In the AIGA Design Archives, the Esquire collection represents just the tip of the iceberg, considering the magazine’s rich history. But there’s a reason the men’s monthly is still hugely successful over eight decades on. From the art directors of yore to the wonderfully talented new man at the helm, we flip through 80 years of the publication’s pages to find out what they’ve managed to do oh-so-right for oh-so-long.
Born at the height of the depression in 1933 and published by Hearst, this “men’s magazine” did indeed invent the pin-up girl, featuring bathing beauties alongside lifestyle features. The debut issue contains articles by Ernest Hemingway, Gilbert Seldes, and Ring Lardner, Jr., as well as fiction by John Dos Passos, Dashiell Hammett, and, oddly enough, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Its mascot “Esky” is a doppelgänger for Mr. Monopoly, a.k.a. Rich Uncle Pennybags, who made his appearance three years later, and perhaps originally represented something to strive for in those dark days.
The magazine retained its original editorial approach and design throughout the war years. In the early 1950s, Austrian designer and AIGA Medalist Henry Wolf (born in 1925) was hired in the promotion department. The publisher was so impressed with his work that he ordered the art director to work with him. When the art director quit in 1952, Wolf was promoted. A photographer as well as a designer, he utilized his own photography and design work for the magazine. Then, in 1958 he left to replace Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar.
In an unusual move, the publishers hired ad man AIGA Medalist George Lois to design the covers, while future film director Robert Benton (writer of Bonnie and Clyde, Superman, and writer and director of Kramer vs. Kramer, to name a few) handled the interiors. Lois, alongside photographer Carl Fischer, created some of the most provocative and well-known images of the 1960s.
The magazine has had many notable art directors over the years, many of whose work appears in the AIGA Design Archives, like AIGA Medalist Samuel N. Antupit who took the reigns from 1964-69 and again from 1977-78; Robert Priest from 1980-83; Rip Georges in the late ’80s; and Rhonda Rubinstein in the early ’90s.
In 1977, editor Clay Felker and design director Milton Glaser took over and re-envisioned Esquire as a fortnightly, with less emphasis on “men’s.” The experiment lasted only one year. Felker sold the magazine in 1979 and it was re-established as a monthly. In 1986 it was resold to Hearst.
In current day, Nick Millington has been with Esquire UK for the past five years and recently assumed the helm as creative director. I asked him a few questions about his new role.
How do you view its rich history?
With caution. It’s overwhelming… going down that rabbit hole. There are so many moments of genius to mention and they make my own efforts seem somewhat insignificant. It’s an honor to work on a magazine with history of strong, striking, and thought-provoking imagery, and it’s important to try and maintain those standards, but I spend most my time focusing on what’s next, as I’m sure they did. It’s undeniably a different beast these days, especially when you compare covers, but those experimental, conceptual, and challenging stories are all still present and correct.
What plans do you have for Esquire going forward?
Possibly a heavier bias towards style. We’re currently putting together issue one of Esquire’s Big Watch Book. It’s the first one we’ve produced in the UK, so we’re excited to see the response to that. If it’s positive, it could become regular, or may even spawn a series of specials. Esquire’s Big Sock Book anyone?