New York, the mid-'70s: The city is rotting. In a cab, a man scribbles down four characters on a piece of paper — a word, a symbol, and the city’s initials: “I ♥ NY.” He never makes a dime off it.
The man is graphic designer Milton Glaser, and art’s not for him.
“I never could get the idea through my head that I could make a living making paintings that somebody would buy and put in their house,” he says in the opening minutes of To Inform and Delight. “It just seemed so weird to me, and so inappropriate for me.”
Beginning in the 1950s, when he spearheaded a rebellion against modernism’s sterility, Glaser has been a major player in just about every contemporary design movement. This co-founder of New York magazine also created Bob Dylan’s psychedelic posters, redesigned both Fortune 500 and The Nation, and came up with the logos for DC Comics and Brooklyn Brewery.
Directed by Wendy Keys, the former producer for the Film Society of the Lincoln Center, this documentary is an anecdotal look at the man and his work. It’s a slapdash affair with little story and low production value, but its subject has enough charm and intelligence to carry the work.
Glaser’s musings revolve around the art and craft of design. For the former he offers multiple definitions, from Horace’s (which provides the documentary with its name) to his own experience of art as “a series of misunderstandings.” As for the craft element, Glaser sees design as explicitly anti-stylistic. He is not faithful to any kind of belief, be it spiritual or aesthetic. It is this openness to change, the film suggests, that has kept his work vivacious from one generation to the next. But Glaser is no iconoclast. Indeed, a trip through ancient Italy as a young man instilled in him a love of human history in all its aesthetic variety and inspired him to reject the futurist Swiss style of the 50s.
The film concerns itself with Glaser the designer, not Glaser the man. There are glimpses of his life outside design: He scours the city for ethnic cuisine on the cheap; when he finds a home from his younger days demolished, he doesn’t bemoan the lost past, but laughs all the way down to his toes. His deep humanism, his passion for his work — these traits shine through. These traits make the movie.
But this film is a portrait free of wrinkles. We hear nothing of conflict, defeat, or frustration, all of which surely make up a successful career. Fundamentally frustrating is the film’s lack of a singular narrative throughout. Instead, we get clip after clip of Glaser in different places, musing. One could re-edit its scenes into almost any order. As Glaser wanders, so do our minds.
The low production values also hurt the film. Like many graphic artists, Glaser says he chose design over fine art because he wanted his work in the street, among the people. However, to ensure sound quality, Keys often has to film him in isolated settings — in his office, a museum, or alone on quiet streets. In those rare scenes where Glaser is among the general populace — as the film should thematically require — his words are obscured by a torrent of noise. (One imagines Lincoln Center could have loaned Keys a boom mic.) Keys often fails to show Glaser’s work in an effective way: His creations commonly appear in a slideshow style reminiscent of an Apple screensaver, as inoffensive jazz tinkles away in the background.
Perhaps because I let my imagination get the better of me, I came out of the film mostly satisfied. It is an unexpected, if imperfect treat, that neither bores nor enthralls. “Inform” and “delight” are modest terms that fail to capture the grandeur of art or the impact of Glaser’s work. They do, however, describe this film’s small achievements.