• Steven Heller

Introducing Conceptual Illustration to The NYT

Stan Mack was the art director of The New York Times Magazine for two and a half years from 1971-’73. He moved to the Times from the New York Herald Tribune, which had folded in ’68. The Trib, he said, was boot camp for the Times.

His trajectory is impressive. Mack began as an illustrator and then after earning his chops at the Trib he joined the Times (hired by the visionary corporate art director Lou Silverstein) just as design and illustration were beginning to play a huge editorial role. He was the art director of the Magazine and then the Book Review. His contributions to the newspaper are (sadly) all but forgotten today. He is much better known for his long-running comic strips, including the droll “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies,” which ran in The Village Voice for over 20 years. But here he talks about those impactful Times early days and the covers he conceived and art directed.

Illstration by Rick Meyerowitz.

Photograph by Peter Simon.

Sculpture by Carol Anthony. photograph by Fred Burrell.

You started as an illustrator, how did you transition into art director? Or was it the other way around?

Happened more or less together. I arrived in New York in the mid ‘60s with some layouts and a scraggly pen line style that suited the changing times and got me illustration work—are you from Europe, one art director asked, eyeing my drawings. But it was still my salad days, and I wrangled a job as art director at a pulp magazine called Climax, which meant my portfolio had mainly black and white samples. A headhunter snootily pointed out that there was a job open way over on the West Side that turned out to be the Tribune—the newspaper that was about to revolutionize newspaper design.

Painting by Dick Hess.

Photo by De Wayne Dalrymple.

There have been a lot of great art directors for the Magazine each contributing their own signature graphic design. But as I recall, the iteration before yours was rather bland. When you began the type changed and illustration was more frequent. How would you define your tenure and accomplishments?

I was a one-man-band with 52 weekly deadlines. I mostly used a flexible type combination (Memphis, lightline gothic, and rules of various point sizes) and turned to illustrators, photographers, sculptors, model-makers, and cartoonists I admired to energize the layouts.

I created a simple cover design that stood out from the visual hurly burly of the rest of the paper. The challenge was that it required a bold graphic statement. Bland wouldn’t cut it. But I trusted my artists. And maybe my covers opened the door to a more imaginative use of art in the mag’s later years.

Photograph by Fred Burrell.

Since the magazine was an independent publication inside the Times, you did not have to worry about newsstand sales. What were the parameters of designing covers?

I had free rein as long as I could persuade the editor that my solutions were editorially sound, and, crucially, since the magazine during my time usually ran over 100 pages and was full of ads, that my covers didn’t chase away advertisers. Even my cover of a guy smoking a joint got through.

Detail from a NY Police Department ‘Criminal Fingerprint Record’ card.

The fingerprint cover we are showing is kind of timeless. How did that come about?

Artists and photographers make personal statements that can absolutely nail a subject. But there are times when you can’t beat the real thing. For one cover, I contacted the NYC Police Department and got the fingerprint of a man caught in the criminal justice system. (The green stripe meant it was a male; red for female.) I enlarged the fingerprint to epic size. Was the man behind the fingerprint guilty or wrongly accused? Didn’t matter, there he was, forever on file with the NYC Police Department. And that’s exactly what the article was about.

Illustration by Phil Hays.

Who were the art directors that influenced your style?

My main influence was the elegant designs of Peter Palazzo for whom I worked at the Trib, but I lived in a soup of graphic brilliance. To name too few, Henry Wolf’s Show magazine, Herb Lubalin’s type designs for Eros and Fact magazines, Milton Glaser’s paperback covers, Saul Bass’s movie posters like, ‘Anatomy of a Murder,’ George Lois’ Esquire covers like ‘The Passion of Muhammad Ali’…but it was also street journalists like Jimmy Breslin and Dennis Duggan. The traditional approach for a theater piece would have been photos. Instead, I sent the illustrator Alan Cober to wander the theater district and capture its flavor with his drawing pad.

Photograph by De Wayne Dalrymple.

Why did you leave?

I left because it was time. And my ‘Real Life Funnies” was in my future. Looking back, I see that my years of visually dramatizing the news at the Times was a great training ground.

Illustration by Alan E. Cober.

Photograph by Ken Regan.

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