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Comments (10) Posted 09.23.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Steven Heller

Go West, Young Art Director


Cover of West, May 1971, art direction by Mike Salisbury

When veteran magazine art directors get together to drink mojitos and reminisce about the glory years before advertising pages broke up editorial wells and when covers were based on ideas not personalities, one title always gets mentioned: West. This storied weekly supplement of the Los Angeles Times, art directed by Mike Salisbury, was a masterwork of design erudition, appreciated by those who could care less about design. It was typographically innovative in a pre-post-modern eclectic mélange of styles and forms, but that was the least of its attributes. Salisbury injected West with such an abundance of pop culture visual richness that it was more like a miniature museum than weekly gazette. In the tradition of Esquire, Playboy, Portfolio, and New York, West was challenging and stimulating, the likes of which are rare in magazines today.

West covered a wide range of themes — mostly reflecting Salisbury’s insatiable curiosities — from a feature on basketball that illustrated the tremendous size of center forwards by showing a life-size photograph of Wilt Chamberlin’s Converse sneaker, to a pictorial history of movie star pinups with a bevy of gorgeous silhouettes fanning on the page, to an array of souped-up VW Beetles in all shapes and sizes. But it wasn’t just his mind tickling content, Salisbury’s eye-catching layouts were three-dimensional, and like a pop-up book the visual matter jumped up at the reader.

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Living in New York City, West was for me an imported delicacy, rare and savory. A few copies at a time came by mail, usually weeks after they first appeared. But timeliness didn’t matter much. Printed on velvety newsprint West’s saturated full color images had a glowing patina. The illustrations and photographs were the crème-de-la-crème of conceptual art, and consistently so. How many magazine covers and spreads are still recallable after thirty plus years? It is easy to remember one or two, but in West’s case, I really can conjure most of them: The “Goodbye, Ed Sullivan” (June 13, 1971) cover with a tear coming from the CBS eye; “Don’t Swat! We’re Your Friends” (August 29, 1971) cover with the actual size flies against a plain background; and the cover with the bleached out extreme close-up of Charlie Chaplin with only eyes, nose, mouth and mustache staring off the page. Salisbury was also fond of parodying existing magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post, Life magazine, and National Geographic. Yet one of his cleverest covers was a photo of Von Dutch painting the West nameplate on a motorcycle gas tank.

Salisbury developed a what’s what of great illustrative covers done by a who’s who, including Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman, Charles E. White, John Van Hamersveld, Dave Willardson, Bob Zoell and Richard Weigand. Salisbury also did his own illustrations and took photographs too. His style was decidedly Southern not Northern California. “San Francisco — the city in the North — is foggy, Irish/Italian Catholic and 'quasi-Victorian,'" explains Salisbury. “We know New York. New York is Rococo or Baroque. LA is streamline. To understand the differences between LA and New York contemporary illustration take a look at East Coast custom motorcycle building — Orange County Choppers. They make bikes that purposely look like fire engines and the Statue of Liberty. Rococo or Baroque? I love what they do, but either classification you wanna give it, it is the Gypsy-wagon school of design. LA customizing is a belief in Futurism — a Jesse James West Coast Chopper is streamline and cubist. The airbrush artists who go there were Bob Zoell and Peter Lloyd. The others were nostalgically mannerist except for Charlie White whose complex compositions mixing scale and perspective defy categorization.”

West was one-year-old when editor Jim Bellows, who created the original New York magazine in the early 1960s for the New York Herald Tribune (and later developed Entertainment Tonight) was at the Los Angeles Times, and on the advice of Joel Siegel (later of ABC), asked Salisbury, who worked for Carson Roberts Advertising in LA (where Ed Ruscha and Terry Gilliam worked) to accept the job as art director. Bellows assignment was to make West the vehicle for things California. West was originally like Parade. But this was the era when Otis Chandler remade the LA Times from a strictly San Marino Republican party newspaper into a world class publication. When Salisbury took over art direction it was “all over the place, left hand, single-page openers for editorial next to right hand page cheesy ads,” he recalls. “I learned pacing and sophisticated typography at Playboy in my year there. And I learned the value of the editorial material — like Jann Wenner [Salisbury was also art director for Rolling Stone] selling declassé rock n’ roll with classy writing. Hefner sold sex-and-lifestyle with solid writing, design and production.”

