Scott Ellsworth interviews legendary art director Amil Gargano about the creative process in advertising. Set against the backdrop of Gargano’s career, and focusing upon his highly influential work with Carl Ally, Gargano offers examples from some of his best-known work, including advertising campaigns he helped to create for Northeast Airlines, Pan Am, Hertz, Volvo, and Federal Express.
Writer and historian Scott Ellsworth helped to establish the Center for Advertising History at the Smithsonian Institution, where he conducted extensive oral history studies of classic American advertising campaigns. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he can be contacted at 2187 S.W. Main Street, Portland, Oregon 97205, (503) 224-7184.
How did you get into the business?
I was probably about in the 4th grade and the teacher that I had in grammar school said to my parents that, “I think your son has a lot of potential art talent, and you should have him develop it.” So, that was the beginning of my formal training. I loved the idea of drawing and my aspirations at that age, 10 or 11, were, I suppose, to be a serious painter. And I pursued that. I went on to a school called Cass Tech. It had a wonderful national reputation. I learned more in that 3-year period from 10 to 12th grade than I had in almost all of my education.
Were you taught commercial art as well as painting?
It was everything. They taught you perspective drawing, etching, lettering, and painting. It was as complete a course as one could expect, including design work, human anatomy. It was as inclusive as a course I could have possibly taken. It was so inspired that when I left Cass to go to Wayne University ó it wasn’t called Wayne State at the time — the students who were in those classes would usually advance from Freshmen to Sophomore year because they had just a terrific background. Well, when I got advanced to sophomore class I saw that those were equally disappointing, and I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to spend my time in a school that I thought was not as challenging or interesting as my high school. So I went to a school called Society of Arts and Crafts. Then I got drafted in October of 1952 and found myself in the front line of Korea the following spring.
Was the shooting war over at that point?
No, it was still on. I got there in April and the armistice was signed in July. I had about 3 months of combat duty that was primarily reconnaissance patrols, and we would draw that about once a week. The war, fortunately, ended after 3 months, so I didn’t have to spend a long duration there. I remained on the front line until the time I got discharged from the services.
It just hit me that you were kid during World War II. Did that affect your later work?
Well, being a child of the depression, it seemed that happy times weren’t there outside of the family unit. Everyone was struggling mightily to just eek out a living, and then on comes WWII. My two older brothers got drafted in the service. When my mother came to this country she was illiterate: she didn’t know how to read or write. She would wait for me to get home from school and I would read the letters from my brothers to her, and I would look at her expressions of great apprehension and fear and hoping that they were safe and that they were going to return. It was my daily function: I came home and I read these letters to her. The nation had an incredible sense of unity and patriotism in those days. There were little flags that people hung in their windows if they had a relative or family member in the service and it would be a red banner with a blue star if you had a son...