock Magazine, which was a Rolling Stone wanna be. And it was the same kind of thing, intelligent writing about Rock and Roll. In fact I worked there with Patti Smith.
Debbie: What was that like?
Steve: ... was fired after two issues. It was like here's this young girl who wanted to be a rock star, and just drop names all the time. But she wrote interesting stuff, and we became kind of friendly. And we went to a couple of concerts together, and then she got fired because the guy who ran the paper was a jerk. She disappeared from my life, and then two years later she's a rock star. And that's where she met Lenny K, who was her guitarist, her principal collaborator. He and I used to say we looked exactly alike, except he was six foot two and I just started shrinking once I was born.
I was working at Rock and at a certain point we bought typesetting machines, and we wanted to ... On downtime, because it was biweekly, we wanted to bring in some business. So one of the things we brought in was interview, and it was edited by a guy named Bob Colacello, who's done books and magazine pieces and Glen O'Brien, who died a few years ago. They were both very much into the to the art scene in New York and the Max's Kansas City crowd. And so I became their designer, Glen became the art director, I was the designer. And I had free reign in terms of typography but Glen picked the photographs, which were ... were whole-ish kind of things, 15 minutes of fame.
What I gather is that Andy never even looked at the magazine.
Debbie: Well you said that he was never there, you never met him. But you wrote that his spirit was pervasive like a bewigged phantom, peering through the clouds.
Steve: Yes, they'd always say, "Well Andy would like this." And I said, "But if he never looks at the damn magazine, what's the point?"
Debbie: Now while you were there you redesigned the magazine, and you used your favorite two type faces at the time to redesign the magazine, Broadway and Busorama. Which you admitted was a big mistake and the dumbest combination ever.
Steve: Right I showed that to the students earlier today, it's still a big mistake and the dumbest combination but, now it's history.
Debbie: It's classic.
Steve: It's an artifact.
Debbie: Shortly after you were at Interview, you left for what you considered greener pastures, and were part of a group with Al Goldstein who started a magazine called Screw, which was the first sex tabloid in the city. So talk a little bit about how that came to be and how you were able to make this magazine?
Steve: Well I went back to the Free Press and the free press was also trying to make money so it could survive. And I also showed this to the to the students, we would run periodically nude photographs and sexy stuff on the front page to get the readership. The New York Review of Books used to do singles ads, and that's how they got their readership. It was always some subterfuge. What was the question?
Debbie: The question was, how did you get to Screw. I mean that didn't come out right.
Steve: I read a book.
Debbie: You couldn't have planned that any better right? How did you get to develop the magazine, how id you meet Al Goldstein?
Steve: At the Free Press he came in to audition for a job.
Steve: And he met his future partner, business partner Jim Buckley, and they started talking about starting this magazine. He had been working for these blood and guts magazines published by a real classic sleaze named Myron Fass. Who comes up, pops up in the history books now. They were blood and guts, they were just about violence. And Goldstein would use our names in the stories. So I may have eaten two babies in one story.
Steve: And he wanted to do, he felt that porno had a bad name, and wanted to do something that was not as clean let's say as Playboy. But had some grit to it, but also had some political content.
Debbie: Can you talk a little bit about the screw logo?
Steve: Oh screw logo first which is why I left screw, was designed by somebody, I don't know who, it was disgusting. And then Goldstein wanted a new one, so he hired somebody to do a psychedelic thing, and I hated psychedelia at that time. So I tried doing a logo that if it had worked, it would have been off the page by two feet. It was just too expanded. And we got into a big fight, and he made me cry, and I quit.
But then when I came back, he wanted to be on another level. He had gotten a lot of publicity, he had made a lot of money. He was a cultural ... It's like Rupaul 20, 30, 40 years ago would have been considered a freak, and now he's got the most successful TV show. It's the same with porno back then. There was porno chic and Goldstein was at the head of it, because he was so provocative. So he got me involved and we became close friends actually, until I had to leave and go to the Times.
Debbie: But you didn't talk about the logo.
Steve: Oh the Milton Glaser logo.
Debbie: The Milton Glaser logo. I mean he would have thought that Milton Glaser was designing porn.
Steve: I said, if we're going to redesign let's go to the best, and I hated Pushpin at that time.
