Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dugald Stermer RIP

Dugald Stermer, path-breaking art director of Ramparts magazine, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 74.

I got the call last night from Bob Scheer, who heard about it from John Burton. Sad news indeed. I came to know Dugald while I was working on the Ramparts book. He was hugely gifted, highly respected, even beloved. He deserved all the credit he received--and more--for his work at the magazine, and he was also revered for his teaching and art.

He started at Ramparts in 1964, when it was a two-year-old Catholic literary quarterly that resembled “the poetry annual of a midwestern girls school.” But as Ramparts began running more controversial content, Dugald transformed its look and earned the respect of Warren Hinckle and Bob. Between 1966 and 1968, the trio produced a magazine that, according to the New York Times, restored the lapsed institution of muckraking, put showmanship back into journalism, and gave radicalism a commercial megaphone.

Dugald’s art direction was a critical part of that achievement. Ramparts became the first “radical slick” by combining blockbuster investigative stories with high production values, including color, photographs, and glossy paper. That combination supercharged the magazine’s circulation and heightened its impact. When Dr. Martin Luther King came upon a 1967 Ramparts photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam,” which documented the effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnamese civilians, he immediately decided to come out against the war. King wasn’t the only one affected by that piece; Dugald told me that laying it out was “just about the nastiest job I’ve ever had.”

Dugald left Ramparts in 1970, and the magazine folded for good in 1975, but his influence in the magazine world lives on—most obviously at Rolling Stone, which was founded by Ramparts alumni Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason in 1967. With Dugald’s blessing, Jann lifted design elements from Ramparts, and some still appear prominently on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Born in 1936, Dugald grew up in Los Angeles. “I was a beach boy, your basic forties and fifties kid,” he later said. “I liked playing cowboys and drawing pictures.” In his youth, he was something of a hood. “My image was surly, leather-jacketed, the white t-shirt with rolled up sleeves, the Levi’s hanging low. A nasty little teenager. Who worked in a gas station, so I was greasy on top of all this.” But a high school teacher noticed his talent as a cartoonist and encouraged him to attend college. He studied art at UCLA and worked for two years in a Los Angeles design shop before joining a Houston firm.

In Texas, Dugald met San Francisco advertising guru Howard Gossage, who was helping Hinckle juice up Ramparts. Dugald had no magazine experience, but Gossage arranged for an interview. Dugald learned that founding publisher Edward Keating had enough credit for two more issues. But Dugald didn’t want to design corporate reports forever, so he packed his young family into his Volkswagen bus and headed for the Bay Area. He soon became a key player at the magazine. “I was pretty intransigent about what I did, a ‘my way or the highway’ sort of thing,” he recalled. “I learned early that the person who gets there earliest and leaves latest makes all the decisions. Any territory you could defend was yours.” His easygoing manner and workhorse habits tempered Warren’s extravagance and short attention span. Like Warren, Dugald was a rebel, not a radical, and that quality helped keep the magazine from descending into the doctrinaire.

For Dugald, the fact that Ramparts was located in California was crucial. Because the magazine wasn’t based in New York, it was never expected to succeed. For this reason, Gossage said later, the Ramparts staff was like a troupe of dancing bears; their technique was less important than the fact that they could dance at all. But those low expectations allowed Dugald to innovate, and he made the most of his liberty.

Dugald didn’t read magazines or the alternative press, so he had no preconceived notion of what Ramparts should look like. Mostly he was guided by his UCLA professor’s dictum that the best design is never noticed. To emphasize the magazine’s message rather than its look, Dugald set every line of type—the captions as well as the text—in Times Roman. Drawing on local styles, especially those developed by San Francisco printers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, he produced an elegant design that grounded the magazine’s explosive stories and irreverent tone. “It was a conscious choice to just use one typeface, and make the design very simple,” he told an interviewer in 2009. “It had nothing to do with budgets, although we never had any money … I wanted the magazine, page-to-page, issue-to-issue, to feel like chapters of a book, and, considering our content, to look credible.”

At its peak, Ramparts received the prestigious George Polk Award for excellence in magazine reporting. More established magazines began to emulate Dugald’s approach, and Esquire tried to hire him. But he declined the offer, which would have matched his salary but diminished his artistic control.

Dugald left Ramparts when its new editors, David Horowitz and Peter Collier, engineered Bob Scheer’s ouster. (Warren had already left to found Scanlan’s magazine, where he first matched Hunter S. Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman.) Dugald pursued a freelance career, first as a magazine designer and then as an illustrator. He drew a wildlife series for the Los Angeles Times; worked on campaigns for Levi’s, the Iams Company, the San Diego Zoo, Jaguar Cars, BMW, and Nike; and created editorial illustrations for Time, Esquire, the New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Rolling Stone. He designed the Olympic medals for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and the State Department commissioned him to design the 2009 Earth Day poster. In 1986, he was the subject of a solo exhibition and retrospective at the California Academy of Sciences, and he gave the keynote addresses at the International Conference of Natural Science Illustrators in 2000 and the International Conference of Medical Illustrators in 2001.

Dugald taught illustration for many years at the California College of the Arts, where he was a Distinguished Professor and chaired his department. He was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1997 and served on the Delancey Street Board of Advisors for over 30 years. (The foundation is a residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, and the homeless.) He is the author of four books: The Art of Revolution (1970) with Susan Sontag, Vanishing Creatures (1981), Vanishing Flora (1995), and Birds & Bees (1995).

In a 2010 interview, Dugald was asked about his career. “As Howard Gossage used to say, ‘The only fit work for an adult is to change the world.’ He said it straight-faced, and while other people might laugh, I always have that in the back of my mind. I don’t walk around with my heart on my sleeve, but I do feel that using our abilities to make things better is a pretty good way of spending a life.”

Update: Stephanie Lee's obituary ran in the San Francisco Chronicle today. She corrected Dugald's age, included family information, specified the cause of death, and got a quote from Bob Scheer. See also Leah Garchik's item in the Chronicle; she knew him for 40 years.

Update redux: Steven Heller's obituary appeared in the New York Times on December 7. Very fitting. Mr. Heller interviewed Dugald for Imprint. (That's the 2010 interview link above.)

One more time: I attended Dugald's memorial at Delancey Street yesterday. Mimi Silbert hosted, there were touching tributes from family members and friends, and John Burton added some earthy humor. Tim Luddy, creative director at Mother Jones, offered this homage. The Los Angeles Times added this obituary and article on Dugald and his work.



At 6:02 PM , Anonymous Timothy Colman said...

I'd love to see a retrospective of Stermer's natural history art brought to a museum for people to get that side of his work.

Great artist who really understood the color and light of flora and fauna.

Best fishes,

Timothy Colman, publisher
Good Nature Publishing

At 5:39 PM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Great idea, Timothy. I'll be at the Oakland Museum soon and will inquire.

At 11:50 AM , Blogger Raymond said...

I met Dugald in 1974 while a member of the Delancey Street Foundation, ran by Dugald's friend, John Maher. I was blessed to be able to work closely with both of these men. With John in our "Media Department," and Dugald on art/advertising projects while attending the Academy of Art on Sutter Street. Dugald was very good at what he did. He even became my "Barber" (Counselor)at Delancey Street.

At 6:15 AM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Thank you, Raymond. I interviewed Dugald at Delancey Street.


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