On Thursday night, I was part of a panel discussing the life of Alex Liberman, who was Vogue‘s art director for twenty plus years and then the editorial director of Condé Nast for another thirty-two years. I met Lucy Sisman 30 years ago when I worked with her designing the first issues of Paper magazine and she was later my boss as Allure‘s Creative Director. She has written a terrific book Alexander Liberman; Way of Thinking About Design, that I contributed to. Joan Juliet Buck is a renowned writer, who is the only American ever to edit French Vogue (’94-01.) She is also an actress who famously (and fabulously) played the bitchy french cooking school marm opposite Meryl Streep in Julia & Julia.
Alexander Liberman began his publishing career in Paris with the pictorial magazine Vu, where he worked under Lucien Vogel and with photographers such as Brassaï, André Kertész, and Robert Capa. He fled WWII and emigrated to New York in 1941 and began working for Condé Nast Publications, first as Art Director of Vogue and eventually becoming the Editorial Director from 1962-1994. In the 50s, he bagan painting and later creating massive metal sculptures which are assembled from salvaged steel, often painted in primary colors. Examples of his work are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Storm King Art Center, Hirshhorn Museum, the Tate, the Guggenheim and others.
“I think many works of art are screams, and I identify with screams.”
I could scream right now – it freaks me out to say, I started at Vogue 33 years ago! I worked at 3 different magazines, besides Vogue, that Alex oversaw; Allure, House & Garden and Vanity Fair. Lloyd Ziff was originally scheduled to speak but had to cancel due to a heath issue. So, I filled in, as I joked “representing the little people”. (No one knows what the dead might think, but I feel I DO know what Alex would say about me if he were told I was speaking along with Lucy & Joan; "Who?") I was an underling, a junior designer in those days, not a writer, an editor-in-chief or creative director but I shared my stories and recollections of this most talented and intimidating man nonetheless. Lucy took us through his personal and professional life and then Joan recounted specific assignments and encounters with the difficult genius over the years. The audience was filled with the curious, our friends and former colleagues who listened intently, and asked interesting questions. It could have gone on for hours as the myth nor the man will ever be fully understood. Say what you like about him, but you cannot say that Alex Liberman didn't make an impact on popular culture in the 20th century.
“I went to see Alex in hospital when he was recovering from bypass surgery. it was not a social visit. He was lying flat, attached to various machines, but had still wanted me to bring layouts for him to see. He waved his hand for the viewing to begin. The hand went up, ‘My dear, how can I say this… your work is banal.’ I laughed.” -Lucy Sisman
“When I went to French Vogue he was full of advice. The best was ‘beware of visions of loveliness’. He was appalled when I told him I slept with mocked-up magazine covers on my bed. ‘Don’t ever take your work to bed,” he said. ‘That’s fine,’ I answered. ‘Right now I sleep alone.’” – Joan Juliet Buck
“I always wanted to be an artist, but I found myself working for magazines. Alex had one foot in the art world and one foot in the publishing world – both these worlds resented him for that; but I don’t think he gave a sh*t... he just did it because that’s what he wanted to do.” -Trey Speegle