Despite the relatively meager offerings in the AIGA Design Archives of designer and art director Mike Salisbury, his resume is as varied as it gets; few others can list Michael Jackson, George Harrison, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flint, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jan Wenner among their clients.
Born in Utah, Salisbury grew up a typical Army brat, traveling with his family throughout California and then Hawaii. What’s not so typical? In the 5th grade his school recommended he go straight on the college. His parents declined. They next moved to the Marshall Islands, where his Naval officer stepfather was an observer at the Bikini and Eniwetok atomic bomb tests, and then on to Miami, back to Long Beach and eventually to Michigan, where he graduated from high school.
He attended the University of Southern California School of Architecture and Industrial Design and studied creative writing at San Diego State University. Soon he was working as both an illustrator and photographer, and then as the first art director of Surfer magazine. He was hired as art director for Playboy in Chicago and then became art director of the L.A. Times West magazine, while simultaneously taking pictures for Vogue, Bazaar, and Esquire and creating album covers like Ry Cooder’s Into The Purple Valley, all before he was 30.
At West he created iconic conceptual covers and with a stellar roster of illustrators, including those at Push Pin Studio, among others. In 1973 he was hired by publisher Jan Wenner to update Rolling Stone from a newspaper format into a magazine. According to designer and art director Roger Black, “The fact is that Mike Salisbury turned Rolling Stone into a world-class design effort, with great photographs and astounding illustrations.” Salisbury left the following year.
The late ’70s proved eventful. Salisbury worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the set design for Apocalypse Now; he designed Michael Jackson’s breakthrough album, Off The Wall, suggesting Jackson don a tuxedo with rolled-up pants based on Gene Kelly’s wardrobe in An American In Paris; collaborated with George Harrison on his eponymous album; and created the prescient New West cover—all in 1979.
In the early ’80s Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and editor Bruce David hired Salisbury to create ad parodies with writer Terry Abrahamson, which included a send up of a famous celebrity Campari ad featuring preacher Jerry Falwell in an outrageously dirty context involving his mother. Falwell sued. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court as a First Amendment issue in 1988, where Flynt won, at great personal expense. For the Hollywood version, see the 1996 film The People VS. Larry Flynt.
Salisbury has continued to work in advertising and Hollywood, marketing over 300 movies, including Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Aliens. He doesn’t slack off on the extracurriculars either. Salisbury traveled across the Amazon and Alaska on a dirt bike, covered the coast of Italy on a Ducati, and drove an AMG Mercedes on the Hockenheim race track in Germany. He’s taught design, advertising, photography, and illustration at Art Center, UCLA, and Otis Art Institute. Currently, he’s returned to his roots writing a television series about surfing.