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It's a magic carpet ride
July 30, 2018

It's a magic carpet ride

Henry Wolf reshaped American glossy magazine design in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but did you know he also art directed Sesame Street magazine in the early 70s? It initially seems a funny match, the guy who epitomized luxury living and high culture at kid's magazine from an institution that stood for all things egalitarian. Wolf wrote in Graphis no. 173 (1974): "Just imagine that instead of the demanding, sophisticated, has-it-all lady whom I had to conjure up at Harper's Bazaar to guide my decisions, I can now just bring to mind the bright face of a smiling child who hasn't as yet been taught that being critical equals being clever."

While the gritty aesthetic of the early years of the Sesame Street TV program stood in direct opposition to the gloss and glamor that formed the basis of much of Wolf's work, his tenure as Consulting Art Director featured a parade of the best illustrators of the time, including many Push Pin artists (like Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Isadore Seltzer, Reynold Ruffins, James McMullan, and Barry Zaid), who had been largely responsible for developing and pushing a proto-psychedelic style into mainstream outlets (as well as inspiring artists who became most closely associated with psychedelic art in the late-1960s). Other artists like Chas B Slackman, Simms Taback, and Bill Charmatz worked in a complementary vein, while outliers like Ivan Chermayeff and Robert Weaver (see image at top) still made pefect sense within the muted pop-psychedelic universe of Sesame Street.

The magazine launched in 1972, just three years after the show premiered; Wolf became Art Director in September 1973. Wolf assumed that his mission was to expose kids to beautiful art in a fun, engaging, and instructive way. He wrote, "Having children as an audience means being able to start at the beginning: instead of satisfying or offending against existing criteria, you must first create the criteria... Sesame Street, at its most basic level, is beautiful artwork, lots of colour and good proportions." The first season of the TV show, in 1969, saw the amazing free jazz-ish Jazz Numbers series sung by Grace Slick (?!) establishing Sesame Street's psychedelic bona fides from the outset. Sesame Street's 1976 segment Pinball Number Count was also undoubtedly indebted to Push Pin.

Nighttime forest scene with moose, bear, raccoon, deer, and rabbit in foreground and tent and trees in background.
Illustration by Charles Shields for December 1974 issue.

Snowy day with line of children running into a school with snowballs to build a snowman indoors. City buildings appear in the background.
Illustration by Bill Charmatz for February 1974 issue.
On the left side, an illustration or red and blue ink bottle and the ink spilled and merging into purple. Next to it is the text "Here's purple." On the right side, an illustration of a slice of bread and jars of jelly and peanut butter. In the foreground, a slice of bread covered by a blank space. Next to it, the text reads, "Color it purple."
Illlustration by Chas B. Slackman for December 1973 issue.
Naked man sitting atop a green circus cone inside a cage to illustrate the meaning of the word "Inside".
Illustration by Ivan Chermayeff for September 1973 issue.
Illustration of two dogs and three children marching with handmade instruments to illustrate how to make a box band.
Illustration by Seymour Chwast for February 1974 issue.
'Sesame Street Game' spread showing board-game style path from start to goal with images of Sesame Street characters that can be cut out and folded into playing pieces.
Illustration by Gary and Mary Schenck for the May 1974 issue.
Detailed black and white illustration with some watercolor of four fish and one starfish.
Illustration by Jim Spanfeller for November 1974 issue.
Watercolor drawing showing numbers 1-10 with the Sphinx, 2 men, 3 lizards, 4 birds, 5 pyramids, 6 clouds, 7 palm trees, 8 camels, 9 ants, and 10 flowers.
Illustration by James McMullan for September 1973 issue.
Illustration of Sesame Street's The Count in between 5 black spiders in a spiderweb on the left and 4 brown spiders in a spiderweb on the right.
Isadore Seltzer for November 1976 issue.
Illustration of sailboat in blue water in foreground and train going over bridge in background. Several shapes are isolated in the illustration in white.
Illustration Thomas B. Allen for November 1973 issue.
Illustration of journey of corn: growing the corn, picking it, taking it to the store, buying the corn at the store, and an Asian boy in a striped shirt eating it.
Tony Chen illustration for September 1975 issue.