Irreverent and revolutionary, Art Paul brought to life Hef’s vision of a sophisticated urban lifestyle in the pages of playboy.
Nearly 40 years ago playboy’s then editorial director Arthur Kretchmer shared a cab from the airport with a stranger. An international consultant, the woman proved an intriguing chat. When Kretchmer mentioned he worked for playboy, the company whose logo, he boasted, was the second most famous on Earth—behind only Coca-Cola—she smiled and proceeded to disagree. She’d spent much time in Asia and had just returned from Africa; without a doubt, she told Kretchmer, “yours is the most recognized logo in the world.” Kretchmer chuckles as he retells this story. The woman may have thought she was toasting him or playboy or perhaps Hugh Hefner. But she was in fact saluting Art Paul.
Paul was Hefner’s very first hire—founding art director of the nascent playboy—and he quickly proved his worth, drafting the now ubiquitous Rabbit Head in less than an hour. Certainly his best-known creation, the symbol is just one of his countless contributions to playboy.
As Hef put it in his cartoon diary, Paul’s fundamental mission was to “really give the magazine a class look.” Charged with crafting the publication’s overall visual aesthetic, Paul had loftier ambitions.
“I set out to change illustration itself by pushing artists and illustrators to be more personal, expressive and innovative,” Paul tells me via a long e-mail correspondence before we meet in person. And he doubled down on the magazine’s progressive attitude and voice, he says, through its design. “I was guided by playboy’s spirit of change and the idea that there should be no ‘high’ art or ‘low’ art, that good design could be applied to anything.”
He aimed to make each issue of the magazine a flight of graphic fancy. To read playboy, Kretchmer says, was to be taken on “an adventure, a visual experience as much as a reading experience.” Indeed, within the design community playboy quickly became the go-to destination for the world’s hottest artists and illustrators to showcase their talent. Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, James Rosenquist and Ed Paschke are a small selection of the well-known artists whose work appeared in playboy thanks to Paul.
In the magazine’s inaugural issue Hefner wrote about the playboy man, who enjoys life’s finer things: “mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” It was Paul who translated this ideal into visual form.
“The idea that playboy was a sophisticated product, that’s all Art Paul,” says Robert Newman, former design director of New York and Details, among other publications. “He’s the one who gave playboy its up-market, sophisticated and sensual feel.” The proof was in the pages, which regularly featured fine art that could have come straight out of a gallery. And Paul didn’t limit himself to the traditional options of paintings and illustrations to accompany articles; he also solicited work across wildly varying mediums, from mixed-media creations to plaster and resin sculptures to stone and acrylic assemblages.
Paul’s approach to design—liberating artists from the constraints of strict editorial direction—was radical at the time.
“In the 1950s, illustrations tended to be dictated by editors, with art directors following orders,” Paul says. “Someone would pick a scene from a story and present it literally, with a caption in case it was not literal enough—a real straitjacket of a formula.” By contrast, he says, “I asked that the illustrator interpret the sense or feel of the story—what gave it its power.”
Paul expected illustrators to deliver bold, metaphorical and even discomfiting works—whatever best complemented an article. “He let them rip,” one art director says with a laugh. Take, for example, Jerry Podwil’s painting that accompanies the December 1974 article Getting Off: a diapered baby slumps near a broken rattle, hand burrowed into its nappy in an apparent act of masturbation. That kind of freedom was attractive to artists.
“I never called anybody to do work for us who said, ‘Nah, I’m not interested,’” says Tom Staebler, who started in playboy’s art department in 1968 and eventually became Paul’s protégé, then successor. “I don’t care who it was or how big a name they were—they all wanted to work for playboy.”
But suggest that his work was highly influential and the modest Paul will shrug it off. Then again, he doesn’t need to sing his own praises; others do it for him. “He was a brilliant visionary and truly a master of magazine architecture,” says Newman.
