Alexander Liberman: Mentor & Tormentor
Graphis, June 1998
He would strive to shock readers, but he never wanted to intimidate them.
Alexander Liberman always insisted that magazines had to be readable. Readable? The magazines he supervised during his 50-plus-year career — Vogue, Glamour, House & Garden, Vanity Fair, and others — had distinctively crowded, messy layouts; page after page incorporated jumbled-up montages of text and images. Forget about curling up quietly to read the articles. Liberman's signature look was much too lively to invite contemplation.
Liberman, the legendary editorial director of Condé Nast Publications (CNP) who retired in 1994, never bothered reading a manuscript before laying out a story. Once, when I was art director of Self magazine (a CNP magazine), he caught me reading a piece I was working on. With the authority of a man 30 years my senior, he reprimanded me severely for wasting time on the job. Magazine readers must get a feel for a story before reading it, he explained. It's best if art directors don't get involved with the text.
My role, he said, was to communicate ideas — not illustrate words.
He summoned to my office the senior editor in charge. She scurried in, a hard copy of the edited manuscript pressed against her chest, like a shield. She was asked to put it aside at once and pitch her story aloud to Liberman.
Always polite and suave, Mr. Liberman, as we called him, rebuked her whenever she looked at her notes. He was not about to be text-driven. Whether dealing with fashion, beauty, health, food or travel, articles in CNP magazines were scripted to have a dramatic plot line. With a series of questions, he tried to unveil the reader's emotional relationship with the article. "Are you saying that vitamins are bad for you?" he asked. "If that's so, re-write the headline."
While listening to the editor, Liberman began to build a new layout from scratch, his hands moving as if on automatic pilot over the drawing board. "I don't search, I find," he liked to say, paraphrasing Picasso. Headlines, quotes, sidebars, photographs, dummy text and pieces of colored paper would come together in less than three minutes.
I had to hold my breath, literally, not to disturb this impromptu collage. As soon as Liberman declared that he was done, he made it clear that my responsibility was to hold the elements in place with tiny bits of transparent tape — and God help me if I straightened anything in the process.
David Carson, the now famous graphic design iconoclast whom I hired at Self in 1990 as a mere paste-up assistant, remembers trying to copy-fit Liberman's montages with the final text—not an easy task. "It was surreal," he now says. He had to treat Liberman's fragile piles of scrap paper as if they were works of art. He thought it was all pretty silly.
"At the time I didn't know who this guy was. Now, looking back, I get the feeling that he has been undervalued and under appreciated as a graphic designer." Although the two never spoke, I can't help but wonder if Carson was not influenced by the old man's serendipitous approach to the page.
Messy but not confusing
Though Liberman’s layouts were at time deliberately messy, they were never confusing. He would strive to shock readers, but never intimidate them. As a result, the magazines he designed were approachable and thus “readable.” He made sure the Condé Nast's publications triggered in readers an instant sense of identification with what was presented on the page. A glance is all one needed to grasp the sum total of what the editors were thinking about. These were magazines one didn’t need to decipher in order to read. "Clarity and strength of communication is what interest me," said Liberman. "I hate white space because white space is an old album tradition. I need to be immersed in the subject matter."
Unfortunately, few of Liberman's collaborators were ever able to “read” him as effortlessly as readers were able to “read” his layouts. From 1942, when Liberman, then 30, was named art director of Vogue magazine, replacing the formidable Mehemed Fehmy Agha, to 1994, when he announced that James Truman, 35, the young editor of Details, would be his successor as Editorial Director, he kept everybody mystified with abrupt decisions and unexpected turnarounds.
"The creative process is a series of destructions," he was fond of saying. For him, the creative process was also a series of dramatic dismissals. Great editors got the ax on Liberman's watch: Diana Vreeland, Grace Mirabella, Louis Oliver Gropp, just to name a few. And countless great art directors as well: Priscilla Peck, Lloyd Ziff, Dereck Ungless, Ruth Ansel, Rip George.
