Art Paul: The Art of Designing Playboy

By Marcia Faye
 The Art of Designing Playboy
Art Paul

The year 1953 produced its share of world-rocking events: James Watson and Francis Crick unraveled the structure of DNA, color television sets went on sale, and the Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen weapon. In Chicago, two men set off a bomb of a different sort, blasting newsstands with a modest 72,000-issue run of a new publication at 50 cents per copy. With a smiling and waving Marilyn Monroe on its cover (and a less-than-modest nude photo of Monroe as Sweetheart of the Month on its centerspread), editor and founder Hugh Marston Hefner and art director Art Paul launched their magazine, Playboy.

From the suave and sophisticated bachelor-about-town swagger ofPlayboy, no one would guess that Hefner came up with the idea for the publication as a young married man with an infant daughter and that Paul was also married, with a child on the way. Hefner learned of Paul, who was a freelance illustrator and designer at the time, through a mutual acquaintance and pursued Paul with the offer to design and art direct his magazine. The chance to assemble and lead the creative team of an exciting new magazine that featured popular culture, edgy fiction, profiles of the day’s most compelling personalities, and, well, photos and art-erotica of beautiful women, grew on Paul. It also allowed him to apply the best of what he learned at a local school founded by the Hungarian painter, photographer, and professor László Moholy-Nagy—the IIT Institute of Design (ID).

“I heard exciting things about ID—the ‘Chicago Bauhaus’—about its busting out of traditional methods of teaching and its stress on experimentation, discovery, and unleashing oneself from old habits and conventions,” explains Paul, a bit of an art rebel who found a good educational match in the bold philosophy espoused by ID. “I’d started drawing as a child and always felt that opinions on what defined popular art and fine art as separate entities weren’t valid,” he says, noting that he admires the works of Norman Rockwell and Michelangelo alike.

Born on the Southwest Side of Chicago, Paul later moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood, where he attended Roger C. Sullivan High School and met an art teacher who thought him gifted enough to earn a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. Then World War II summoned him and after a stint in the Army Air Corps, Paul chose to enroll at ID. Acknowledging that he may have been one of the students most anxious to express himself in the world of commercial art, it is no surprise that Paul created a symbol that has achieved worldwide recognition: Playboy’s rabbit head. He says that the rabbit almost began life as an adult male deer.

“Hef was very insistent that the magazine be called Stag Party—I told him it was madness,” recalls Paul with a chuckle. There was already an outdoor magazine named Stag, so the two men began thinking of other titles and animals that would represent a frisky slice of life. Eldon Sellers, another of Hefner’s founding associates who went on to become a company executive, came up with the name Playboy. It took Paul about one hour to sketch his famous rabbit profile with the cocked ear and tuxedo tie. Paul intended originally for the symbol to be used as a characteristic endpoint to articles, but those plans changed, with the rabbit head instead becoming Playboy’s corporate visual identity as well.

As Paul settled into his position at Playboy, he tapped into the many resources available to him as a result of his education. “My four years at ID had connected me to much of the art and design talent in Chicago, and the rest of the world,” explains Paul, who received a Professional Achievement Award from the IIT Alumni Association in 1983. “In my first years at Playboy, I commissioned artist and ID student Franz Altschuler to do several illustrations and artist and ID student Leon Bellin to illustrate Playboy’s continuing ‘Ribald Classic’ feature. Chicago-area painters and sculptors such as Roy Schnakenberg, Ed Paschke, and Seymour Rosofsky were frequent contributors. I also commissioned printmaker Mish Kohn and photographer Arthur Siegel, former ID instructors, to do work forPlayboy.”

“Arthur, quite frankly, was responsible for changing the nature of commercial illustration.” —HUGH HEFNER

Hefner, who is publisher, editor-in-chief, and chief creative officer for Playboy Enterprises, Inc., says that Paul’s influence reached beyond the covers of Playboy. “Arthur, quite frankly, was responsible for changing the nature of commercial illustration,” he says. Hefner likens Paul to another multitalented artist who produced work for some ofPlayboy’s best-selling editions. “He blurred the lines between fine art and commercial art just as the painter Andy Warhol did.”

If there was one word during Paul’s Playboy years that further motivated him to bring the “high art of low art”—as Paul described it—to readers, it was “entertainment.” The subtitle, “Entertainment for Men,” which has been part of each cover since its debut, served to crystallize the very essence of Playboy for Paul and charted a direction for him and his team. “The ‘entertainment’ word is really the one that sparked me,” he says. “The word ‘playboy’ itself is not a serious one. The rabbit is not serious; it was basically a signal that we could make fun of ourselves.”

One way that Art Paul and his creative team engaged the reader was through a design technique he termed “participatory graphics,” using die-cuts, pull-outs, and pop-ups to keep the readers’ attention focused on more than just the pin-ups. The article “I Caught Flies for Howard Hughes,” which appeared in the December 1975 issue, featured a cut-out that revealed a fly on the nose of an annoyed-looking man—an example of the participatory graphics work Paul art directed.

After his retirement as a vice president of the magazine in 1982, Paul continued to imprint his artistic style onto other projects, working on movie titles and designing posters for the Chicago Film Festival and the Art Institute. He has lectured widely across the country and internationally at universities, design schools, and art directors’ clubs, and has served on the boards of various local organizations. In 2004, the Hyde Park Art Center hosted the exhibit I Read It for the Art: Chicago, Creativity, and Playboy, featuring Paul’s works, along with the works of many of the Chicago artists he helped to establish.

Among the many honors given to Paul include induction into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the Herb Lubalin Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Publication Designers. Last year, Paul was recognized as a fellow of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists.

And the man who knocked on Art Paul’s door more than five decades ago, bringing with him an idea for a magazine focusing on “Entertainment for Men,” pays Paul his own personal tribute. “Quite simply, he was the right guy in the right place at the right time,” says Hefner. “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

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