by Breuk Iversen
In 1998-1999, I studied with a graphic design guru at The School of Visual Arts. He is undeniably the greatest living American Designer of all time. His name: Milton Glaser.
Here is some of his work:
I was quite nervous about this first meeting with Mr. Glaser. I would be presenting my design work to get into his portfolio class. The class is two semesters long, for seniors only, and you had to take both classes, back to back.
By this time I had already won 7 awards for advertisments and designs I did but, there are hundreds of students trying to get in his class and he only takes 35 students at a time. Nervous I was.
I had an slight advantage over the other students. I:
- was a full-time senior at SVA.
- already had my own design firm on Fifth Avenue.
- also had, what I would consider, an excellent design portfolio with real design and ad examples.
- had Dick Raboy as my mentor.
I walked into the tiny, semi-dark office at the school. There he sat—sizably huge, filling the small room with his sizable stature and long legs—a menace of a man. I think his shoe size must be a 13-14. His skull is just a little bit smaller than that of a regulation NBA basketball and he stands close to 6’5″.
“Dick Raboy says ‘Hello,‘” I said nervously. It wasn’t planned to come out with this line, name dropping. The words just flew out of my mouth. I have no idea why, except nerves.
Glaser looked at me surprised, sharply and said: “Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in 20 years!”
I gave Mr. Glaser my business card first. It was another nervous gesture.
He studied the card and I watched waiting for the idea thing to hit. Then the left hand corner of his mouth and eyebrow lifted up–simultaneously–just like Sean Connery. Glaser said: “This is an excellent business card,” in a deep baritone.
“Thank you.” I replied.
“May I keep it?”
“How do you know Dick?” He asked.
“He is my mentor.” I said, unzipping my portfolio.
“I don’t need to see the rest of your work.“
I was perplexed. I spent over 6 hours preparing this portfolio and refining it to impress the man. I wanted to insist he look at it but learned from Dick to NEVER continue a sale when something is sold.
“How is Dick doing?” He said.
“Very well. We are on the same floor at 149 Fifth Avenue. His office is just across the hallway from mine.”
“What do you do there?” He said.
“I have my own design firm.”
“Your records say here you are a senior.”
“I am. I opened up my own design firm a few years ago when I was a still a freshman.”
“Interesting. Please tell Dick that Milton says, ‘hello’.”
“I definitely will.” I said pausing and continued, “So, am I accepted into the class?”
“Yes. Can you ask the next student to come in?”
“I will. Thank you.”
“Thank you.” He said.
Wow. That was sharp, concise and straight to the point. I was reeling. I shook his hand and left.
Nevertheless, great! I finally got to meet the great man, a legend. I’ve seen his work in design books, posters on the subways and streets, buses, museums, schools and he is considered the best of the best designers around this town and country.
The mere mention of Dick’s name got me into one of the most sought after design classes in NYC. It was that or the business card. We’ll never know.
I was young, eager to learn and ready to go. Now I was accepted into a class of one of the greatest living graphic designers. I was lit up like a candle in the forest at night.
So who is this Dick guy?
Dick Raboy said (of himself):
“I am the most successful financial copywriter in New York City ever.”
It was true. Read the short story about the specific details here. There was a convincing validity to his bold claim. I thought he was just a bragging but his short story to lay the claim is quite impressive. That, and all my teachers at SVA knew him.
Back in the Day
Dick Raboy, Clay Felker, and Milton Glaser all sat at a table in Milton’s studio at 207 East 32nd Street. They met and set the stage for taking New York Magazine from being a supplement to becoming its own news stand magazine sensation. Dick was responsible for copywriting the original postcard which was mailed to 60,000 NYC residents.
Glaser said later in one of his classes: “If you got a 5-10% response from mailing the card, you have the likelihood of being a successful magazine.”
New York Magazine received over a 60% response rate making it a shoe-in for its own, stand-alone magazine. Dick wrote the copy. They knew they had a successful model for the magazine. Then they (Glaser and Clay) launched it. This was the cover of the very first issue:
In short, Dick Raboy was a copywriting luminary, in his day. He taught me all about the art of outstanding and exceptional copywriting and creative direction over an eight year period. He like all the innovative teachers at SVA wanted to see designs, ads, and copywritten text they’ve never seen before. In advertising, recycling campaigns or stealing other’s ideas was a no-no. Innovation and originality is something to be admired as long as the ads or designs get results and responses from the public.
