Will it catch on?

Photographer: Leonid Bershidsky

From I♥NY to 'Dump Trump'

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It was probably inevitable that Milton Glaser, the designer of the iconic “I♥NY” logo, would work at some point with another New York institution, Donald Trump. As with so many of the billionaire’s collaborators, it didn’t go well. Now, the only thing Glaser is willing to design with the Republican presidential nominee’s name on it is a “Dump Trump” pin.

Glaser, 87, is one of the founders of New York magazine and the designer of the Brooklyn Brewery’s logo, many album and book covers, and even some subtle artwork in the notoriously unadorned New York subway. He wasn’t surprised when Trump called him in 2005 and asked him to design a vodka bottle for distribution in his clubs. The result, in Glaser’s words, was “powerful, masculine, like a ’30s apartment building, two sides opaque with gold and two sides transparent so there’s a real internal drama between the part that you can see and the part that you can’t see.”

“These are cliches of communication, like masculinity, that you always indulge in in design because you depend on what people know already in their minds,” Glaser told me. “One is the idea of using gold as a material when you’re representing a gazillionaire who wants to be, in this case, not modest about his accomplishment but wants to parade any example of it before the public. And the idea of an ascending form also comes from the idea of importance, a reference to broad shoulders and a big man."

I asked Glaser if he meant to mock Trump. “Well, but he looks like he’s mocking himself a little bit,” Glaser said. “I would say there’s this point in communication at which you can’t tell the difference between parody and symbolism.”

Although Trump was the one who contacted Glaser and approved the design, the commission -- and the $100,000 upfront payment -- came from a company called Drinks Americas, which had licensed his name to market the vodka. After the bottle made a favorable impression on the tycoon, Drinks Americas approached Glaser about another product -- a line of soft drinks under the “Trump Tea” brand. 

Since the vodka project had gone smoothly, the designer went to work on the teas. The bottles he envisioned were more modest than those for the vodka, but Glaser felt they did the job. 

Drinks Americas, though, never got to producing “Trump Tea.” It struggled with low sales -- Trump Vodka, priced at $30 a bottle, more than many other premium brands, only sold with modest success for one year, 2007, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek story. There were production and distribution issues; there was, perhaps, also a mismatch between the product and the Trump name: The real estate developer is a known teetotaler, though he promoted the vodka as “great-tasting” and “smooth.” (Glaser, too, couldn’t say whether the vodka was any good. “I’m not much of a drinker, so I don’t even know what a good vodka is supposed to taste like,” he says).

Glaser’s studio sent Drinks Americas 12 invoices for the “Trump Tea” designs, totaling $70,455. Glaser eventually agreed to accept $40,000. Instead, Drinks Americas sent a check for $5,000 and -- though there was no agreement to that effect -- a stock certificate for 45,555 restricted shares in Drinks Americas Holdings. The shares were valued at $0.39 each when the certificate was issued. They are worthless now. The company has not filed reports since 2013.

The designer had to ask his assistant to look up the history of the Trump transactions: He never sued Drinks America for the unpaid portion of his fees or mentioned it to Trump. The billionaire probably wouldn’t even talk to Glaser now. Glaser once talked about Trump’s hair in an interview. “I am trained to observe how things are made, but I couldn’t figure out how his hair was made because it didn’t seem to have any point of origin," he says. “After this was published, I got a note from Donald saying, ‘Not nice, Milton.’”

The designer felt no compulsion to be nice, though. When I asked him whether he considered Trump to be a symbol of New York values and culture, Glaser -- who is one of the people who epitomize New York to me, and to anyone interested in visual culture -- demurred:

His is a certain kind of personality that thrives in New York, which is narcissistic and self-absorbed, very aggressive, determined to exploit every opportunity, take advantage of every situation, and profoundly uninterested in other people. Everybody is there to be taken, at their expense and to his benefit. In New York, there are these opportunities because it’s not like a small community where if you get known as a rascal people will avoid you. 

That, however, isn’t why Glaser says he would never design anything else for Trump.

When I did the vodka bottle, he was just another hustling businessman. He’s become a model of how not to be in the world. In teaching now, the first thing I teach is, do no harm. The doctors’ creed should be ours. When you you’re communicating information, you should be careful that it doesn’t endanger the public in any way.

Trump’s presidential bid feels dangerous to Glaser.

My fear is that Trump is irrational. Extreme narcissists very frequently go over the line and lose any sense of what reality is, and I don’t think Trump has any sense of what reality is. That’s the most dangerous person you could have in control of anything.

He is resolved to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, though he says he would have preferred an alternative and regrets that “a third party hasn’t materialized.” His vote is not so much for Clinton as against Trump, and he has made an effort to let others know it. Recently, he designed the “Dump Trump” pin and sent it “to 10 people who I knew would hand them out to their rich friends,” he says. “Some have.”

Glaser doesn’t have much to say about the design of the badge except that it proceeded from the words. There’s no gold, no visual allusion to power and importance, just a stark message arranged like an old newspaper stuffed into a garbage can. It’s a quintessential New York image to counter native son Trump’s gold-plated imagery, a foil to Trump’s imprint on the city and now on American politics. Coming from Glaser, who has been doing graphic design since the 1950s, it also feels like an optimistic prediction, a preview of the day after the election. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net