It might not have made headlines, but the design world was abuzz last month with the passing of Michael C. Gross. Design luminaries such as Roger Black, Mike Salisbury, and primo animator J.J. Sedelmaierweighed in, and dozens of sites, from the New York Times to The Hollywood Reporter ran an obituary. The portrait that emerged was of someone who was not only extremely creative but respected and well-liked. I have to admit that while I was vaguely aware of his name, until his death I was unaware of the depth and scope of Gross’ oeuvre.
No doubt he’s best remembered for the Ghostbusters logo, an icon almost as recognizable (but perhaps not as ubiquitous) as Milton Glaser’s “I Heart NY,” his worked ranged from design and illustration to film production, and, of special note, art direction for the groundbreaking National Lampoon magazine from 1970-1974.
Gross was born in Seattle in 1945 and grew up in Newburgh, NY, where he began his career as an illustrator at age 16 when his work was published in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. He attended Pratt Institute, but left before graduating to take an entry-level design job at Cosmopolitan. In 1968 he joined fellow Pratt student Robert Pellegrini in Mexico City to design posters for a cultural program attached to the Summer Olympics.
His earliest work in the AIGA Design Archives is a 1970 cover illustration for a brochure called “Clues to the More Seriously Disturbed,” for the William Douglas McAdams Advertising agency. That same year Gross became the art director for Lampoon, with his work appearing in the eighth issue. In 1973 he created the infamous “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” cover for the “Death” issue. The AIGA Design Archives also holds a Lampoon poster based on his American Flag cover comprised of nude models.
He left National Lampoon in 1974 to form the design studio Pellegrini, Kaestle, & Gross, Inc. with fellow Pratt alumnus Pellegrini and David Kaestle. Among his personal clients were John Lennon and Jim Henson’s Muppets. For brief stints he was the art director for Esquire and design director for Mobil Oil. Then in 1980 he left for Hollywood, where he became a producer on 11 films, including the animated Heavy Metal (based on the magazine from the same publisher as Lampoon) as well as Legal Eagles, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Beethoven, Ghostbusters, and five television shows. As a graphic designer in 1981, he also added the irreverent touch he practiced so well at Lampoon to the satirical comedy show SCTV Network starring John Candy, Eugene Levy, Martin Short , Catherine O’Hara, et al.
In 1995 he moved to Italy to paint and explore photography. Later he returned to California, where he was a curator at the Oceanside Art Museum. He also lectured and taught. In 2005 his “Dog” cover was named one of the top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.