Salisbury was hands-on, but practiced what he calls laissez faire and “the contributors were picked to give me their better thinking.” He was also influenced by “the Bauhaus, Brodovitch, Nova magazine (David Hamilton art direction), George Lois (for ideas) and Jean Paul Goude (for high concept), The London Sunday Times Magazine for inventing graphic information, Willy Fleckhaus of Twen (the best pacer ever), Lloyd Ziff, Dave Bhang (Lloyd is a real designer, Dave introduced me to post war art), Bob Grossman, Jim Bellows, Albert Einstein and Issac Newton (a relative).”

Contemporary subjects were the mainstay but Salisbury’s special documentary themes, including the history of Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola art (the first time it was published as “art”), the visual history of Levis, Hollywood garden apartments, Raymond Chandler locations, and Kustom Kars. “A lot of these were my concepts and production. But design was not my sole objective: cinema-graphic information is a better definition,” he notes. Of all the issues only the "Smack" cover, a skull with bright red lips, was controversial. “The same reaction people had to the [Barry Blitt] New Yorker cover about Obama, I got for the 'Smack' cover, as in ‘don't give me too much reality over Sunday breakfast.’”

After five years, in 1972, Otis Chandler killed West because it was unable to “generate enough advertising revenue to meet production costs,” reported Dugald Stermer in Communication Arts. Some magazines are better off dead, but West was a loss. “We died as readers, and we didn’t even know we were sick,” added Stermer, who proposed a means of resuscitating the corpse. “I have a belated suggestion for [Chandler]. . . That before they ax their baby (our baby), they mail their subscribers some variations of the following:

Dear Reader,
We’re in trouble. West hasn’t been attracting enough advertisers to make up the difference between production costs and what you pay to receive it. Since the magazine is really a partnership between you and the editors, we are asking you if you are willing to make up the difference yourselves. Our accountant has told us that if half of our 1,212,556 readers paid an addition of 2.5 cents on their weekly subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times, that 2.5 cents could be used solely for the production of West itself and we could keep the thing going.”

Of course, this never occurred (although it was not a bad idea), and the magazine became a part of history. Salisbury moved to San Francisco to be art director of Rolling Stone, briefly injecting it with that West-ian panache, which is sadly missing from most magazines today.
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Comments (10)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Interesting.

The only thing I ever knew about Mr Salisbury was his clever Joe Camel, laden with penis innuendo.
felix sockwell
10.01.08 at 06:00

Mike Salibury is one of the most talented and innovative designer of our era. It is shameful that this great designer has not received a Lifetime Achievement Award from a local or national design organization.
Archie Boston
Archie Boston
10.02.08 at 12:21

some nice work. seems to have fallen through the cracks in design history because it seems to be of its time and quite derivative of other better stuff, rather than work that defined the times (glazier, Artur Paul, flekhaus et al in his earlier mag work, then he goes all David Carson later on, with a bit of Fabian Baron franklin gothic/Interview)

two small points of note, david hamilton was a photographer on Nova, do you mean David HILLMAN's art direction? (I'm not a great student of Nova, so could be wrong).
and in the link to the Salisbury interview and the closing paragraph abnove; discussing in dismissive tones Rolling stone (FROM THE LINK: " A magazine that never had a strong visual presence"). im sorry are we talking about the same rolling stone designed by Roger Black? one of the defining bits of magazine art direction ever? noone can argue with that surely? this isnt close to that.