Debbie: You didn't like their style.
Steve: I didn't like their style, I thought it was too decorative but I thought they were the best. So I said ... Actually there was a moment ... the chronology is a little off here but, there was a moment where I didn't think I was going to go back to Screw, so I said, "Have Screw redesigned by Pushpin." And moments later I returned to Screw. So I realized I would have to execute Pushpins redesign. And-
Debbie: Did you know Milton at this point?
Steve: Not really, no. I'd heard of him, I had heard about Seymour [inaudible 00:25:28]. They showed us a whole bunch of roughs for logos and things, and there were some really nice ones. But the one that was picked was this Helvetica logo, with an E that was erect into the W. And I didn't like it, I didn't like the typography they were using, light line gothic. I didn't like the Helvetica. I didn't like that there was white space, a lot of white space, and just straight photographs without any kind of curlicues or decoration. So I put tissue paper over all of Milton's layouts, and redrew them. And they sent them to Milton and Goldstein let me get on the extension phone, as Milton was saying, "Who is this asshole who's done all of this."
And so we kept his design for a year and then a year later I redesigned it. And I still remind Milton of those days. And Seymour and I ... Seymour is my best friend, and has been for 30 years. So that didn't seem to get in the way.
Debbie: Now before you went to The Times, you were you were like still in your late teens early 20's at this point. I mean it sounds like at this point he'd maybe be in his early 30's but no. And you were just actually thinking about going to college. So you went to NYU for about a year, but you got thrown out of NYU and then you went to ... I didn't know this, you enrolled at the School of Visual Arts but you never went to classes, you never went to one class.
Steve: No I went to one class.
Debbie: Oh no you went with Marshall Arisman. So you met legendary illustrator Marshall Arisman at the time, and he told you that if you came to SVA he'd make you a senior, but you never went back, and he threw you out as well. Now you're also very good friends with Marshall. Why didn't you go back?
Steve: I was working.
Debbie: Do you ever feel that you would have liked to have had a more formal education?
Steve: Oh definitely, I mean I'm not a designer today because I didn't have a formal education. I think I would have benefited a lot from it, but it just wasn't in the cards, it wasn't in my blood. The NYU thing was they threw me out because I was working for screw.
Debbie: Didn't you put your philosophy professor in one of the cartoons?
Steve: I made him a character.
Debbie: You made him a character. So maybe tell that story, that sounds like-
Steve: Well there's part of that story I don't want to tell. But his name was Professor Glickman, so I had a superhero named Glickman, and he did nasty things.
Debbie: Nasty things. That was not rehearsed I promise. And so they found out.
Steve: They found out.
Debbie: So somebody was readings Screw.
Steve: They found out and they sent me to an NYU shrink, which is sending me to a military band to study Rock and Roll. And the shrink saw me three or four times and said I really suggest you come into on a regular basis [crosstalk 00:28:46]. And I said no, and he said well if you don't we're going to have to throw you out. I said, c'est la vie. And then I got reclassified for the draft as 1A and that's when I went to SVA.
Debbie: You were 23 years old when you got hired by The New York Times, and that's where you really learned about political graphic commentary, then you branched out from the history of caricature and cartoon into design. Talk a little bit about your trajectory at the times, what were you first hired to do, by the time you left you were doing quite different things. Talk a little bit about that experience.
Steve: Well what I will say before I start that is that I am so damn lucky. There's hardly a thing that I wanted to do that I haven't been able to do, except be a British actor.
Debbie: You could try to be Ben Kingsle for a while. You probably could get away with it.
Steve: He's English Indian.
Debbie: But there's a similarity right, don't you think? Ben Kingsley, Gandhi right?
Steve: Well there's a photograph that Louise took of me coming out of a shower looking like Gandhi. And I was proud. The trajectory was I met Ruth Ansel who was the art director of The Times Magazine section, at Brant Holland's house. I showed her my work and it was all this porn stuff, but I was really good typography, and I could make a page sing. And she was impressed by that, and she wanted to hire me for the magazine. So she introduced me to Lou Silverstein who was the legendary art director, later assistant managing editor, and he needed somebody for the op-ed page.