“playboy used illustration in a completely different way,” says Bart Crosby, a Chicago-based designer and former colleague of Paul’s. “They used it metaphorically, representationally. They used these dramatic illustrations that were disturbing sometimes. And Art perpetuated that. He encouraged it. That changed the world of illustration. Even the more conservative publications started to be a bit more bold in what they were doing.”
On a warm fall Chicago morning, Paul welcomes me to the high-rise apartment he has shared for more than four decades with artist Suzanne Seed, his wife of 40 years. Sporting a scraggly white beard and wearing a checked button-down with black pants, he smiles as he rises from his wheelchair, grabs his wooden cane and pats me on the back. He turns 93 this January and has suffered several strokes in the past decade; macular degeneration has left him nearly blind. Still, he moves through his apartment with a joyful curiosity. The space, with its panoramic view of the city and the occasional peregrine falcon soaring by, is breathtaking—not least because it is a tribute to a creative and collaborative life. Nearly every inch of the apartment is covered with art, photographs and trinkets, many created by Paul, Seed and their friends and peers.
Seed serves as my tour guide for the afternoon, Paul trailing behind, nodding in approval when she showcases one of his favorite or most revered works: a whimsical collection of his drawings that seem almost to interact with one another (he calls it “Conversations”); a colorful collage of concentric circles that cries out with youthful whimsy; sketches of faces and heads that line the entryway and lead to an adjoining studio space. Despite his vision problems, Paul sketches frequently. He also plays the keyboard, conjuring ideas that he then commissions one of his composer friends to transform into fleshed-out recordings. Today he plays one of his most recent pieces for me, loudly, over the apartment’s speaker system. The song, a serpentine waltz, floats through the room. Paul closes his eyes and allows it to wash over him.
Art Paul was born in Chicago on January 18, 1925 to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Ukraine with two older children. When Paul was just one year old, his father died. “We were struggling for many years, including during the Depression, but my mother was determined to keep the family together,” he says. He credits his brother, Norman, who wanted to be a sculptor but instead worked to support the family, with stoking his interest in the life of an artist. His development was also aided by his mother, who supported her son’s artistic ambitions; he recalls that she let him paint in the middle of the house “because the light was best there.” Paul accompanied his big brother on weekend trips to the Art Institute, sparking a lifelong fascination with creativity in its endless forms. He came to admire the work of Michelangelo, but he also thought highly of the illustrations he saw in the popular Modern Library books and in the magazines of the 1930s, such as Norman Rockwell’s work in The Saturday Evening Post. High art, low art—it was all simply art to him.
Paul began looking at the world through an artistic lens. Specifically he became fascinated with faces. He preferred to draw them from his imagination, he says, “but when I’d look at each face as people streamed by on the street where I was selling newspapers, or at those faces coming off the train when I went to meet my brother coming home from work, I’d see faces as amazing to me as those I’d dreamed up.”
He won a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but his studies were interrupted by his service in World War II. Upon his return to Chicago in 1945, he enrolled at the Institute of Design, often referred to as the New Bauhaus for its adherence to the precepts of the seminal German art school. “Design seemed more connected to the world than painting,” Paul says. After graduating, he opened his own illustration and graphic design studio downtown, where he created ads and other work for top-tier clients including department store Marshall Field’s and publisher Scott Foresman. By the time a mutual friend connected him with Hef, Paul was enjoying a comfortable life thanks to his design business.
The two met in the spring of 1953, after Hef had quit his job as a copywriter at Esquire. Hef arrived for their initial meeting at Paul’s downtown studio “looking disheveled, harried, tired, a bit of a wild man seemingly, with a huge roll of tattered papers under his arm,” Paul says. Hef told Paul all about his idea for a new men’s magazine—Stag Party was its title. Hef did his best to persuade Paul to join him.
“I was hesitant, as I had great clients I hated to give up,” Paul says, but he ultimately decided to take the job as art director of what was soon renamed playboy. Paul says he was swayed by Hef’s promise “to give me the complete freedom to commission the experimental, personal kind of work from artists and illustrators that I had struggled to promote to clients for myself.”
