Lost in the frenetic hubbub of George Delmerico’s sprawling personality was a quiet genius for bold simplicity and impact when it came to his chosen art form, the weekly newspaper. I count myself lucky to have worked with George in the dawning days of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he was the paper’s first art designer and creative director. I was still relatively green, so, naturally, I didn’t appreciate how blessed I was. To me, George was just another guy from New York and the Village Voice who wound up in Santa Barbara. At any given time, he would be holding forth with noisy enthusiasm on at least three subjects — typically Warner Brothers cartoons, obscure jazz musicians, and old vintage movies. All the while he would be smoking a cigarette and massaging a recalcitrant mass of type, captions, headlines, subheads, and photos into a newspaper page that someone — anyone — would actually want to read. He didn’t just make it look easy; he made it look unconscious. But as anyone who has tried can tell you, it is anything but.
Before George, my relationship with art directors was decidedly mixed. For me, deadlines were something to be broken, word counts to be exceeded, and art directors irritating speed bumps to be bypassed and ignored. George changed that. And he did so by being an active and gleeful coconspirator in the necessary chaos out of which newspapers are born. He gloried in what The Independent was trying to become — confused as it’s often been — and he sought to celebrate what the paper’s writers were trying to achieve. For George, it wasn’t all about “the word,” but among his many gifts was his ability to make writers feel as if it were. Given his impressive professional and creative pedigree — the Village Voice, New York Times, Newsday — George could have easily copped a seriously above-it-all, been-there-done-that attitude. He never did. With George, every week was a genuine collaboration among equals — even though equals we really weren’t — a crazy dance to put out the best we could in the limited time that we had. To an exceptional degree, George really cared. And by his caring, we all tried much harder.
George Delmerico died last month of a massive heart attack, stricken just moments before he could enjoy what would have been his last Sunday breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Had he lived a week longer, he would have celebrated his 68th birthday. Given George’s notoriously unhealthy habits — he chain-smoked, never ate anything remotely good for him, avoided exercise religiously, drove with frightening distraction, and inhaled galaxies of marijuana smoke — his death should not have come as a surprise. Yet it did. By the time of his heart attack, George had beaten prostate cancer, he’d defeated stage-four throat cancer, and, most amazingly of all, he’d gotten the better of AIDS. The latter he survived 20 years ago, when AIDS was still a de facto death sentence and none of the wonder drugs so successful in keeping AIDS patients alive were yet developed. To those who knew him, he emerged as the most unlikely of medical supermen, miraculously escaping a host of potentially lethal diseases by studying them — and talking them — to death.
George was born in a small town about a half hour’s drive outside New York City, the oldest of three kids. His father, an Italian American, was a salesman who ran a liquor store. His mother — German-Irish — worked in a florist shop. George, named after an uncle who died during World War II, had two younger sisters, Jean and Nancy. Nancy — nine years younger and who would follow him into a career of graphic design — recalled, “He always called me ‘darling.’ He was the best big brother.” As a kid, George was always drawing, copying the characters from Pogo and Peanuts with striking exactitude. George attended a small high school with only 100 kids in his graduating class, sang in the school choir, and performed in school plays. After high school, he attended the Pratt Institute, where he became friends with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who would later became famous — infamous in some circles — for his richly toned male nudes. After Pratt, George spent a year in London studying at the Royal College of Art.
Poster art, illustration, and graphic design played an absolutely vital role in the late 1960s and early ’70s, giving expression to the social eruptions taking place throughout the United States and the world. Few places were as keenly alive to these new realities — and new visual languages — as New York. To an exceptional degree, George found himself at the right place at the right historical time. And to an unusual degree, he would help define what would become the new visual vernacular. Although George would get seriously schooled while working for New York Magazine and the New York Times, it was at the Village Voice that his contributions were most profoundly felt. Long before the weekly newspaper existed, the Village Voice had already established itself as America’s prototypical alternative news-and-entertainment publication. Visually, the Voice was proudly gray, almost defying readers to penetrate vast oceans of unrelieved type. George started at the Voice in 1976 and would leave nine years later. In that time, he created a whole new look, demonstrating that the Voice could be both serious minded and visually exciting, mixing text, photographs, and illustration in ways unexpected but compelling. In hindsight, the new look now seems obvious if not inevitable. At the time, it was positively groundbreaking.
In 1985, George moved to Santa Barbara, where he delighted in going to the beach but never in getting in the water. His former Village Voice boss and longtime friend Marianne Partridge was then running the Santa Barbara News & Review, which in short order fused with a rival weekly publication to morph into The Santa Barbara Independent. In the insanity of newspaper deadlines, George invented The Independent logo with next to no notice; he would redesign the entire paper in as little time. By then, George had fully embraced his gay sexuality after having lived seven years with a woman, who remained to the end a close personal friend. In the early 1990s, he met Ken Volok, with whom he maintained a lifelong romantic and artistic partnership. In person George could be both elegant and goofy, sweet and impossible. The wheels were frequently falling off the cars with George, and there was almost always drama. It was never smooth and easy. But as a designer, George was a ruthless perfectionist for whom “good enough” was never sufficient. But above all else — even surmounting the clever headlines for which he became famous — George was abidingly and amazingly generous.
George knew what worked and what didn’t; he knew what choices he was making and why. He expected the many young art directors he mentored over the years to understand what they were doing and why. “You couldn’t just say, ‘Gee, it looks cool.’” recalled Alex Abatie, a former Independent art director. But George was never harsh or cutting; he was always positive, always clear. Franz Krachtus, another former Independent art director, described George as “a lifelong teacher” and “one of the great masters of typography.” Under George’s tutelage, Krachtus said he gained a bone-deep appreciation for how letters and words should — and should not — be strung together on a page. As a result, when Krachtus sees road signs with improper spacing between letters, he wants to stop his car and fix them.
Over the years, George and designer Matt Ansoorian developed a close artistic relationship conferring — and arguing — weekly about Ansoorian’s covers and story designs for The Independent. “He said, ‘Listen, dude; it’s not about you.’ With George it was all about the design serving the word, serving the articles, serving the content. It was never design just for design’s sake,” he said. “He was a wordsmith who really loved visuals.”
After The Independent, George worked for UCSB as director of publications until his retirement in 1995. After that, he taught, collaborated with his partner on various projects, and donated his time and skill to various political campaigns, including those of City Councilmember Cathy Murillo and her husband, David Pritchett.
Russ Spencer, who worked with George at both The Independent and UCSB, recalled how George wouldn’t rest — he couldn’t — until all the elements of a page came together and they were beautiful. His talent, Spencer noted, was neither “formulaic nor proprietary.” Instead, “It was based on joy, and it only got bigger as it was shared.”
There will be a celebration of George Delmerico’s life this Sunday, September 22, at 2:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara (1535 Santa Barbara St.).