J.C. Suarez who had originally hired me at Free Press was doing the op-ed page, and he had to leave because he did something that the Times didn't want him to do.
Debbie: Can you share what that was?
Steve: Well it was just, he broke rules a lot. And I even have the letter somebody found in the morgue, which is where they store all the clips and old things, records. Found the letter that said, if he comes into the building we're going to fire him. He wouldn't even come into the building.
Debbie: So technically he wasn't really fired.
Steve: Technically he could never be fired. But I took his place, everybody thought that he got me the job which was maybe true maybe not. But Silverstein hired me for the op-ed page, and to me that was the greatest job I could have thought of, that I could have dreamed of. And for my parents, oy vey, it's like being a doctor. I mean The New York Times, my son. None of the Screw stuff. My mother was so pissed off, that when I was arrested for The New York Review of sex which is something else all together.
Debbie: That's something that you did in between.
Debbie: Screw and the New York Times.
Steve: I was written up in Time Magazine, and she said, "Why did you have to use your real name?" And I said, "Well, technically I'm not using my real name," because I have a first name that I don't use. But she was right, I was using my name and I just said, "You're always bugging me about what's right and what's wrong, I'm leaving home." So I left home at 17 and a half and got an apartment, which I cohabited with roaches.
Debbie: Now the New York Review of sex and politics was a magazine that you actually started on your own with a bunch of other people from the New York Free Press.
Debbie: And you did that for a number of years.
Steve: Not just for about a year and a half. The government put us out of business.
Steve: Well because it was porno. We were arrested, we couldn't afford legal bills even though we had a great constitutional lawyer, and I did something stupid. I didn't know what copyright meant. So in one of our centerfolds, four page pull out on heavy paper. I took all these weird Kusama pictures, and put a logo from Daily News on top of it, and it was the original logo. And I got a call from their lawyer who was very nice, until he said, "We're going to sue you to death." And so they put us out of business.
Debbie: After that, it was when you went to the New York Times.
Debbie: How long were you at the op-ed page, and what were some of the proudest moments that you had there?
Steve: I was at the op-ed page for about two and a half to three years. One of those years I also did the book review section. I did all the new sections that were starting, because there weren't that many art directors, so I worked on them. The proudest thing, there were quite a few things. First of all just being at the New York Times, which to me is still the most important news gathering and news telling organization in this country. I did a page towards the end of the Vietnam War that Richard Avedon did, and he came and spent the entire day making me miserable.
Steve: Because we used to do the paper in hot metal, and engravings had to be made, and you couldn't control the density of the picture, and he wanted to control a certain way. So we just spent hours and hours and hours getting it done the right way, but it was nice. There was a page once where it was a story about the Kennedy assassination, and I took the rifle that ... The famous picture with the rifle, and I airbrushed the hands out of the rifle and just took the rifle as a rifle, and leaned against a column of type. It went from the bottom of the page to the top of the page, and the associate editor of the page was out that day, so it went through.
When he came back he said ... He was really pissed, he said, "I would never have let you do that."
Steve: I don't now.
Steve: But I said okay. I did it.
Debbie: Is it true that if you didn't always have budget you would make cartoons. That you'd actually create your own cartoons but you used a pseudonym for them.
Debbie: So you felt they were good enough, but you didn't want to be known for them.
Steve: They weren't good enough, I did them anyway, and I didn't want anybody to know I did them.
Debbie: What was the pseudonym?
Steve: I can't tell you.
Debbie: Oh, though I'd just squeeze that one in there. Then you went to the New York Times Book Review.
Debbie: And you did that for decades.
Steve: I did that for about 30 years.
Steve: 30 years.
Debbie: 30 years. Well you were there in entirety for 33 years.
Steve: Right, and then plus seven years under contract.
Debbie: Under contract. So what was it like to work on the book review every week? What was it, what was that-
Steve: It was great. It was the New York Times, it was the book review. It was dealing with material I loved, dealing with illustrators that I liked, giving people their first jobs. I felt God like. I also felt-
Debbie: Jesus like.
Steve: No, by then it was just God.
Debbie: What did Woody Allen say, "You have to model yourself after somebody."
Steve: Somebody, exactly. Said other things too.
Debbie: [inaudible 00:37:03].
