There is no way to describe my first (and only) job interview at The New York Times. But I’ll try. It was the proverbial dream — a wish come true — a sensation equaled only to getting married, watching our child being born and holding the first copy of my first authored book. My parents read The Times everyday with pride. They tried to avoid even talking about what I did. I had been an ersatz art director and publication designer for counter culture newspapers and magazines since I was 17 years old. In fact, only once before this had I stepped foot into “a real art director’s office” at Grove Press (which years later hired me as art director of Evergreen Review for a very brief period).
My various downtown offices and studios were hovels filled with makeshift drawing tables, t-squares and glue pots, but they never felt real – or let’s say professional. The Times was real and professional and midtown. Lou Silverstein, the corporate art director (also design director and later assistant managing editor) was the real deal (although, to be honest, his office was not that much more orderly than my then current workspace at Milky Way Productions, publisher of Screw, Mobster Times, Smut, Gay, Bitch and Gadget. Well, he did have a much nicer chair (and I saw there were no bugs scurrying around). But that aside, I was speechless, breathless, and incredibly ecstatic to be in his office and presence.
Former New York Times Art Director Louis Silverstein around 1978. credit: The New York Times.
Lou wasn’t what I’d imagined. I’m not sure what I imagined. One thing I knew is that I didn’t even own a suit, he was wearing one. I gave up wearing white shirts for the counter culture “revolution,” his was neat and tidy (and came with a tie). He was also warm, polite and after a few minutes of chatter, to my utter shock and awe he said: “I’d like you to help out with one of our sections . . . .” “Rrrrreally?,” I interrupted, then blurted, “which one”? Smiling, he said: “Op-Ed needs some help.” “Rrrrreally?,” I again replied even more dumbfounded. That was the job I would have wanted if I knew I was going to be offered a job, which I didn’t, although I had a sense that he had some reason for inviting me, a 23 year old with no real design education to speak of, for an interview. I muttered: “Does that mean . . . well . . . your hiring me as art director?” To which he said: “Probably.” I learned that that was Lou’s way of saying yes.
There were not many art directors at the time at The Times. Lou had been promotion art director, then corporate art director, then took over the editorial sections and reinvented the “old grey lady.” In the editorial group there was a magazine art director (Ruth Ansel, who made this possible by showing my portfolio to Lou), managing art director (George Cowan, who had been at the Times for years before Lou, and was a surprisingly good designer given that he had to transform from a conventional makeup man into an modern art director), Book Review, Week In Review and Arts and Leisure art directors (all who smartly followed Lou’s lead as designers rather than do “makeup”). There was also an Op-Ed art director, the wildly audacious J.C. Suares, who in 1968 hired me straight out of high school for the New York Free Press.
Op-Ed considered itself relatively autonomous and in that rebellious spirit the decidedly autonomous Suares ran-afoul of Lou. Long story — but Suares was fired to the dismay of the Op-Ed editors. A couple of interim art directors were hired by Lou yet rejected by the Op-Eders. I was “probably” hired and accepted by them because I had history with J.C. Still, I was Lou’s hire and as far as I was concerned I was Lou’s boy! I answered to Lou, with whom I simultaneously worked on many of the new weekly sections.
I’ll save the entire story for the unwritten memoir I’ll finish in twenty years (or less?), but suffice to say this brief recollection is an homage to Louis Silverstein (for more on Lou’s work read “The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design“), which was triggered by seeing the photograph above in a recent email from Jeff Roth (Times morgue researcher par excellence) and an exhibition of Times promotion design (open only to Times employees). Thanks with all my heart, Lou: I would not have a clue where I’d be today without you.
About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →