Sep 27, 2012

Interview: Dugald Stermer and Ramparts Magazine

[Note: This interview originally ran on the Society of Publication Designers site in the autumn of 2009. Sadly, Dugald Stermer passed away in late 2011.]

Dugald Stermer was the art director of Ramparts magazine during its heyday, 1964-1970. A new book by Peter Richardson, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, has brought the magazine back into the public eye. The New York Times gave the book a lengthy review in the October 11 Sunday Times Book Review, which praised the magazine’s “hip, slick and provocative look.”

Today Stermer is best known for his beautiful, precise illustrations. But back in the mid-60s (and barely 30 years old), he art directed a magazine that was ground-breaking and inspirational. In an interview with SPD, author Richardson told us: “The design and visual content were critical, an absolutely indispensable part of the magazine’s success. At that time there were visually interesting magazines and politically progressive ones, but not both. If you could blend The Nation with Time or Esquire, you might come close to capturing Ramparts‘ appeal. Ramparts took more chances visually than its stodgier (mostly East Coast) political counterparts, and its production values far exceeded the grittier underground ones.”

SPD interviewed Dugald Stermer about his work at Ramparts, and asked him to comment on some of the more distinctive covers he designed. Those covers range from artwork by Norman Rockwell to a photo of Stermer’s own young son holding a Vietcong flag. He also talked about his very unique and distinctive interior design, which used only one typeface, Times Roman, throughout.

See a collection of 40+ Ramparts covers at the Newmanology page on Facebook.

RampartsBurning draft cards, December 1967. Stermer and the magazine’s editors photographed themselves burning their actual draft cards, which was at the time a Federal offense (that’s Stermer, far left). Dugald Stermer:This was my favorite cover, probably because it caused the four of use to be called before the Grand Jury in New York. They finally decided it wouldn’t be good public relations to indict magazine editors, so after our testimony they let us go. However, the cover itself was pretty self-evident.”

JFK assassination mystery, November 1966. Dugald Stermer: “JFK is pretty obvious; the puzzle around the assassination. I actually found a puzzle-maker who cut out the mounted photo for me. I had near total freedom designing the covers. The three of us (Bob Scheer, Warren Hinckle and I) did the magazine, but they pretty much left it to me to come up with the covers, as well as the art inside.”

Ramparts copyThe University on the make [or how MSU helped arm Madame Nhu]. April 1966, illustration by Paul Davis. Peter Richardson: “I think the main thing about the art was its irreverance. Ramparts combined big stories on serious topics with a kind of whimsy or irony that audiences found compelling. A famous example is the Madame Nhu cover. The story was about how the CIA used a Michigan State University program as a cover to train the South Vietnamese police in interrogation techniques, among other things. But the cover showed Madame Nhu, the Vietnamese leader’s sister-in-law, as a Michigan State cheerleader. Instead of emphasizing the dark side of the story, or suggesting that the reader would discover a sermon inside, the cover invited curiosity.”

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, May 1967, illustration by Norman Rockwell. Dugald Stermer: “We used a lot of illustrations, because much of our content wasn’t consistent with photography. Besides, I loved interpretive illustration. Of course, we couldn’t pay much. Most of the covers were done for $300, but I paid Rockwell the princely sum of $500. I called Mr. Rockwell (I couldn’t call him anything else) and humbly asked if he had ever heard of Ramparts magazine. He said he had, perhaps to be polite. I then asked if he would be so kind as to do a cover for us, a portrait of Bertrand Russell. He said, “One old guy portraying another, right?” I bumbled on, and he said, “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” To my surprise, he called me the next day, and said, “I talked to my son, and he said, ‘Dad, if you don’t do this, you are truly old.’ So okay. How do you want me to paint it. I’ve been doing some looser work lately.” I said, ‘Any way you want, just one thing….” He said, “I know, just sign my name large.” I said, “Uh, yes.”

Ramparts copy 2“Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win.” The Story of the Oakland 7, April 1969. Dugald Stermer: “The kid in the photo is my middle son. Perfect casting, right?”

Peter Richardson: “In my book I describe an episode in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was reading a Ramparts photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam.” He was at the airport, eating lunch with a friend and flipping through a stack of magazines he had bought for his flight and vacation. That photo-essay, which documented the effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnam’s civilian population, persuaded Dr. King to oppose the war publicly. (He had good reasons not to do so, and the mainstream press criticized him when he did.) But I don’t think he would have done that if the photographs hadn’t been so powerful.”

Inside feature spread, The Rest of Ronald Reagan, by Jessica Mitford. Dugald Stermer: “It was a conscious choice to just use one typeface, and make the design very simple. It had nothing to do with budgets, although we never had any money. I have always loved typography and lettering, and Times is one of the most flexible and hard-working faces that I know. I wanted the magazine, page-to-page, issue-to-issue, to feel like chapters of a book, and, considering our content, to look credible. By the way, for most of the years I was there, the magazine was set in monotype; so cool!”

Peter Richardson: “When I asked Dugald Stermer about his design approach, he said he subscribed to his UCLA professor’s maxim that the best design is never noticed. The goal was credibility. He didn’t want the magazine to look kooky. That would have undermined the authority of the stories, which the mainstream press (especially Time) wanted very badly to discredit. But he also didn’t want the design to announce that the magazine was for intellectuals only. There had to be color, photographs, illustrations, etc. His solution was to set everything in Times Roman, even the captions. That created a credible, bookish frams that allowed the other elements to pop off the page.”

[Deaths head Ramparts cover courtesy of Babylon Falling.]