Steve: But it was a wonderful experience. There were a bunch of different editors, each one I had to learn to get along with in different ways. And it became kind of ... There was one editor that I really didn't like, and decided to go out and look for work and realized after visiting other magazines that nothing was better than The Times, and I just bit the bullet until he left. There was an editor, a woman editor who I loved, we got along great. There was another editor who always had this line at the end of the day, another day in the long march towards debt.
Debbie: You sure that wasn't you that was saying that?
Steve: No, but one of my little quirks was we would always show pages on Wednesday before it went to press, and we'd do them as big Xerox's folded over, and I would draw Hitler mustaches on everybody. And it got to be such that everybody in the room started drawing Hitler mustaches.
Debbie: That must have given you an enormous amount of pleasure.
Steve: It did indeed.
Debbie: You had an opportunity while you were at the Times to begin writing books.
Debbie: And so you have since written 180 books.
Steve: Yeah, in varying degrees of co-authorship, co-editorship.
Debbie: That doesn't matter Steve, 180.
Steve: It's 180.
Debbie: It's amazing. So what was your first book?
Steve: My very first byline book was Artist Christmas Cards.
Debbie: Did you have a pseudonymed book that we don't know about?
Steve: No I worked on some other books that either never went anywhere, or the credit was not on a cover.
Debbie: Talk about the first book deal. How did you get it? How did you approach a publisher, or did they approach you? What was the way in which that happened and set the stage for this prolific writing career?
Steve: Well again it was a certain amount of luck and a certain amount of-
Debbie: No, Steve. You don't have the life that you have, and use luck as some sort of an excuse for what you've made.
Steve: Well I did persevere. I had this idea for a book which was to take Artists' Christmas Cards and put them together. And I did a lot of research, I even had Albert Einstein's Christmas card.
Debbie: Really? How did you find that?
Steve: From a friend of mine named Fritz Eichenberg who knew him. Einstein was not a very good artist.
Debbie: Well he couldn't be good at everything right? Let's be grateful for that.
Steve: He couldn't. But, so I had this idea. But before that I was working on a book called Gas, Food, and Lodging with John Bader, who is a painter, some people may know his work. He paints diners among other roadside things. And I put a dummy of a book together for him, and when we sold it, they said they didn't want me to design it, they wanted their in-house person too. And I said that's fine, because even though I wanted to do it very much, it was more important for him to have the book out. So his agent really appreciated that, because I could have been a problem. And she'd said she would be my agent. So she started taking this Artists' Christmas Cards books around, and it took two years.
We kept getting nos, nos, nos then one yes from the Museum of Modern Art, went to a meeting, they said yes, yes, yes. I said, "I'm taking you out to dinner on Thursday night." This might have been on Monday, and when I went to pay for the meal she said let's go Dutch. And I knew what that meant. So then it was another few months, and a publisher, an independent publisher called ANW, not the root beer. Published it, and then it went to Simon and Schuster and they published the paperback edition. And then I did for or five more books for ANW Before they went under.
Debbie: What is your way of working now when you have ... I mean we saw the sort of funny thing about how you come up with an idea, and by the time Louise wakes up you have a contract.
Steve: It's not that funny.
Debbie: How does it work?
Steve: If I have an idea I'll wake up, I'll go to the computer, I'll write somebody with the idea, and then bug them until they tell me yes.
Debbie: Wow. And that's how all your books come to be?
Steve: Well I produce 10 times as many ideas than there are books. And to be honest with you, there are six or seven books that I'm under contract for that I've never done and will never do.
Debbie: And so they're just hanging out there in perpetuity.
Steve: They're in space, they're in somebody's file, they [inaudible 00:42:16].
Debbie: But you also get opportunities to write books where people come to you and say, "Steve would you like to write this book?"
Steve: Not very often.
Debbie: Well that's how I got my first book deal. Steve was asked to write a book called, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer. Which I still maintain is the worst book title of any book ever written. But it was my first opportunity, and Steve you passed on it recommended to Ted Crawford, the publisher of Allworth Press that he call me, because then I subsequently got a voicemail that Steve had passed on this idea, but had recommended that I be the person that they reach out to see, and that was my first book deal.
