When I learned of the recent passing of Quentin Fiore, an artist who captured the cultural imagination of the 1960s and 1970s, this tribute of the visionary of design was inevitable. It was a time of political mayhem and upheaval during the close of 1960s. Waiting for the draft board to decide whether I was to battle Hanoi, I dreaded my birthday, for three of my friends had been killed in previous weeks.
On my birthday, one of my friends gifted me with a slew of Blue Note jazz albums, including Lee Morgan’s Search For the New Land, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch. All of them are still in my collection. But the mind-blowing treasures on that day were Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Message and War and Peace in the Global Village.
It’s said that the iconic The Medium is the Message was put into action by Fiore, who died in Connecticut at age of 99. He was familiar with McLuhan’s work, especially Understanding Media (1964), intrigued by the author’s ideas of the subliminal power of mass communication in society. McLuhan’s followers recognized his concepts from such popular publications as McCall’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Harper’s Bazaar.
American designers and students of contemporary media consider the McLuhan-Fiore collaborations as cornerstones in modern book design. These books are a heady mix of word and text, academia and popular media. In his effort to broaden McLuhan’s readership, Fiore served as the graphic translator of the cultural sage. While McLuhan possessed final say on the books’ contents, Fiore influenced the texts and images, placing them in a logical order.
“Message is more like an icon,” Fiore said in a 1988 magazine interview. “It reduces complex ideas to simple signs, glyphs, patches of text. And this is what I intended it to be.”
Although McLuhan was extremely popular during this period, the project was hard to sell. Seventeen publishers rejected the manuscript until a deal was eventually made with Bantam. The publishers agreed to generate 35,000 copies in paperback, with Random House doing a sizeable hardcover edition.
“The publishing industry regarded McLuhan as a flash in the pan and considered Message not really a book,” Fiore added. “Publishing is an industry and publishers don’t want to be disturbed. I don’t want to sound ungrateful to the publishers, but the book was so unusual that people were suspicious. From the publisher’s point of view, Marshall was the main attraction. They were unused to this amount of artwork in a so-called serious book.”
But the book caught on, selling out several runs. Writers and artists, like myself, bought the books and gave them as gifts. McLuhan’s ideas from these books made sense in the chaotic world we saw around us. The books were translated into German, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and Italian, making McLuhan’s concepts global.
With the book, the ideas in War and Peace in the Global Village convinced me to question armed conflict. The pacifist speeches of Rev. Martin Luther King and the rebellious declarations of Muhammad Ali forced me to examine the history of war in Indochina, first by the French and later by the Americans. Also, the death toll of my schoolmates and friends jarred me into an acute awareness of my mortality.
“You have to remember the times,” Fiore said to a reporter. “The Vietnam War was going on. There were new forms of expression and protest. There was the Free Speech Movement.”
Fiore was interested in the protest and free speech movement, especially the Chicago Seven. He decided to collaborate with Yippie activist Jerry Rubin, one of the infamous seven on trial. He worked closely with Rubin, finding him “very pleasant and well spoken.” It was a favorable working relationship and the book sold strongly. The book included an introduction by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
One of the Fiore collaboration was with visionary Buckminister Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb (1970), which was packed with a collection of the man’s truisms. The book has no beginning or end. Once these books were completed within a three-year period, he continued his design business with his regular clients.
Just a little information on Fiore’s background would fit in nicely here. Born in 1920 in the Bronx, his father was a tailor who raised six children. Fiore studied at the Art Student League of New York with the noted German artist George Grosz. He served as an apprentice with Hans Hofmann, the Abstract Expressionist. Also, before he set up his growing enterprise, he worked with the modernist designer Lester Beall, known for his innovative designs in posters and magazine.
Quentin Fiore was a worker bee until the end. “I felt like a vaudevillian,” he concluded. “My experiences were varied and rich because I’d work one project and then another. They would contradict one another’s fundamental design principles. . . it’s odd that people single these books out. I’ve always considered them little more than jobs. They got done and done and that’s it.”
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