Dick normally got an astounding 25-45% response rate for his clients ads. This was accomplished through playing with people’s emotional strings. He was a brilliant master of humor, wit and human emotions.
When I first met Dick he was getting paid $20,000 per month by a client TO NOT WRITE ADS FOR ANYONE ELSE. That’s how good he was. His ads were so powerful and effective he owned that space. “It pays to specialize” was his credo. This suited him just fine.
He is not credited anywhere with helping Clay or Glaser with New York Magazine. Perhaps something happened there and the relationship soured. I don’t know. This ‘not being credited’ would also likely be perfectly fine with Dick.
I knew him well—studied under his tutelage five days a week for a close to a decade. He didn’t care about credit. He cared about good ads/design, great food, attractive women, playing cards; bridge, gambling, solitaire, and he was a season ticket holder at MSG to see The New York Knicks. But, what Dick really liked was money. Money allowed him all the freedoms he desired.
The only thing he may have cared for more than money was the Knicks and playing solitaire on his computer. Solitaire, was something he played on his little Mac II from 9am in the morning until 5pm. He was obsessive, almost mental about it. I later found out that he used the game for two reasons 1. He liked it and played over 200,000 games. 2. He was distracting his conscious mind to allow his subconscious to resolve advertising equations and positioning.
I took Milton Glaser’s class. I, and others in the class, had built up something much more amazing than it actually was. As the semester progressed, it got a little boring and then really amazing again. He’s a genius—a design guru genius. He had taught the class at SVA and was never late and had not missed a single class once in 35 years.
One week, an assignment Mr. Glaser gave us was to create a poster that would help fix a social problem. The idea was to change that poor social behavior into a healthier alternative. As a student, we would have to try to fix something like littering, shoplifting, sexism, racism, etc…
The next week I presented my poster, along with the 35 other students in the class. The student posters covered one entire wall of the classroom. I think mine was the biggest. It was a little larger than 38” x 25”.
Here’s what I presented:
He entered the room, removed his jacket and walked over to the wall. He pointed to mine first and said: “What have we here with this strange object?”
Most of the class giggled and snickered.
He asked: “Who did this?”
I raised my hand, although I didn’t want to. I wasn’t seeking attention.
He said: “It will never work.” as he almost proceeded to move to the next poster.
I asked: “Wait, why!?!”
“It just won’t work. Do you think this would envoke Bill Clinton to stop behaving the way he behaves?”
I said “No, but…”
“It won’t work.”
I said “Hold on…. please. Do you think something along the lines of ‘How would you like if this was done to your wife, sister, daughter, grandmother or girlfriend‘ would be better?”
He said: “Yes. That might’ve worked.”
I said: “That’s what I thought! But…”
“This next one,” he said, completely blowing me off.
I still continued, “I asked a bunch of very attractive female bartenders what they thought of that line. They said ‘No, you don’t understand. The men that harass women don’t like women at all. They hate women.’”
He completely disregarded me and went on to critique the next poster. I had more to say. Although, I knew I was risking getting thrown out of the class or reprimanded. Another comment or sentence would have been one interruption to too many.
RULE 1: “Never Outshine the Master.” — Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
The perspective that the bartenders shared with me was an observation I had never considered. It was an important one. Several of the women in the class turned and looked at me, giving me a thumbs up. One mouthed “Thank You.” She was smiling. She agreed.
The reason I thought the bus stop poster worked was that it would arm the women with a verbal weapon to throw back at the men who harass them. Even if it were just a persnickety comment meant to challenge.
This was me and Milton Glaser’s first MEATING of the minds. I had been meaten. I, however, got an A- in his class.
So in the spring of 2000, I started developing a magazine with few friends in Williamsburg. It happened over a few pitchers of Sangria in a restaurant on the corner of North 6th and Berry. The name of the joint was Uccelli’s. It definitely was a joint.
Uccelli’s was inexpensive on a relatively desolate street. Back then, it still had amazing sausage and seafood paellas. The music was good.
It was a nightly thing for me sitting at the tiny 5 person bar there. I was a regular. I brought my friends there.
