Design Journal reprint: Lou Silverstein on Peter Pallazo

By Louis Silverstein

(Reprinted from Design Journal 95, Summer 2005. Silverstein wrote this tribute in honor of his friend and contemporary Peter Pallazo)

Writing about Peter Pallazo comes easy to me. Our lives were intertwined sometimes tightly, sometimes more loosely, for over 50 years. We followed parallel career paths and we were good friends — a friendship that spread to include our families. Pete was my daughter’s godfather, a fact that he made much of, introducing himself at times to mutual friends as “the Godfather.”

Pete is best remembered of course for his sensational work on the New York Herald Tribune, probably the most dramatically innovative body of graphic design that helped fuel the revolution in newspaper design of the 1960s and 1970s. The Trib had its own competitive marketing problems at the time, but it also embodied the powerful forces of change that affected the entire industry. These included: the advent of television competition; the early technological rumblings of photo composition and of the computer age; the post World War II expansion of markets into the suburbs with the growing role of women in our society and of sports and entertainment; and the decline of the mass circulation magazines like Life and Look.

Conspicuously, in those days, newspapers remained the only one of the major media outlets not to employ professional designers or art directors in their regular operation. The Trib, like most U.S. newspapers, was marked by formats of rigid columns of type and a severely limited approach to graphic possibilities, exercised basically through amateur graphic efforts by editors and photo personnel.
Pete’s designs for the Trib were a bombshell that hastened the graphic revolution to come. Timothy Leland, editor of the Boston Globe, is quoted as saying that the Tribune “was possibly the best-looking English language newspaper ever published.”

There is no doubt he was a huge influence on his whole generation — editors as well as designers — and on editors and designers who followed, leaders of whom are working with the expansive newspaper palette we see today. Editors who worked with him, some of them legendary in their own right, are consistent in their praise for Pete. David Hall, former editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, injected an unusual note of praise with his comment, “You have my admiration for your professional skills and humane approach to newspaper design.”

Pete’s pages remain electrifying even today after decades of artistic and technological advances in the industry. His designs were forceful, yet surprisingly restrained and elegant. But beyond design, I believe, he expanded the very idea of basic newspaper journalism to include images created for publication, something considered legitimate for advertising and magazines but not for a daily newspaper.

This was only one aspect of the graphic magazine and promotion sensibility he brought to the job of newspaper journalism. Other aspects of his sensibility had to do with typography — the fonts and processes were the same for everybody, but in Pete’s hands newspaper display type became elegant in a way even high-quality magazines failed to achieve. His section fronts were blockbusters — each featured usually a single photo image simple and compelling (his travel section photos could have come from a prize-winning ad campaign). The section head — scaled just right and centered in a horizontal box — sat across the top of the page. The photo usually made up all the rest of the page, taking advantage of the generous dimensions of the broadsheet size. Of course, special sections of newspapers at that time habitually devoted much of their creative effort to “designed” fronts, but almost always they tended to be over-designed and without any relation to the rest of the paper. Pete’s designs, in contrast, despite their graphic roots in advertising, magazines and fine typography, actually added to the journalistic impact of the paper. They were so direct, so forthright, so graphically on target, so “right,” that they conveyed the essence of whatever the story was, certainly with an impact no newspaper before had been able to achieve.

Book World and the Herald Tribune magazine New York were particular showcases of his typographical mastery, the cursive “New York” logo still surviving at present as one of the outstanding magazine logos. At its inception, the cursive Caslon letters made a uniquely original appearance at a time when the vogue was for Helvetica and the newer slab serifs.

Before making his mark at the Trib, Pete had already made a splash as art director for the high-fashion maker of shoes, I.Miller, and later before going to the Trib, as creative director for Henry Bendel, a boutique department store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Pete’s shoe ads became instantly recognizable for their fresh look and touch of graphic wit, standing out in the competitive fashion advertising field. In usually half-page ad spaces in The New York Times, he used drawings by a New York illustrator named Andy Warhol.

This was just before Warhol burst onto the art scene with his Campbell Soup cans as a pop art icon. The drawings were in Warhol’s characteristic blotted line, sometimes decorative, and Pete would fill the entire ad with a single shoe, the ad copy a very subdued compliment. The ads, like his later work at the Trib, became instant classics.

I first met Pete when we both worked for the Publication Branch of the U.S. State Department, then located on Times Square. Jane Jacobs, the celebrated author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was one of the editors; the executive art director was Herb Roan, a prodigy in the New York magazine scene. I art directed the Russian language magazine called “Amepuka” (“America”) and Pete art directed the Yugoslav version. Herb Roan was an inspirational and volatile art director, from whom we learned that designing was one thing and fighting for the integrity of a design was another, often almost as important. I think that Pete’s strength in fighting for his design convictions in the closed atmosphere of big city newsrooms might be traceable to exposure to Herb Roan.

Pete’s demeanor was casual, relaxed and low key. He was the opposite of your hard sell kind of person. Even his body language was casual. One of his attractive traits was an off-hand, slightly humorous manner that belied the aggressive ideas he was capable of hatching and covered up the iron resolution I’m certain he needed to put through his radically innovative ideas. In the 1960s a large newspaper newsroom was not the place to look for open minds receptive to bold visual ideas. He must have shown enormous confidence and mastery to push through his designs at the Herald Tribune. Even more unusual are designs he produced at a later date for the Chicago Sun-Times. Here, one of Pete’s devices was to gather together the several photos that normally ran here and there on the front page, and group them together as a single dominant halftone mass on the page, leaving the type — headlines and text — to flow around as a fluid, contrasting mass. This I felt at the time was even more revolutionary than his work at the Trib, I marveled at the resolution he must have shown, under his casual manner, to “sell” such radical ideas to newspaper editors of the ’60s.

I often felt that Pete enjoyed in his Italian heritage an advantage as a designer denied to most of the rest of us. I was told, when a child, that I had inherited my penchant for art from my grandmother who was a craftsman and carpenter. But Pete’s genes, I felt, carried with them the influence of Cellini, Palladio and the marvelous craftsmen of Florence and Rome. In his unfailing good taste, and his uncanny ability to combine the boldest of ideas with the most delicate and tasteful execution, almost everything he did had, I believe, the look of a “classic,” indeed invoking for me the work of the Renaissance and classic masters. Even his business letterhead had this authoritative look. A single line of Caslon Heavy sat boldly in the middle of the page. Not a gimmick in sight. But Caslon never looked so modern and classic at the same time.

After  years of little contact, my wife and I visited Pete and his lovely new wife Danielle at their house in Lake George, in the Adirondacks. He had suffered serious bouts of illness but was clearly a relaxed, content man in a house on a steep hill that seemed like a mountain retreat. Predictably, there were numerous design solutions in evidence that had the Palazzo touch — efficient, simple, unpretentious, well crafted, nothing in excess. The house enjoyed a second floor three-sided verandah overlooking the lake. In his casual, understated manner Pete didn’t talk about his last big newspaper commission at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he had designed a typeface — “Palazzo” — for the paper. Instead he spoke of Danielle’s garden and his enjoyment of life in this out-of-the-way place. As always his “glory days” of enormous influence were something he carried with him on the inside — and very lightly.

Louis Silverstein played a key part in the modern look of the New York Times. He worked for the company for over 30 years in many titles including assistant managing editor for visual design.