To this day, the mere mention of Liberman, who died in 1998, can set off a heated discussion between designers and editors who have worked with him. People who have been fired by him sometimes break into hives. Others relish the opportunity to tell some particularly funny story. Because of him, there is an instant sense of community among ex-CNP employees. Commenting on Liberman's "absurdly hip" collage-approach, design critic Owen Edwards today says: "When I worked with him, I always though he was dead wrong — which only shows how dead wrong I was."
"Don't be stylish, you'll be dated"
Liberman had a knack for astounding and upsetting people around him — and his attempts to explain his design philosophy was more alienating than reassuring. “Consistency is the sign of a small mind,” he told me for openers. “Don’t be stylish, you’ll be dated,” he would then admonish.
And he kept after me: “Un peu plus de brutalité, s’il vous plaît, ma chère amie” ( a little more brutality, please, my dear friend), he insisted when my fashion layouts looked to “nice” to him. And each time my heart would sink. But eager to please — no one was ever immune to his old-world charm — I presented the next day a revised, Fleet-Street inspired, layout. Such a look of contempt I had never endured. "Simply lurid," he said, before walking out of the room.
He was not a teacher. Although very articulate, he could never find the appropriate words to share his vision with others. Looking back, I believe that his inability to communicate with his design associates was due to the fact that his ideas were so radical, he couldn't begin to describe them. He used an antiquated vocabulary that dated from the days of Gutenberg to introduce a way of thinking that foreshadowed the revolution of the information age.
He asked for “vulgarity” when what he was after was impact.
He talked of “charm” to describe a sense of ease.
He called “provincial” layouts that were too rigid.
Although Liberman dismissed computers as "too slow," ten years before the introduction of the Macintosh, he was already designing pages as if they were interactive screens, with layered rather than linear narratives.
A man employees loved to described as suave, urbane, and aristocratic, Liberman was no stranger to revolutions, cultural or otherwise. Born in Kiev, Russia, in 1912, he remembers the first days of the Bolshevik upheaval. His father, a powerful forestry and timber manager, prospered under Lenin's regime. His mother, an out-of-work actress, created a children's theater to keep starving urchins off the street. But in this climate of anarchy and social chaos, the young Liberman, a sensitive and difficult child, was displaying troubling behavioral symptoms. His parents were afraid he was turning into a delinquent. In 1921, apparently with Lenin's personal consent, he was shipped to school in England where he was forced to learn manners. A quick study, he acquired there, by age 10, the genteel demeanor and slight British accent that would later become his trademark.
After Lenin's death in 1924, the Libermans left Russia and settled in Paris. Alex was transferred to a chic French private school where he made valuable friends among the sons of the aristocracy. But the turning point for him was visiting the 1925 Paris Arts Décoratifs exhibition. He was only a teenager, yet the discovery of Art Deco, then called Art Moderne, was "one of the most important events in my life," he said later.
From then on, the concept of modernity became something of an obsession with him: "Alex tried and tried to get everyone to be modern — his idea of modern," notes Lloyd Ziff, who was art director at House & Garden, Vanity Fair and Traveler in the 1980s. But he notes that the way Liberman worked, juxtaposing photographic and typographical elements, was more reminiscent of Russian Constructivism than of French Art Deco.
Liberman's early career in design was somewhat erratic. A bleeding ulcer kept interrupting his attempts to find a line of work he would enjoy. He studied painting with André Lhote, architecture with Auguste Perret, and was briefly employed by Cassandre. In 1933, he got a job at VU, a Parisian weekly, and one of the very first news magazines to use reportage photography. There, he befriended Lucien Vogel, the editor, and met photographers who would help him define his taste for photojournalism: André Kertez, Robert Capa and Brassai.
In the late 1930s, after a brief marriage with Hilda Sturm, a German ski champion, Liberman fell deeply in love with a married woman, Tatiana du Plessis, a striking beauty who was a niece of famous Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislasky (inventor of The Method acting). The invasion of France by Hitler's army in 1940 forced their fate: Tatiana's French aristocratic husband was killed while trying to join exiled general Charles de Gaulle in England. Alex escaped to New York with Tatiana, soon to be his wife, and her daughter, Francine.