By that next fall, the first issue of 11211 Magazine was delivered to my office/loft from Portland, Oregon. There were about 6 of us celebrating with jugs of Carlo Rossi wine and we drank until we were blind.
In the first four months after launching the magazine, I was broke. I went through $78,000 in savings and reserves and yet, had the highest quality print publication to ever hit the streets of Williamsburg. 11211 Magazine was a very noticeable improvement in the area back in those days. It showed that this area was to be believed in. It was something to take seriously, the area, the people, the ethnicities of people who were born and raised there and the newer transplant of young American people from the states mainly artists and musicians.
They came to chase their dreams. The term Hipster was a big hit in Williamsburg.
The curious from Manhattan were starting to show up and shop in Williamsburg’s cool little Bedford Avenue boutiques and art galleries. There was a sense of hope that was just starting to happen.
One of the things Milton Glaser offered all his students was an opportunity to meet with him after you graduated from his class. I would want to ask him what I should do about Williamsburg and about the magazine.
I asked Dick for help. He said: “Keep going. You’ll figure it out. I think what you are doing is wonderful. Don’t give up.”
I called Mr. Glaser’s office building and got an appointment the very next week. I prepared all four magazines and went. I also brought Vice Magazine because they were across the street from me on North 4th, somehow connected to Triple 5 Soul clothing who occupied the same floor in the same building. Their publication was perfect bound, 200 pages thick and loaded with ads—no ads were local.
Mr. Glaser looked over the 11211 magazines and first complimented on the high-quality and thick paper. He asked questions. I answered. I asked if he could help me get Brooklyn Brewery to advertise. He said it wasn’t up to him.
He concluded the meeting saying: “There’s no money in Williamsburg. Why don’t you take this to SoHo where they would appreciate the effort and quality of paper.”
“SoHo is done. There is so much potential in Williamsburg. It is young, fresh and pretty wild.” I said.
He said: “The clothing stores, restaurants and shops are struggling in SoHo. See about doing something like this there. That is my recommendation.”
Like the assignment I had in his class a couple of years before, I would not argue my point. I would not Outshine the Master a second time. I sincerely thanked him and left. I left a little defeated.
I went back to the office and talked to Dick. Dick said: “Don’t listen to Milton. He doesn’t know everything. Go with your gut instincts, my boy.” cheery as always like Santa.
I did. I closed my 5th Avenue design firm. Took the 8 people I’ve hired and employed for two or three years and offered them partnerships. They all declined. I decided to dig my heels into Williamsburg, sink or swim, do or die.
All of the employees left, one by one. All the friends I started the publication with left earlier right after the first issue. The last employee I had was onto a steady paycheck with another design position within a month. That’s another story for another time.
I waited and pondered and waited and pondered how to resurrect the publication with no money. And I mean NO MONEY. I think I went through a nervous breakdown in those 4 months.
For 4 months of my life I still have with no recollection except for throwing coins and reading the I Ching every single morning when I woke up. I don’t remember what I did for work. I don’t know how I survived, how I ate or what happened. It is a black hole in my life. It was January-April, 2001, a winter, cold, uncaring and an unloving time.
Some days I would roll GOOD COINS and go out in hopes of finding salvation. Then one day I did find it.
A million dollar restaurant was opening on North 7th just off Bedford midway up the block. It was still a construction site. I introduced myself and went in with the media kit and magazines to meet the owners. I met the multi-millionaires, Rick and Karl told me they saw the 11211 Magazine months before and instead of opening their restaurant in Soho or Tribeca, they decided on opening up in Williamsburg.
Wow! This was because of the magazine. Yes! They saw the same potential. My kind of people.
I closed a very substantial deal with them doing all their design, flyers, ads, website, menus and for close to $30,000. $10,000 of which was a barter tab so I could at least eat and drink in times of need.
I hired a friend of my girlfriend at the time. He and his wife were from Israel. They were planning to stay so I arranged the initial sponsorship paperwork through my company. They also wanted to move to Williamsburg because it was way cheaper than Manhattan.
The man I hired worked like an animal. He was very fast and determined to work non-stop from 10am-6pm sometimes without even stopping to eat. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have held it together nor have continued. The man had a fierce spirit and a fantastic work ethic. I was blessed.
