My First Magazine Was Done on Borrowed Time

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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I was 17, unschooled in magazine design yet appointed the de facto art director of The New York Free Press. In fact, I was a glorified paste-up artist but my name was on the masthead as a.d. after the previous one abruptly quit. I had to learn the production ropes with each weekly issue I worked on, but fundamental lessons about type, typography and illustration were not to be learned in the NYFreep offices.

Nonetheless, given the arrogance of youth, I was ready to start my own magazine. Why not? It couldn’t be so hard, I thought.

I had some money saved up to pay for printing; a best friend whose stepfather was a bigshot Varick Street printer; a place to set type for free on an IBM MTST computer; and I had been the seasoned art director of the Free Press for all of three months. The rest would take care of itself.

I had the desire but one thing I did not have was a point of view. Nobody told me about points of view or editorial philosophies (I hadn’t yet seen Citizen Kane or even Funny Face). I had come up with the title, Borrowed Time, which came from adolescent musings on mortality and impermanence and was a play on Time magazine. I had a classmate—the school’s resident “mod”—who, when I floated the idea of a magazine, immediately drew a Beardsley-esque cover, that to my eye was just perfect. And I had assembled a few poems and stories, thinking that it would be a literary magazine.

I would do the layout. I figured the headline lettering would come from the IBM by blowing up on a stat machine the 12pt Geneva type from the type balls that came with the machine. So, I put a classified ad in the Village Voice for contributors, writers, poets and artists.

Lo and behold, many people answered the ad, yet what they showed me was mostly raw to the point of rancid. Until one morning a tall, skinny, bearded fellow with a twinge of a Southwestern accent stood at my door. Looking a bit like young Abe Lincoln, he was carrying the largest portfolio I had ever seen, three or four inches thick, close to 40 inches wide. He opened the case, and there was a pile of neatly laminated page cuttings from Playboy, Avant Garde, Evergreen Review and more, representing the highest tier of illustrated magazines. I lucked out. He was the real deal.

Brad Holland had arrived in New York City from Kansas City, a year before by way of Tulsa, OK, and Freemont, Ohio; he worked as a design supervisor at the rabbit department of Hallmark cards and started acquiring illustration work almost immediately after getting off the Greyhound bus. It was clear to me that he certainly did not have to submit work to my semi-literate literary magazine. And he almost didn’t when he saw what I was planning, especially the cover.

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That’s when we exchanged a few critical words, and after rudely questioning my competence and native intelligence, causing me a bit of understandable ire, Holland stormed out of the apartment where the meeting was taking place. However, to my surprise, five minutes later he returned with a proposition.

He said he would contribute (for free) to the magazine If I would relinquish to him all the design and layout duties. He would do the typography and paste-up himself (with me helping, if I wanted) from his tenement apartment on E. 11th Street, located in the heart (or ass) of the then no-man’s-land of Alphabet City on the Lower East Side. As proof that I was not entirely without judgement or competence, I agreed as long as I could keep the cover and, more important, I could contribute my own drawings to my own magazine (see below bottom). He reluctantly agreed.

I wanted to be an illustrator/cartoonist, which is why I took a job at the NYFreep in the first place. But after spending a mere hour watching Brad do his meticulous, elegant and conceptually intelligent work, I resigned myself to finding another career.

That’s when Brad became my teacher. Not in the ways of illustration, but in publication design in general and visual thinking specifically. He had worked for Art Paul at Playboy and Herb Lubalin at Avant Garde; in addition to their fluency with art, each of those art directors were brilliant typographers. I wanted to do that too. Sitting on Brad’s grungy floor day after day for three or more weeks, pasting up pages for Borrowed Time, cutting and gluing various clip-art letters together, making the best use of transfer and press-type, I learned aspects of type use I hadn’t appreciated before—notably achieving expression through letters and the accents, voices and pitches that different faces have. I can’t say that I became good at it, but I became aware of the nuances that make typography so personal to the designer. That was enough. I never became the typographer I wanted to be, but I had fun doing the work.

I was reminded of this snippet of memory just the other day when I was rereading Brad’s blog post in Poor Bradford’s Almanac about his St. Paddy’s day meeting with the cowboy actor Slim Pickens and the surrealist showman Salvador Dali. I was reminded how precious our memories are and how fleeting they can be.

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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 →