The Editorial Director
In New York, Liberman was quickly hired by Condé Nast, founder of the company that still bears his name. The old man who was impressed with Liberman’s experience with photojournalism at VU. Back in 1931, Clare Booth Luce had submitted to Nast, her boss at the time, the prototype for a weekly picture magazine called Life. He had rejected it. Now Life, launched in the late 30s by Henry Luce, Clare’s husband, was a success—and Nast was sorry he had missed the opportunity to start a breakthrough publication.
When Liberman proposed, during his job interview, to inject some reportage in Vogue, Nast loved it. From that day on, Alex Liberman thought of himself as a journalist—a super editor with visual understanding. He never liked the title of art director and was relieved when, in 1962, he was appointed editorial director of all Condé Nast magazines.
During his career at CNP, Liberman actually carried a grudge against art directors. Their title, he felt, was misleading. He didn't want them to be artists, but managers of the image of the magazine. He understood his role, and the role of all editorial designers, to be what we call today "brand managers." Unfortunately, the notion of branding was still in its infancy, and Liberman never came across the use of that term. What a pity. He would have loved to wrestle with concepts such as "perceived quality," "brand equity," and "visual territory."
Instead of rewriting the art director's job description, Liberman spent five decades fighting the idea that editorial design was an artistic endeavor. He went out of his way to undermine art directors in front of editors. With remarks like "This layout is utterly banal, wouldn't you say," or "Remember: You are not a scarf designer, you are a journalist," he could reduce some of the most talented designers to tears.
In the hallways of CNP, you could easily spot art directors: they were the walking wounded — the folks wearing neck braces. While at Self, I too became partially disabled with a frozen shoulder, tension migraines and lower back problems.
Editors who attended the daily public floggings of art directors would look at their shoes in embarrassment—but internally, they were rubbing their hands. Liberman can be credited with weakening the authority of editorial art directors in the USA. He trained three generations of editors to belittle the opinion of their visually-oriented co-workers. Today, every publication in America has at least one editor who once worked at CNP and refers to Quark-Xpress and Photoshop users as "my art people."
No vision of loveliness
Liberman considered art direction a profession, not an “art.” As far as he was concerned, art was something one did in a studio, not an office. In fact, in his spare time, during weekends, he managed to become a prolific artist—furiously painting huge canvases or making large-scale environmental sculptures that won critical acclaim in the New York art world. As such, Liberman lead two distinct lives.
Careful to cultivate a Clark-Kent, charcoal-gray-suit persona by day, he would become an ambitious abstract expressionist by night. His wife, Tatiana, called him Superman. "Art is the violent expression of resentment against the human condition," he told Barbara Rose, the author of a monograph on his work as an artist. Rose was under the impression that Liberman kept that resentment a private matter. "Alexander Liberman, the artist, is deeply suspicious of taste," she wrote in 1981. "Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of CNP, is, above all, a man of taste."
Rose was misinformed.
With each passing year at CNP, Liberman showed less and less patience with issues of taste, letting his growing resentment show through. He became committed to banishing forever the "vision of loveliness" he had endured at the beginning of his tenure at Condé Nast from the very proper ladies who were Vogue's early editors: Josephine Redding, Marie Harrison, Edna Woolman Chase and Jessica Daves.
At long last, in the 1960s, Diana Vreeland set him free. "Laying out a beautiful picture in a beautiful way is a bloody bore," she once said. Like him, she treated the magazine as a series of collages, wantonly pasting together her models' body parts to get the "perfect whole." Liberman was impressed. "I put legs and arms and heads together," she said. "I never took out fewer than two ribs."
When I first encountered Liberman, in the late 1970s, Diana Vreeland had been replaced by Grace Mirabella, and the Vogue art department, where I worked as a paste-up assistant, was run by Rochelle Udell. The magazine layouts were deliberately untidy, to differentiate Vogue from its competition Harper's Bazaar, the absolute leader in terms of design and visual innovation. Still under the influence of its legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, Bazaar was a thorn in Liberman's side. But he did what a good brand manager would do: instead of trying to play catch-up with Bazaar, he carved out a new, younger niche for Vogue.