richard
10.02.08 at 05:23

I agree, super talented. Very cool.
Tim
10.02.08 at 12:23

Mike is simply the BEST Creative Director that ever graced our Shores! He is a brilliant Synthesis of East meets West, or vice versa.
I worked with Mike as his Sidekick (mainly Illustrator guy) and fought with him over concepts through a long, tenuous, but always rewarding Career for 25+ years. He is a True Icon who defined "California" Style as aptly as Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Frank Gehry, Rick Griffin, Raymond Chandler, or Hugh Hefner. The Man is a Genius!
They should create a new Award for Art Directors in his Honor...
The "MIKE"!
'nuff said!
Aloha!
Terry Lamb
terrylambart.com
terrylambart@aol.com
Terry Lamb
10.04.08 at 03:21

Oh my, yes, Mike was great. I ws the writer on the Coca-Cola "art" piece as well as the first 'programmatic' architecture article to see print. Raymond Chandler's L.A. was my idea, and my text (much later Robert Towne said that he was inspired to learn about L.A. history from that piece, but that the writing was crappy: hey, if we put Towne on the road to 'Chinatown' then his inability to connect with my words is, sigh, okay).

One business note: when West started, a NY company that repped magazines sold its ad space, and sold a lot of them. The then all-powerful Times ad department didn't want to give away that commission, so they took over the ad sales for West. But they didn't know how to sell magazine space, and West got thinner and thinner. Also, it's editorial was moderately controversial (especially to conservative readers in Pasadena and San Marino), which in combination of limited ads, was a deadly combination.
Larry Dietz
10.08.08 at 06:36

I worked for West Magazine when it started in 1966 (not 1969). The editor was Marshall Lumsden who was an old hand from Life Magazine (not James Bellows). Mike Salisbury was of a piece with Jim Bellows. Both of them are over-rated. They stripped the lifeblood from magazine journalism and turned everything into an ironic joke surrounded by juvenile bluster and posturing. Its no wonder that West was spiked, as well as everything else that Bellows touched.
D. Gorton
10.09.08 at 11:27

A great post for a deserving figure. Mike has written a wonderful introduction to a new book published by own PictureBox called
Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of California Airbrush Art about the four reigning champs of L.A. airbrush art of the time, all of whom worked with Mike in one way or another. The book will be out in November and provides a great, glossy look at now-forgotten piece of design/illustration history.
Dan Nadel
10.10.08 at 05:41

Nice piece on the original Los Angeles Times West and Mike Salisbury. I was one of Mike’s production staff (This way before Macs, remember paste up, rubber cement, Exacto Knifes, Lucey Tracing Machines and Stat Cameras?) It was my first of many careers in print publications and working with Mike on West was crazy and fun. I got to meet and work with some of the most talented artists, illustrators and photographers at that time. West’s weekly deadlines were brutal and I’m still amazed at the conceptual and design quality that were produced under those conditions (This was not the Indesign, Quark and PhotoShop era.) We know that Mike became one of the best creative directors around, but his beginnings with West was very cool and innovated and that work still holds up to this day. Although his “Smack” and “Goodbye Ed Sullivan” covers were brilliant, I think his theme-issue cover for fishing, was of a fish, wrapped and tied in a previous issue of West, showing the logo only, was truly original. It was a simple but hilarious concept and beautifully photographed. I’m glad that West Magazine is still remembered in this declining generation of the print media.
Rod Kamitsuka
10.13.08 at 06:56

Mike Salisbury must receive at least half of the creative credit for those wonderful issues of West magazine. He is an absolute icon, a genius, and showed us the way to modern magazine design. I still have my copies from the late sixties. Mike's work had a direct influence on me and gave me an artistic direction as a young designer. I eventually became AD for Rage magazine for Larry Flynt, at his recommedation, some 30 years later. Also, I became CD for Sports Afield when Robert Petersen purchased SA from Hearst. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much he effected my work.
Mike Vannatter
03.04.09 at 07:18


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Heller is the co-chair (with Lita Talarico) of the School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program and the SVA Masters Workshop in Rome. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review, a weekly column for The Atlantic online and The Daily Heller.

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