• Inducted in 1978
  • Advertising
  • Born June 26, 1931

George Lois

Everything begins with the word, especially with George Lois, an art director by craft, an advertising man by profession. He has stretched the limits of his craft and challenged the ways of his profession by using pictures as words, words as pictures, and pictures with words as no creative personality before him. He has pushed the role of art director from artisan of design to the shaper of ideas. He is probably America’s most resourceful art director and surely its most prolific. If one can agree with Marshall McLuhan that “historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its entire range of activities,” the work of George Lois says volumes about America of the fifties, sixties and seventies.

His 1963 Esquire cover of Sonny Liston as Santa Claus (note the prehistoric year) has been called “one of the greatest social statements of the plastic arts since Picasso’s Guernica.”

His 1969 campaign for Braniff gave to the language, for better or worse, “When you got it, flaunt it!”

His passionate, volunteer 1975 battle for Rubin Hurricane Carter made Lois a lightning rod that drew down bolts of criticism from friends and colleagues and clients. Disarming, disturbing work that keeps piercing the curtain of communications overkill.

Is it advertising? Is it commercial art? It it commercial? Is it art?

It is certainly vintage Lois, the pointed message that riddles our defenses and roils the juices, an artful distillation of words plus an eloquent use of images. It is one of the clearest ways to make a point in a media-blitzed culture.

George Lois is the son of an immigrant Greek florist whose name was Haralampos. Vasilike was his mother’s name. His two older sisters are Hariclea and Paraskeve. He was born and raised as a true Greek Orthodox youth (including membership in The Sons of Pericles) in the Irish Kingsbridge section of the upper Bronx, between the shadows of the Broadway I.R.T. el and St. John’s Catholic Church.

Endowed with a Rabelaisian memory (“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter” is one of his maxims), Lois recalls his coming of age among the Irish as a ten-year donnybrook that left half the male Gael population of the north Bronx disfigured with broken noses and, to be sure, with a grudging respect for the Greek outlander. (“I count nine broken noses of my own,” he swears.)

He went on to Pratt Institute instead of the family store, but his formal education ended during his second year when one of his professors, Herschel Levit, who was quick to notice that the crooked-nosed street kid was too advanced in his talent for what Pratt could offer, sent him to see Reba Sochis, the owner of a stylish design studio. She examined Lois’ portfolio of schoolwork and promptly hired him. Lois thus dropped out of Pratt and went to work for the uncompromising Miss Sochis, where he learned the disciplines of his craft. His career was interrupted by the war in Korea, where he was wounded by shrapnel, preceded by frequent incarcerations in various Army stockades for incorrigible behavior, notably toward authority. Lois (according to Lois) was the ultimate impenitent rebel. When he returned from Asia he resumed his career and headed resolutely toward the center of commercial action. The florist’s kid knew what he wanted: a career as a trailblazing art director. Lois got what he wanted, and has indeed managed to alter the form and substance of his craft and profession.

Amid the cultured and the powerful of corporate America, he has clung doggedly to his Bronx brogue, his schoolyard diction and his largely self-nurtured image as something of a “crazy man,” while heading up the fourth successful advertising agency of his career, creating campaigns with an uncommon quotient of audacity for a variety of corporations.

If one were to choose a single word to characterize the Lois approach, it would be “simplify.” In a milieu where fools and frauds do run ideas up flagpoles to see if someone salutes, where clients are understandably conservative and admen are predictably cautious, where committees reign and lawyers restrain, the heathen from Kingsbridge has been infusing such alien qualities as clarity, intelligence and taste into American advertising.

While others have succeeded brilliantly in the advertising agency business (Bernbach, Ogilvy, Reeves, Burnett, Wells), the success of Lois has been the achievement of an art director. This seemingly fluke development came about through ego, personal force, demonic drive, indefatigability and an almost savage competitive passion. But beyond these qualities of personality, a fierce talent has governed his career and has inspired a remarkable body of work. The art of Lois, that audacious blending of image and word, that fury to communicate, is a logical happening in the history of advertising art. Gradually but surely during the post World War II years a counterculture began to find expression on Madison Avenue through a new creative generation, a rebellious coterie of art directors and copywriters who understood that visual and verbal expressiveness were indivisible, who bridled under the old rules that consigned them to secondary roles in the admaking process under the dominion of noncreative technocrats.

A new species of advertising art was becoming discernible. It was strikingly graphic and visually “alive.” It was entirely different from what had gone before. A creative upheaval was gathering force. This new expressiveness was structured as a work method in 1948 when William Bernbach founded Doyle Dane Bernbach. In his new agency, an art director and a copywriter worked as a creative pair. The idea of using artist-writer teams as the prime source of advertising was positively revolutionary. From this union the New Advertising was born. Madison Avenue would never be the same.

The creative rock on which Bill Bernbach built his new agency was the art director Bob Gage. Indeed, many of the ad industry’s most gifted art directors, such as Helmut Krone and William Taubin, also homed in at DDB, where Bernbach had precipitated what advertising people now generally accept as the Creative Revolution.