The early days of playboy were harried ones. It was in large part only Hef and Paul putting together the magazine, working so closely that the two would argue about whose turn it was to take out the trash. “The first few issues were like a sketchbook in which Hef and I were feeling our way,” Paul says. “We were clear, though, and of like mind in wanting to do something new and experimental.” Their relationship was one of symbiotic growth: Hef showing Paul how an editor built an issue with gripping content; Paul demonstrating how solid design could complement that content.
“There was a great deal of mutual respect and cooperation,” Paul says. “It was the best of working relationships.”
The first issue they assembled, the landmark December 1953 playboy, remains of special importance to Paul. After visiting newsstands to research what made a magazine stand out, he realized that a white background would be eye-catching—other designers avoided stark white or black covers because distributors frowned on them.
“Hef had bought a black-and-white news photo of Marilyn Monroe sitting on a car, waving, in a ticker-tape parade,” he recalls. “I blocked out everything but her and added a few blocks to the side to suggest confetti—in which I put a very few small cover blurbs.” He placed it all atop a sea of white, with red text accents. “It looked fresh in the riot of color and mess of cover blurbs on all the other magazines—as did Marilyn’s smile.”
Many of Paul’s early playboy covers are risk-taking and unorthodox, and sometimes strikingly minimalist. The June 1957 cover, for example, is entirely white but for two black Rabbit Head cuff links; inside, the fiction story echoes this design with a nearly all-white two-page spread save for a lone fly in the upper left corner. Paul hired a technical artist to draw the insect hyperrealistically. “It’s a favorite of designers,” he says of the layout. “They love that I dared to make it almost entirely white space, as if a fly had just landed on the actual page of the magazine.” Inventive design flowed through playboy, with Paul frequently incorporating die-cut or folded pages into his layouts—something he calls “participatory graphics.”
playboy’s art department was a thrilling place to work. With set designers and model makers on staff, the art directors had no creative boundaries. “If you could think it up, you could make it happen,” Staebler says. The creative community took notice: In its first 15 years, playboy received more than 150 honors and was recognized by the likes of the Art Directors Club of New York and the Society of Illustrators. Paul won several hundred awards for his work and toured the world with his Beyond Illustration exhibit, showcasing some of the magazine’s most celebrated art pieces in museums and galleries from Europe to Asia. He even helped shape the magazine’s editorial content: He’s credited with conceptualizing the annual Year in Sex feature, which first ran in February 1977—though, as Kretchmer says with a laugh, in the meeting where Paul introduced the idea, Hef jokingly said, “This is a great job you’ve done. I’m really glad I suggested it.”
Few other art directors become as synonymous with the magazine they work for as Paul did, says Rolling Stone art director Mark Maltais. But after nearly three decades at the helm of playboy’s art department, Paul sensed his life there had run its course. He left the magazine in late 1982.
Paul spent the ensuing decades working out of his home studio (contributing illustrations to playboy from time to time), hosting exhibits and showing everywhere from Japan to his native Chicago. In 1986 he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and he received lifetime achievement awards from the Society of Publication Designers, AIGA and Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design.
He has stayed busy into his 90s, continuing to live a life in the arts. In 2016, in partnership with the Chicago Design Museum, Paul created a custom handwritten design for Threadless, the online community of artists: “Tomorrow is a wonderful invention—it is the best definition of hope,” it reads. In 2015 the makers of the popular game Cards Against Humanity commissioned him to create a piece for their limited-edition Design Pack that features illustrated interpretations of George Carlin’s infamous 1972 monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”
Paul chose to illustrate Fuck.
Back at his apartment, sitting on his couch, Paul flips through a collection of his work. He’s quiet but deliberate, his eyes following the pages as they drift past. He stops and points to the February 1967 cover, a beautiful brunette lying under an unkempt white bedsheet, her body forming the outline of a Rabbit Head as she gazes up with a coy smile. Paul runs his fingers over his long-ago design. In a whisper he says, “That was a good one.”