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Esquire Covers by George Lois

| December 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

In the 1960’s Esquire magazine produced some of the most memorable covers that are inspiring designers all around the world even today. This is not such a surprise since they were designed by one of the legends of graphic design, George Lois. 

He designed 92 covers in total in the period from 1962 to 1972, although I have to start this story with Henry Wolf, great art director who set the grounds for Lois with his work in the Esquire during the 50’s. Wolf’s design sets the standards of sophistication for which Esquire is now known.

One of the best covers that Wolf produced and for my taste one of the best covers ever, is the Esquire’s “Americanization of Paris” cover. In my opinion this cover has it all. The style, the humor, the message. So simple but so powerful. It is a ABC’s of great design in my opinion.


henry wolf esquire cover

“Americanization of Paris”, Esquire cover done by Henry Wolf


In 1958 Wolf left for Harper’s Bazaar to replace Alexey Brodovitch and this brings us to the beginning of the 60’s. The decade of war, assassination, and racial fear. But for an Esquire and its editor Harold T. P. Hayes this was a fertile ground for a revolutionary barrage of literary and visual firepower to America’s newsstands.

It was a December of 1963 and Esquire’s metamorphosis was complete. This was the first month and the first issue to carry Hayes’s new title, editor, although he has run the magazine since mid-1961 under the title of managing editor. But what is more important it was the first issue to display the full range of literary and visual firepower that would make Esquire the great American magazine of the 1960s, if not the greatest American magazine of the 20th century


Esquire George Lois Sonny Liston cover

Sonny Liston


By late June 1963, race was the hottest topic in America. But Esquire’s magazine team was preoccupied with Christmas. At this time a single issue of a full-color monthly magazine took a minimum of three to four months to produce and typewriters, carbon paper, color transparencies, and hot type were the primary tools of the publishing designers.

So if they wanted to publish the December issue on time, the Esquire team needed to close the issue in the middle of August.

Esquire was the Hearst top grossing magazine, earning twice as many ads as other magazines, and Hayes knew that it was expected from him to invoke the comforting spirit of Christmas on that year-end cover and put the magazine’s readers in a receptive mood for the onslaught of liquor, fashion, and cologne ads that awaited them inside.

As mentioned George Lois was responsible for Esquire’s covers of the 60’s but Lois did not work at Esquire, or even in publishing. He was an advertising designer and ran one of the best advertising agencies in the business—Papert, Koenig, Lois, which he’d formed in 1960. Hayes had struck gold with Lois, because he wanted a designer that can produce shocking and powerful covers. Covers that would stir up the public opinion and boost sales.

This brings us to 1963, the year that started Esquire’s magazine publishing revolution. And it all started with one unexpected cover. Lois had an idea that required him and his photographer, Carl Fischer to grab a plane to Las Vegas, where they would turn a hotel room at into a makeshift studio. Their cover model would be world heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. The idea was to take a picture of boxing champion with a Santa hat and suit.

Sonny Liston wasn’t just the heavyweight champ. Frightening in and out of the ring, Liston was an ex-con who had done time for armed robbery and assaulting a police officer along with his ties to organized crime.

After some persuading the creative duo had the image they wanted. Beneath the Santa hat, Liston’s dead eyes stared at the reader. His festive apparel seemed only to accentuate his hostility.

No need to mention that the management of the Esquire was shocked. Putting a black Santa on Esquire cover was something no one wanted to see but no one tried to stop Lois and Hayes in their intention.

Except for the magazine’s logo and dateline, the cover ran without any type. Not even the caption about the boxer. None was needed.

Published in a national climate thick with racial fear, it stirred some emotions. The letters from angry readers began to roll in, and advertisers proceeded to pull out. Magazine lost $750,000 due to the “Black Santa” cover.


Esquire George Lois Kennedy cover

Kennedy cover

Just a few days after the December issue of Esquire reached newsstands, on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. For the first time Esquire’s three-month production time seemed too short. The January issue was already at the printers.  This meant the magazine would not be able to weigh in on Kennedy’s death until 1964.