After 4 months of wandering around the streets of Williamsburg at the opening months of 2001, stumbling upon The Pod, somehow mustering up a contract for a $30,000 semi-cash deal to begin printing magazines again. One third of the Pod contracts was a $10,000 bar and restaurant tab, now I was back in action. The effort worked. I had hope and an obvious sense of resilience.
Then the article came out in the NY Times the summer of 2001. This was just before 9-11.
Williamsburg Writer’s Dream Magazine
I would return to Milton Glaser’s office in 2004. It was the year I was offered $12,000,000 by a venture capital (VC) group to sell the magazine, all the other media properties I created, and roll out Hip, editor-free, series of ZIP CODE publications in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and more in New York City. I’d still be running the magazine and operating as the CEO/COO/CMO and publisher.
I’d show Mr. Glaser that my mentor Dick Raboy and the belief in a young and dire Williamsburg was now on a huge uprising and paying off big time. I was gleaming ear to ear.
His eyes were wide and when I returned with a stack of magazines and publications, a full-sized map, a few restaurant guides and a plan to expand into other cities who had areas that were on the rise to the tune of $20,000,000!
Much to my surprise, he congratulated me but was not enthused with the expansion. The reason was unbeknownst to me. He said: “You are planning to open many of these ZIP CODE publications in other cities? The Venture Capital group will fund this?”
“Yes. That’s it. There are a lot of ZIP CODEs in this country.”
He said: “This is not good.”
I asked, “Why?“I was shocked.
He skirted the question, lifted himself up from the conference table and said: “I wish you luck and be careful. I don’t think you should do it.”
I asked “Why?” as he was leaving, He stopped and turned.
“It’s just not good.”
“Okay,” I said.
Never Outshine the Master.
Meating of the minds.
2012: I asked Mr. Glaser to meet one more time. I showed him the 11211 Magazine again.
He said: “Ahhh. This is Williamsburg. What an amazing success story!”
I said smiling, “Yes, it is.”
“I remember seeing these magazines. When were they printed?”
“I did them from 2000-2006.”
“What do you mean you did them? You wrote for this publication?”
“No. It was my publication.”
Whoops. He looked up and gave me a sharp and piercing glance. It was not happy glance. He was a little mad or perhaps, just a little perturbed.
“How can I help you?” He asked, almost pointedly, expression changed.
“I’m looking at a creative director position at New York Magazine which I know you and Clay Felker created at this very table. I was inquiring if you would write a letter of recommendation for me.”
“I will not. I don’t know you or understand how you work. Anything else?”
His face and head are so big that when his expressions change, it changes the entire room. There’s no mistaking the animation. He rose from his seat and said,
“I’ll have someone show you out.”
I entered the building at exactly 9:59AM. I was back on the street at exactly 10:05AM.
Maybe I was there to acknowledge the fact that Brooklyn had changed forever due to the efforts of myself and the staff at 11211 Magazine. That was the third and last MEATING at his office. It was also the last time I’ll ever seek someone else’s approval for anything. Maybe not the very last but one of the last. 😀
I appreciated the great man. None of us know it all.
This includes the excerpt below where
… magazine takes at dig at 11211: NYmag.com
For New York’s founding editor, the city was like a giant novel waiting to be written, a pageant of ambition. And no one wrote it better than he did.
By Kurt Andersen, Published Jul 1, 2008
“The main reason that most city magazines suck, and have always sucked, is that their founders misapprehended Clay Felker’s biggest Big Idea. The brilliant germ of this magazine, when Felker launched it in 1968, wasn’t the duh geographical idea, covering a particular set of ZIP CODES stylishly and colorfully on glossy paper. Rather, New York’s central subject has always been our local pageant of ambition, the yearning and hustling and jostling for power and—even more—status. The magazine was conceived as a kind of gleeful, fervid, useful weekly chronicle of social and cultural anthropology, descriptive but also prescriptive (the grooviest merchandise and experience and art to ogle or buy).
Ha! I’ll toast to that.
No. Wait. Fuck.
”Grooviest merchandise and experience and art to ogle or buy.”
By golly, that sounds like 11211 Magazine! Dat boy is double dishin’ me and my stylish, colorful, ZIP CODE publication on glossy paper. No one, I know, has ever done ZIP CODE publications in this country. I do appreciate the hat tip. 🎩 I apparently have much more meating to do. 😀
Have a nice day.