The Man Who Covers Changing America Magazine

shroud manager to Respected In the 1960s, George Louis attacked Muhammad Ali with arrows, drowned Andy Warhol in a soup can, and posed as Richard Nixon for a close-up. He boggled minds for attention, making urgently speaking magazine covers, muting the value of bold newsstand headlines. Through Lewis’s work, history has been renewed.

I wasn’t alive in the Sixties, but I can tell you that many of the visible signs of the era that popped into my mind were made by Lewis. (And I’m certainly not alone in this—the Museum of Modern Art has secured several of his works for its permanent collection.) He was a ferocious and uncompromising visual visionary, a provocateur whose silent commentary on breaking America was cut through scores of about 8-by-10-inch canvases. He possessed an uncanny ability to channel collective sentiments in a time of deep political division, but more than that, he conveyed messages that America did not realize it was ready to embrace. Until his death last weekend at the age of 91, George Lewis was the greatest living art director at a magazine. He will be remembered as a leading graphic artist of the twentieth century.

Before RespectedLewis made his bones as an ad man developing campaigns for Xerox and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He was a native of the Bronx—bold, passionate, and willing to conquer a challenge to stand up for his ideas. Rumored to be the inspiration for mad menDon Draper’s Lois rejected the comparison outright (which is fair, because Draper didn’t have as firm a grip on the counterculture as Lois did). With advertising, Lewis honed his daring, chic sensibility, which would carry him through a decade in magazines and then to MTV, where he rescued a volatile brand and transformed it into an entity that defines the zeitgeist.

In 2019, when Peter Mendelsund and I started remodeling Atlantic OceanNo designer has had a greater influence on us. Lewis’s work leaves us no choice but to confront it, occupying a dominant space in the cultural imagination, as it does. We studied its covers, seeking to impart a similar sensitivity to Atlantic Ocean, which means that we have tried to imitate him a lot. A common thread in Lois’ most glamorous designs is the print-to-picture relationship. It relied a lot on a central, eye-catching visual element to hold the lid on while the rest of the elements remained subdued. This required courage – as well as great confidence in the audience – and the unburdening of language. He reduced the cover print to Lilliputian scale in order to harness the enormous power of the image.

In 1968, Louis Ali subjected himself to the fate of St. Sebastian, using arrows to martyrdom the iconoclast. In the lower right corner of the cover is a small five word headline. This magazine’s cover, among the most famous in American history, manages to confront race, religion, and the Vietnam War in one conceptual image that’s as tough as it is brilliant.

Two covers designed by George Lewis for Esquire. Left: Issue 413, April 1968. Right: Issue 367, June 1964

More than dozens of Respected issues, he not only created iconic images; He popularized existing symbols in order to subvert, reframe, and rework them. Take his 1964 cover of Kennedy, with a hand pictured at the front of the frame, wiping away an imagined tear. This over-the-top visual motion adds friction to a still image; It forces us to confront tragedy and process it in a new way. It transforms the magazine, the 60-cent newsstand, into something beyond form—into something more like art.

From Jiffy Lube ads to the “I Want My MTV” campaign to boxer Sonny Liston wearing a Santa Claus hat on the cover of RespectedContemporary American culture looks and feels the way it does in part because of Lewis’s genius. If you were ever shocked by a piece of design in our pages, you may now recognize the ramifications of his influence. Even if you don’t, I can tell you they are (the December 2019 and November 2021 covers are valiant attempts at the honor). History has no choice but to remember George Lewis. It was an integral part of the memory machine.

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