This dramatic breakaway was furthered through the 1960s by more than a few artists and writers who started new ad agencies, and demonstrated by their success that the art of advertising was substantially more than making layouts or crafting exquisite designs. Power had come to the people who made the ads. It was a yeasty time to be an art director with a rage to communicate, to blaze trails.

In January 1954, Private George H. Lois, U.S. Army, US51161237, newly returned from Korea, threw a punch (according to Lois) at a fat Cracker sergeant in Camp Brunswick, New Jersey. A few days later the Army returned Lois to civilian life with an honorable discharge. (I have seen the document.)

He went to work as an art director for Bill Golden at CBS, a designer’s paradise with an atmosphere of the atelier that he left after a few years to make his mark in the roughhouse world of advertising. In 1957 he was hired by Lennen & Newell, a gigantic, conventional ad agency. His career there was brief and explosive. After several months of fruitless hard work, Lois evidently took furious exception to the way his work was being manhandled by the account group on American Airlines. In a by now legendary Madison Avenue episode, he overturned a potentate’s desk (there are live witnesses) in a paroxysm of outrage against the Philistines of Lennen & Newell.

By the ripe age of twenty-six, Lois was evolving into a composite persona of Zorba the Greek, Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson of “The Horse’s Mouth” and Elliott Baker’s possessed poet Samson Shillitoe of “A Fine Madness.”

He went to work for Sudler & Hennessey under the gentle and supremely talented Herb Lubalin, where he settled down, but not for long. For the ambitious Greek, pharmaceutical advertising reached too parochial an audience. Lois wanted action on the consumer front.

After a year he was hired by Bob Gage at Doyle Dane Bernbach. During his one year in Bill Bernbach’s creative paradise, he won three gold medals in the annual competition of the New York Art Directors Club for his work on Volkswagen, Chemstrand, and for Goodman’s Matzos, a campaign he sold by threatening to jump from a third story window, climaxed by his heraldic cry, “You make the matzoh, I’ll make the ads!”

In 1960, at age twenty-eight, he left Bernbach’s agency to become co-founder of Papert, Koenig, Lois. Although DDB had been on the scene for a dozen years by then, and had become the ad agency for Polaroid, Volkswagen, Chemstrand and other auspicious advertisers, this first creative agency was perceived by the Madison Avenue establishment as a freak, if not the freak, in the business. When Lois left DDB to start PKL, he was bucking a stone wall of skepticism. Madison Avenue’s conventional wisdom in 1960 allowed for only one “creative” ad agency in America.

Starting from zero, PKL grew to a forty million dollar agency in seven years. Consistent with his unorthodoxy, Lois became the first modern art director to launch a “big business.” And in 1962, PKL became the first modern ad agency to go public. (Old established agencies later followed this brash creative shop’s excursion into capitalism.) The Lois breakaway demonstrated to creative men and women in the ad world that it was possible to lay one’s talents on the line and become a commercial success. Other creative agencies quickly proliferated, following PKL’s example, and many flowered.

In 1963, Lois was named Art Director of the Year by the New York Art Directors Club. The previous recipient, his former boss Herb Lubalin, observed at that time, “Nobody has the right to be so young and so successful.”

In 1967 the restive Lois left PKL with copywriter Ron Holland and marketing man Jim Callaway to start all over again. PKL had grown too fat and comfortable for his tastes. Something, he felt, probably their having become a public corporation, had altered the soul of his wonderfully successful agency. “I’m thirty-five and too young to die,” was his parting shot.

His new ad agency, Lois Holland Callaway, was soon repeating the rapid success of PKL. In 1969 Ad Age named Lois as one of 1968′s top ten newsmakers. (He was the only art director among the ten, which included one Robert Haldeman of J. Walter Thompson, who was recognized by Advertising Age because he “helped put Nixon in the White House.”) In 1971, he was elected president of the New York Art Directors Club. In 1972, Lois completed his tenth year as the art director who created those brash and prophetic covers for Esquire.

In 1977 he stunned Madison Avenue—again. Lois quit LHC to become president of an industrial/corporate agency called Creamer FSR, Inc. During a whirlwind 15 months, Lois pushed the agency into prominence by attracting more than $30 million in billings. This once obscure agency changed its name to Creamer Lois and became known as one of the hottest creative shops on the advertising scene. A profound dispute about style, however, led to Lois’s departure. (Lois, to be sure, was pro style.) Undaunted, the prolific maverick promptly started a fourth agency to bear his name, Lois Pitts Gershon. Just 60 days after its formation it had grown to $12 million. “I’ll keep doing it until I get it right,” observed the incorrigible art director, apparently getting it right.

Now at 47, Lois can look back on a body of work that surges forward from the post World War II years of design innocence to somewhere beyond McLuhan’s perceptions, when the message, not the medium, is again the message. Lois has evolved an audacious art, a kind of language: that fusion of image and word, that emphasis on idea and concept, that obsession with results, that will to move from ad to action, that respect for any medium if the message has muscle, that determination to make things happen and get things done. If the creative revolution took advertising beyond design, Lois has shoved communication beyond advertising.