As soon as he did that, circulation began to rise dramatically. And advertisers loved being associated with a smart fashion publication that embraced the spirit of the Pepsi generation.
Like Carson would fifteen years later, I spent long hours in the Vogue art department, painstakingly trying to fit type around Liberman's complex photo-montages. Meanwhile, in his studio at home, the "Silver Fox," as some editors now called him, was throwing paint by the bucketful on oversized canvases, working as fast as possible to try to by-pass the mental process, a process he believed could only produce preconceived and banal solutions.
Overcoming aesthetic considerations
In 1989, I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again, this time at Self. By now, Liberman had dropped all pretense of good taste. Although he had retained his suave, David Niven look, I was told that he was fiercer than ever.
And indeed, soon after I joined CNP, Anthea Disney, the editor who had hired me, was fired unceremoniously for not following Liberman's directions. In no position to assert myself with the new editor, Alexandra Penney, I decided to look at the situation as a chance to resolve the Liberman mystery once and for all. I galvanized my staff and made it clear to Liberman that my entire art department was at his service. For the next six months, we were on a roll.
As soon as the great man walked into the room, we were ready in battle formation: One assistant was at my side with scissors, knife and loupe; another was posted next to the color copier; a third was assigned to the phones to keep the lines open in case Liberman got a call. I had two "runners," ready to spring to action to either fetch an editor, find a color swatch or alert the photo department.
Helen Maryles, the youngest designer, was on tape duty. I will never forget the sight of her, standing next to Liberman, palms open, finger extended, with tiny pieces of transparent tape stuck at the end of her ten digits.
In his biography, Alex, written by Dodie Kazanjian and Calvin Tomkins, Liberman says: "If ever I have done what I'd call my own layouts, it's at Self." The pages he designed then and there were a debauch of bold type and cut-paper blocks of colors, a look reminiscent of the papiers découpés technique Matisse favored at the end of his career. Liberman had met him briefly in 1949, when the painter was in his late seventies—still mentally alert and youthful in spite of age and poor health. Now, Liberman had a chance to emulate his favorite artist.
The Self layouts were an unmitigated homage to the author of "The Dance."
For the first time ever, Liberman was doing "art" at the office. He did concede to his biographers that at Self there was "not much difference in the psychological process between a composition on canvas and arranging material like this on a page."
So this was it. In a long career dedicated to overcoming aesthetic considerations, the Self experiment represented a brief moment of reconciliation between Clark Kent and Superman—between the editorial director and the artist.
It was a commercial disaster. The advertisers hated the "new" Self, with its whimsical color-blocks and elegant yet topsy-turvy typography. The readers didn't get it either. The newsstand circulation took a nose dive. The magazine had lost its sacro-saint "readability." Liberman, in collaboration with my staff and me, had been breaking his own rules—having fun and doing “art” at the office instead of striving to keep the layouts upbeat yet accessible.
I was fired — and rightly so — for encouraging a 78 years old man to be creative on the job. I should have known better: At CondéNast, art direction is not supposed to be an artistic endeavor.
1/12 - Vogue April 1950 cover, photography by Irving Penn
2/12 - Liberman's first cover for Vogue, May 1941, photography by Horst
3/12 - A Vogue cover by John Rawlings, 1957, was imbued with a very Parisian flair
4/12 - For a 1945 Vogue cover, a photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld became an abstract image
5/12 - Vogue, January 1950 cover, photography by Erwin Blumenfeld
9/12 - A red and hot pink Vogue cover by Norman Parkinson, August 1956
7/12 - This Vogue cover, August 1949, is reminiscent of the photography of Rodchenko
8/12 - Vogue, June 1949, photography by Clifford Coffin
9/12 - Vogue, April 1950, photography by Irving Penn
10/12 - Liberman liked to create Dada-inspired collages
11/12 - Layouts by Liberman for Self magazine, 1990
12/12 - "Abracadabra," one of the monumental sculptures by Liberman, 1996