Hayes watched news reports of Kennedy’s death and its aftermath, and decided to go in another direction.  He asked Tom Wicker, New York Times correspondent, to write about Kennedy in unsentimental way.Wicker produced a memorable assessment of Kennedy’s political life for the June 1964 issue.

“Kennedy Without Tears” served as both headline and cover line for the story, and George Lois provided another one of his great works. The cover was a full-page sepia-toned photograph of Kennedy staring straight out at the reader. At the bottom of the page there was a man’s hand holding a white handkerchief, depicted in full color, dabbed at a spot beneath the president’s left eye. Above the handkerchief, spilled tears beaded up on the photograph. Another cover that stirred some emotions in grieving public.

We jump to 1966, a very good year for Esquire. The British Sunday Times of London named Esquire one of “the world’s great magazines,” circulation topped one million, and advertising revenue jumped 25 percent to $10.5 million.

It was October 1966. The Vietnam war was in full effect and we all know what the American public thought about it. One of many war atrocities became probably the most famous and powerful cover pages of all times.


Esquire George Lois Oh My God We Hit a Little Girl cover

Oh My God We Hit a Little Girl


The cover and the main feature talks about the soldiers of M Company. Among all of that insanity of real, live war, one soldier threw a grenade into a hut that killed a seven-year-old Vietnamese girl.

From the cold horror of this scene came Esquire’s starkest cover. On  a black background, white letters forming the words of the soldier who discovered the child’s body: “Oh my God—we hit a little girl.”

It was a knockout combination of art direction and literary journalism that brought the horror and the humanity of a distant war home.


Esquire George Lois The Masculinization of the American Woman cover

The Masculinization of the American Woman


Among war and race issues, 60’s were the years of woman’s liberation. From sexual revolution to rise of feminism. Two covers stand out from that period.  Cover from 1965, “The Masculinization of the American Woman” and in 1967, Bond girl Ursula Andress appeared on July’s cover with a Band-Aid slapped over her brow. It was a special issue on violence, an increasing and troubling feature of American life.


Esquire Geroge Lois Ursulla Anders cover

Ursulla Anders


1968 was another big year for Esquire. Lois produced not one, but three classic covers that year. The April cover depicted Muhammad Ali, photographed by Carl Fischer, as the arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian, martyred for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.


Esquire George Lois Muhammad Ali cover

The Passion of Muhammad Ali


In May, Lois had taken a stock picture of Nixon asleep on Air Force One during his vice-presidential years and merged it with a custom photo of a cluster of hands wielding makeup tools, including a tube of lipstick. “Nixon’s Last Chance. (This time he’d better look right!)” read the cover line.


Esquire George Lois Nixon's Last Chance cover

Nixon’s Last Chance


On April 4, while the Ali cover was still on the stands, Martin Luther King Jr. was truly martyred in Memphis. And in the early morning of June 5, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.


Esquire George Lois Arlington cover

Arlington cemetery cover


It was October 1968 issue, Esquire’s 35th anniversary. The magazine displayed a cover depicting John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. standing together at Arlington National Cemetery. The casualties of a decade condensed into one solemn image without Esquire’s trademark irreverence.

1968 was also a start of an end. Newsstand sales were down by 20,000 from 1967. The economy has fallen down and Esquire had to shrink the publication’s size to cut the costs. In 1971 last oversized issue was published with cover page depicting sepia-toned photo of a Mafia kingpin Joe Bonanno. Also the competition like Harper’s, New York and newly published Rolling Stone were using the New Journalism techniques, promoted by Esquire, to attract more readers and nothing was ever the same.


Esquire George Lois Joe Bonanno cover

Joe Bonanno


Many of the covers made by George Lois were controversial and provocative but what is even more remarkable is that the covers were almost textless. In those times all other magazines were filled with cover lines and George Lois did just the opposite. The effect was achieved with a great idea, great photography and very few striking words.

Esquire and many other influential magazines of that time never regained the influence hay had in the 60’s. The social climate of the decade was helpful, but the spirit and enthusiasm of the people involved was even more influential and this is why we will remember the Esquire of the 60’s as one of the most influential magazines of all times.


You can check out the complete list of covers at  George Lois website.

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