Cover of West, May 1971, art direction by Mike Salisbury
When veteran magazine art directors get together to drink mojitos and reminisce about the glory years before advertising pages broke up editorial wells and when covers were based on ideas not personalities, one title always gets mentioned: West. This storied weekly supplement of the Los Angeles Times, art directed by Mike Salisbury, was a masterwork of design erudition, appreciated by those who could care less about design. It was typographically innovative in a pre-post-modern eclectic mélange of styles and forms, but that was the least of its attributes. Salisbury injected West with such an abundance of pop culture visual richness that it was more like a miniature museum than weekly gazette. In the tradition of Esquire, Playboy, Portfolio, and New York, West was challenging and stimulating, the likes of which are rare in magazines today.
West covered a wide range of themes — mostly reflecting Salisbury’s insatiable curiosities — from a feature on basketball that illustrated the tremendous size of center forwards by showing a life-size photograph of Wilt Chamberlin’s Converse sneaker, to a pictorial history of movie star pinups with a bevy of gorgeous silhouettes fanning on the page, to an array of souped-up VW Beetles in all shapes and sizes. But it wasn’t just his mind tickling content, Salisbury’s eye-catching layouts were three-dimensional, and like a pop-up book the visual matter jumped up at the reader.
Living in New York City, West was for me an imported delicacy, rare and savory. A few copies at a time came by mail, usually weeks after they first appeared. But timeliness didn’t matter much. Printed on velvety newsprint West’s saturated full color images had a glowing patina. The illustrations and photographs were the crème-de-la-crème of conceptual art, and consistently so. How many magazine covers and spreads are still recallable after thirty plus years? It is easy to remember one or two, but in West’s case, I really can conjure most of them: The “Goodbye, Ed Sullivan” (June 13, 1971) cover with a tear coming from the CBS eye; “Don’t Swat! We’re Your Friends” (August 29, 1971) cover with the actual size flies against a plain background; and the cover with the bleached out extreme close-up of Charlie Chaplin with only eyes, nose, mouth and mustache staring off the page. Salisbury was also fond of parodying existing magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post, Life magazine, and National Geographic. Yet one of his cleverest covers was a photo of Von Dutch painting the West nameplate on a motorcycle gas tank.
Salisbury developed a what’s what of great illustrative covers done by a who’s who, including Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman, Charles E. White, John Van Hamersveld, Dave Willardson, Bob Zoell and Richard Weigand. Salisbury also did his own illustrations and took photographs too. His style was decidedly Southern not Northern California. “San Francisco — the city in the North — is foggy, Irish/Italian Catholic and 'quasi-Victorian,'" explains Salisbury. “We know New York. New York is Rococo or Baroque. LA is streamline. To understand the differences between LA and New York contemporary illustration take a look at East Coast custom motorcycle building — Orange County Choppers. They make bikes that purposely look like fire engines and the Statue of Liberty. Rococo or Baroque? I love what they do, but either classification you wanna give it, it is the Gypsy-wagon school of design. LA customizing is a belief in Futurism — a Jesse James West Coast Chopper is streamline and cubist. The airbrush artists who go there were Bob Zoell and Peter Lloyd. The others were nostalgically mannerist except for Charlie White whose complex compositions mixing scale and perspective defy categorization.”
West was one-year-old when editor Jim Bellows, who created the original New York magazine in the early 1960s for the New York Herald Tribune (and later developed Entertainment Tonight) was at the Los Angeles Times, and on the advice of Joel Siegel (later of ABC), asked Salisbury, who worked for Carson Roberts Advertising in LA (where Ed Ruscha and Terry Gilliam worked) to accept the job as art director. Bellows assignment was to make West the vehicle for things California. West was originally like Parade. But this was the era when Otis Chandler remade the LA Times from a strictly San Marino Republican party newspaper into a world class publication. When Salisbury took over art direction it was “all over the place, left hand, single-page openers for editorial next to right hand page cheesy ads,” he recalls. “I learned pacing and sophisticated typography at Playboy in my year there. And I learned the value of the editorial material — like Jann Wenner [Salisbury was also art director for Rolling Stone] selling declassé rock n’ roll with classy writing. Hefner sold sex-and-lifestyle with solid writing, design and production.”
Salisbury was hands-on, but practiced what he calls laissez faire and “the contributors were picked to give me their better thinking.” He was also influenced by “the Bauhaus, Brodovitch, Nova magazine (David Hamilton art direction), George Lois (for ideas) and Jean Paul Goude (for high concept), The London Sunday Times Magazine for inventing graphic information, Willy Fleckhaus of Twen (the best pacer ever), Lloyd Ziff, Dave Bhang (Lloyd is a real designer, Dave introduced me to post war art), Bob Grossman, Jim Bellows, Albert Einstein and Issac Newton (a relative).”
Contemporary subjects were the mainstay but Salisbury’s special documentary themes, including the history of Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola art (the first time it was published as “art”), the visual history of Levis, Hollywood garden apartments, Raymond Chandler locations, and Kustom Kars. “A lot of these were my concepts and production. But design was not my sole objective: cinema-graphic information is a better definition,” he notes. Of all the issues only the "Smack" cover, a skull with bright red lips, was controversial. “The same reaction people had to the [Barry Blitt] New Yorker cover about Obama, I got for the 'Smack' cover, as in ‘don't give me too much reality over Sunday breakfast.’”
After five years, in 1972, Otis Chandler killed West because it was unable to “generate enough advertising revenue to meet production costs,” reported Dugald Stermer in Communication Arts. Some magazines are better off dead, but West was a loss. “We died as readers, and we didn’t even know we were sick,” added Stermer, who proposed a means of resuscitating the corpse. “I have a belated suggestion for [Chandler]. . . That before they ax their baby (our baby), they mail their subscribers some variations of the following:
We’re in trouble. West hasn’t been attracting enough advertisers to make up the difference between production costs and what you pay to receive it. Since the magazine is really a partnership between you and the editors, we are asking you if you are willing to make up the difference yourselves. Our accountant has told us that if half of our 1,212,556 readers paid an addition of 2.5 cents on their weekly subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times, that 2.5 cents could be used solely for the production of West itself and we could keep the thing going.”
Of course, this never occurred (although it was not a bad idea), and the magazine became a part of history. Salisbury moved to San Francisco to be art director of Rolling Stone, briefly injecting it with that West-ian panache, which is sadly missing from most magazines today.