I had the great pleasure of writing an appreciation of Janet Froelich, design director of Real Simple and former design director of The New York Times Sunday magazines, for the Hall of Femmes monograph, one in a series of books celebrating women in graphic design and art direction. Froelich’s volume was published in 2013. This is an excerpt from a longer essay:
The traits that make a great magazine art director are not always visible to the naked eye. Obsessive attention to detail is a fairly common one. Extreme interest in the content of the magazine distinguishes art directorial virtuosity from mere perfunctory professionalism. And then there’s that elusive characteristic called “passion.” The great art director must have it or what’s the point? These contribute to being above and beyond, but are not the only ingredients.
Take Janet Froelich, for example. She is a great art director not simply because her magazines look and feel smart, which is to be expected. Her stature derives from more than passion for what she does; she is consumed by the art, design, typography and photography . . . . To be a perfectionist – which she is – is one thing, to be a an artist whose metier is perfection – which she also is – is the essence of great art direction.
Of course, “artist” is a slippy word. Art is a consequence not an intention of graphic design. Just because a magazine looks and feels good to the eye does not make it art. Nonetheless, Froelich’s art is printed page. She is a great art director because artistry flows through her pages.
As this is the Hall of Femmes, doubtless there is a mandate to situate Froelich in the pantheon of women art directors – of which there are many more than one might expect. Editorial design was, until thirty years ago, more or less male dominated, but women were not a minority (indeed Lillian Baseman and Ruth Ansel have already been recognized in this series). Women held the reigns of many important magazines. Ansel was, herself, art director of the The New YorkTimes Magazine during the early to late 1970s. So, to segregate Froelich by virtue of gender is not an entirely fair assessment of her place in the art directorial pantheon.
If I were to write novel or direct a film about a magazine art director – and not one where the art director is a supporting character under the thumb of some domineering editor – Froelich would be my model. Her boundless energy in the trenches; her ability to effectively argue with the most articulate wordsmiths over the efficacy of a photograph or illustration, is the essence of how I view an art director. This is not to imply she is a stereotype. Froelich may share some characteristics with other creative types, but her manner is uniquely her own.
And what about style? Unlike some editorial art director-designers, Froelich does not impose one signature look to fit all. Favorite photographers? Yes. Illustrators? Yes. Even typefaces? No doubt. But the measure of her success is the freedom to transcend style and respond to content and context.
So, where is Froelich situated in the continuum of art direction as the tectonic plates of field are moving? She is on terra firma as one who has made a major mark on the magazines she’s guided and the profession she’s lead. In short, she’s art director’s art director – and that is visible to anyone with eyes to see.