There are stories like this, probably a million fold of people that Steve has influenced, of people that Steve has helped, of people that Steve has mentored, and therefore I don't take any of this luck thing with any sense of seriousness. Because the way in which you've lived your life, and the generosity in which you've shared your opportunities is something that I've never witnessed before, and so I want to thank you for that.
Steve: Well I appreciate that, thank you.
Debbie: Right. Let's talk about SVA, because you had this 30 ... This magnificent really 40 year career at the New York Times. 33 on staff and seven as a contractor, and you have been writing books for decades now, but you've also created a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts first called Designer as Author, an MFA program now, Designer as Entrepreneur. You not only co-founded that program with Lita Talarico, but you also helped co-found an interaction program with Liz Danzico. The designing, writing and research program with Alice Twemlow. You helped me create my program in branding.
So what made you decide that this was an area that you wanted to pursue, this higher education, graduate education. And not only your own program but then help really push SVA into the future with numerous graduate programs?
Steve: Well what I was also doing just to add this because it's so morbidly fun. I wrote obituaries for the New York Times. All the dead designers that I would get into the paper, 60 obituaries. I liked it really because they couldn't complain that I got the facts wrong. I started writing for the paper which was even more exciting than being an art director for the paper. So I did that. When it was time for me to leave the Times I needed a landing spot. And I had ... Two years after I was thrown out of SVA I got a job teaching at SVA, doing the school newspaper. I still have layouts from that.
It never amounted to anything, because that's when I got the job at the Times. but Marshall Arisman who threw me out of the school, asked me to teach in his new graduate program, the Illustrator as Journalist. And I said I would do a history of illustration for him. And we did, and I was with him for about 14 years. And while I was there I had an idea with to do a series of conferences called Modernism and Eclecticism, A History of American Graphic Design. So we would do those. And then the then chairman, founder of the school asked me to do an education conference, and I did that.
Debbie: All luck, all luck.
Steve: When Silas asked me to do this Silas Rhodes. I put together this program, it was really quite a good one. In fact, one of the conferences we had was at the World Trade Center the week before the first bombing. And we were in the room that was right above where the bomb went off, it's very spooky. But at one point he called me and he said, "I had asked Paula Scher to come up with a graduate program, and she came up with something but we can't do it. And now I want you to come up with one." So-
Debbie: Do you know what hers was, that they couldn't do?
Steve: Yeah it was to use the city as a canvas. It was a good program, but he wanted something that was graphic design. And this he felt would be too ... The focus would be off, and it was their first graphic design MFA. So I used the school idea as a great professional school or what some people would call a trade school, to come up with the idea that the next thing designers should do is entrepreneurship. Except you couldn't get the word entrepreneurship through the accrediting agency.
Debbie: Oh interesting.
Steve: So which we're ... the state government. So we called it Authorship because it was more scholarly, and we always knew it was about entrepreneurship.
Debbie: And now you've formally changed the name?
Steve: No, it was never a formal name. It's called MFA design formally and we just added the subtitles. So I felt this is easy, all I have to do is run it like a design conference. I pick classes instead of speakers, but I have the teachers who are basically the speakers doing it for an extended period of time. And I never learned much about academia, not having been allowed to stay in school.
Debbie: But you do have to honorary doctorates now.
Steve: I have two honorary doctorates yes, so I can be called Doc Heller. Lita Talarico and I had been Working together prior to this on some of my books, she was doing research. I ran into her at a basketball game where our kids were playing, and I said, "I'm starting a program." I know she was working for SUNY Purchase which was the state school, and I asked her if she wanted to interview for the job of administrator because I was the chair. And she did it for two years as administrator and then took on the chair ship, and then by the time I was ready to leave the times we agreed that I would be a co-chair.
And then at that point we started the other program. So the first program I actually started independent of MFA Design was a social documentary film. And that's because two days before I had lunch with Maro Chermayeff, Ivan Chermayeff's daughter, and Iven told me she was a filmmaker, and I said, "Oh good, maybe she can run a program." So that happened. We met in a similar fashion, at lunch. And so anybody who I had lunch with I'd asked to start a program.
Debbie: I still have the email that Steve sent me on July, 2007 that said, "Wanna have lunch?"