He cleaned up the printed advertisement and toughened its message. His very early ads of a generation ago are forthright in meaning, deceptively simple in design, liberated from decorative litter. But even then, they were the stunning inventions of an artist with an irrepressible instinct to disarm. When television became the prime medium, Lois preserved his print style against the cinematography that was carried over from movies. Backgrounds were eliminated. Scenes were shot as clean and clear as Little Orphan Annie cartoons (or a Fang mask). The camera held on faces and silhouettes. “Slightly moving stills” is the phrase he uses to describe his TV commercials.

He has used celebrities a great deal because they bring to mind immediate associations. He has featured enough athletes in his spots to fill a small stadium, because they are embodied myths. Headlines must sound like speech, like the words and cadences people actually use, not like copy. Copy has to read like images, not abstractions.

He sheared away all the trivia, all the trash, and he got down to essentials. But above everything else, from his work for Reba Sochis to his latest campaign, coming up with the unexpected always mattered most.

This influential adman/art director is the product of many influences. From the purity and mystery of African sculpture, a lifelong Lois love, through the comics, and right up to twentieth century painting and sculpture, the advertising art of Lois draws many of its techniques.

“Parlor primitive” he was dubbed by New York magazine for his remarkable collection that literally dominates his Greenwich Village apartment. Lois lives with his wife Rosemary, his sons Harry and Luke (20 and 16), his cat Zeus, a Greek vase, Cycladic figures, Eskimo masks, Maori sculpture, an Easter Island skeleton figure, a Northwest Coast rattle, Fang heads, bannerstones, Asmat shields, fertility dolls, stone pipes, ivory fetishes, flaring headdresses, cult objects, reliquary heads, ceremonial staffs and assorted primitive statuary, including a four foot Uli (a rarity of Oceanic art from the Pacific island of New Ireland, a wooden male god with pagan Halloween eyes, large breasts and an erect penis, painted and pigmented over generations to a magical luster).

Unexpected, mystical, profoundly simple, geometrically enthralling—these common chords of primitive art that hypnotized Picasso and led to Cubism—these same sources of wonder surround an ad agency art director named George Lois as he watches King Kong on TV in his Manhattan apartment. Warren Robbins, director of Washington’s Museum of African Art, expressed his “extraordinary thanks” to Lois for his “sensitive and knowing organization” of the 243-page collection book on the 1971 deHavenon exhibition, while Gaston deHavenon described Lois as a person “who knew and loved the collection so well that he was able to work its unique aesthetic transformation.”

In 1968 he designed a catalogue and installation at D’Arcy Gallery for rare Karawari sculptures. The catalogue is now a collector’s item. His installation set a new standard for sculpture exhibitions.

As a high school student, Lois was mesmerized by the American painter Stuart Davis. Davis dramatically simplified forms and reduced them to a system of flat planes and geometric shapes. Davis was also permanently gripped by the dynamism of New York City. He was a precursor of the modern art director, endowed with peripheral vision that could visually collect subway signs and tabloid headlines and passing trucks and so many of the nuances of daily life. He painted while playing the radio and reading newspapers. Davis was a multi-media personality at the sunrise of that era.

Brancusi, the Rumanian peasant mystic, was another Lois favorite since his high school years. There is a sturdy coherence to this attraction. “Bird in Flight,” “Sleeping Muse,” “The Kiss,” “Prayer,” “The Seal,” “The Fish” are all the boldest possible simplifications of form, while producing an overwhelming, entirely unexpected emotional response.

And years before Georges de La Tour became suddenly known in 1974 (after one of his handful of paintings, “Magdalen in the Mirror,” was bought by the National Gallery of Art for eight million dollars), Lois was urging me to study his work. One day he brought in a French volume of de La Tour’s paintings. They were stark scenes without backgrounds, forms of intense simplicity, lights and darks in concentrated juxtaposition. From Uccello to Corbusier, from Della Francesca to Man Ray, from Bellini to Bauhaus, from Oceanic art to Arthur Dove, Lois soaked in the details and saw the essence of their work. Look at any layout or storyboard by Lois and you’ll find a game board to his eclectic obsessions. The face of a Lois woman is strikingly similar to Ella Cinders, that oval eyed innocent of the comics. Or are her arcs of hair closer to a BaKota reliquary figure from Gabon? The male figure in his concept layouts is a ringer for Dick Tracy. Or is it the flat-chinned face of a Cycladic idol? His drawings of people, male and female, are two-dimensional renderings of Elie Nadelman’s painted cherry wood carvings. Or are they more like the Greek vase paintings of a sixth century B.C. amphora? Invariably, his work reaches out for an unexpected effect, that common denominator of primitive art.

To a much larger extent than meets the eye, the works of George Lois derive from an unconscious connection with primitive myth and art. His unashamedly commercial career has produced a body of work that recaptures and recycles the common experience of video-age Americans. This unexpected transformation of cultural matter clarifies our out-of-focus times—in advertising! These works of a modern art director may one day be seen as the work of an artist.

-From the widely praised introduction by Bill Pitts to the widely praised The Art of Advertising by George Lois. Pitts and Lois have worked together in three agencies that have borne Lois’s name, including the maverick art director’s newest agency, Lois Pitts Gershon.

Please note: Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 1978.