Steve: So it couldn't be done this way anymore because our president at SVA is not a typical academic president. He has great enthusiasms and he trusts his people to do things that they think are right and can be successful, or not as the case may be. Because graduate programs are more prestige than they are money makers.
Debbie: When you were asked why the first wave of students entered the program from the late '90s through the mid 2000s, your answer was to get back to the hand. What kinds of things have your students done over the years?
Steve: Well the most famous thing that came out of our program was Deborah Adler's Prescription drug packaging for Target stores. And it put her on a trajectory to do medical design.
Debbie: She just had another big deal with CVS I believe right?
Steve: CVS yeah. It's funny, going into our 20th year, we have a book that lists everybody's ... We call them ventures because it's entrepreneurial, we don't call them thesis. And I just don't remember any of them. It's like, we have a lot of students who have made names for themselves, and made successful businesses like Bobby Martin and-
Debbie: Jennifer Kinon.
Steve: Jennifer Kinon who have OCD. Sam Eckersley who is here and Stuart Rogers who did RED. There are a lot of people who met in our midst and have gone on to great things. Some of them did their ventures, some of them didn't do their ventures but it became the foundation for other work they were doing.
Debbie: You've said that teaching is where the most insignificant thing can be viewed as significant.
Steve: I said that?
Debbie: You did. I was gonna ask if you could elaborate, but given that you don't remember saying it, I might want to just leave it there as this beautiful poetic line.
Steve: It's very poetic, I think you're right let's leave it.
Debbie: So this is my last question. You've said that you are experiencing a blossoming of tolerance and appreciate design ideas that used to annoy you. And so I was wondering if you could share what those are.
Steve: Well I'll go back a dozen or so years, I wrote something called Cult of the Ugly, which became-
Debbie: One of your most famous essays.
Steve: Infamous essays I read it over again and I'm kind of embarrassed by it.
Debbie: It still holds up.
Steve: It became standard reading in a lot of courses and it garnered a lot of animosity from particularly young designers who were working in the new wave, or in the digital realm. Many of whom I've since become friends with. But my idea about design was always that it had to serve a social purpose. That the reason I didn't go into advertising was I didn't want to sell something to somebody that they ... something that they didn't want. The reason I never went into branding was because I didn't want to create a story that was a fictional story about something that had no history.
I was happy to work at a newspaper because I never got faced with the dilemma of doing something for somebody that I didn't want to do. In fact I got a call a couple of weeks ago asking if somebody could do a documentary on me, that would run on FOX Business News. And I said, "Absolutely not."
Steve: But wait. Not that I didn't do it, he then told me, we do the documentary, you pay for the shoot. And I said, "This is a fucking scam isn't it?"
Debbie: That's a vanity documentary.
Steve: Right, so there are companies that do that stuff, but I was glad I said right up front no Fox. So now you can clap.
Steve: Yeah I mean as you grow older things change, things that I get angry at in the past are different. The book that I have out The Moderns, I told the students this morning, this was work ... the kind of work I really didn't like because I felt it had no there there. That it was more about systems, it was more about playing with form than it was about dealing with content, and then I learned differently. I learned from just about everybody I talked to, that many of my assumptions and many of my presumptions are wrong. And I've been doing a lot more reading than I ever have lately, and I'm just absorbing more things that are of interest to me.
Unfortunately, a lot of what I've been reading lately has to do with Nazis.
Debbie: Anybody here surprised?
Steve: But some of my assumptions were wrong.
Debbie: Like what?
Steve: Well that people can get ... This may sound really weird, but people can get caught up in circumstances that are terrible circumstances, but nobody is purely guilty and purely innocent. It's a longer conversation.
Debbie: Absolutely, that'll be the topic of our next Designers Matters episode.
Steve: Okay, but tolerance is something that we don't have enough of. And I feel that looking at design as an ideology, as opposed to a more broad based practice is something that I've had to deal with. And so the ideology part of my design thinking is porous without giving up too much.
Debbie: Thank you.
Steve: Thank you.
Debbie: Steven Heller. Doc Heller.
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Design Matters is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by designobserver.com, and recorded live at the School of Visual Arts Masters and Branding Program in New York City. The editor-in-chief of Design Matters Media is Zachary Petit, and the art director is Emily Weiland.