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George Lois, visionary art director, is dead at 91

Mr. Lois, shown in 2016, put the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s into postwar advertising and created stunning covers for Esquire magazine.Damon Winter/NYT

George Lois, Madison Avenue’s best-known 20th-century art director, who put the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s into postwar advertising and created stunning covers for Esquire magazine that rebuked American racism and involvement in the Vietnam War, died Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

His son Luke confirmed the death, which he noted followed the death of Mr. Lois’s wife, Rosemary, by two months. He did not specify a cause.

Irascible and uncompromising, Mr. Lois created witty, irreverent campaigns that shattered the ham-handed advertising conventions that had relied on testimonials and romanticized images. In one campaign, a chimpanzee demonstrated the simplicity of a Xerox machine; in another, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who was deep in debt to the IRS, appeared in a brokerage ad asking, “Where were you when I needed you?”

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Mr. Lois was also known for the Esquire covers he designed from 1962 to 1972, acid-rain critiques on society, race, politics, and war, many of them wordless. One showed boxer Sonny Liston in a Santa Claus hat, suggesting that he was the last person white America wanted to see coming down the chimney on Christmas. Another placed four Vietnamese children with a gargoyle-grinning William L. Calley Jr., the Army lieutenant who ordered the 1968 My Lai Massacre. Andy Warhol was depicted drowning in a giant can of Campbell’s tomato soup.

In his six-decade career, Mr. Lois founded and led many advertising agencies, wrote books on advertising and art direction, and devised award-winning campaigns that sold everything from soap to airlines. He was hailed by colleagues and peers as one of the most influential and creative admen of his era.

Some said he was the model for Don Draper, the suave, elegant central character of the long-running AMC series “Mad Men.” It was not likely.

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Mr. Lois, a bald, bulky, arm-waving tsunami who talked a blue streak with a Bronx accent, scoffed at the idea, and in a CNN report in 2012 he insisted that “Mad Men,” with its depiction of compulsive smoking, boozing, and womanizing, grossly misrepresented the advertising milieu he knew.

“That dynamic period of counterculture in the 1960s,” he said, “found expression on Madison Avenue through a new creative generation — a rebellious coterie of art directors and copywriters who understood that visual and verbal expression were indivisible, who bridled under the old rules that consigned them to secondary roles in the ad-making process dominated by noncreative hacks and technocrats.”

While conceding Mr. Lois’s pivotal role in Madison Avenue’s modernization, some critics called him a brash loudmouth and a shameless self-promoter who was sometimes given credit for the ingenious work of others or who exaggerated his participation in creative processes that involved many people.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Lois, by his own account, almost single-handedly rescued MTV from an early death. The cable channel, launched in New York in 1981 with a 24-hour rock ‘n’ roll format, was in his words “an abject failure” after its first year, scorned by cable operators, advertisers, music publishers, and recording companies.

Asked to step in, Mr. Lois produced a campaign of commercials with a voice-over ending, “If you don’t get MTV where you live, call your cable operator and say (with a cutaway to Mick Jagger bellowing), “I want my MTV.”

In six months, every rock star in the nation joined the parade, and MTV became the most popular phenomenon on television. Today, 90 million households receive MTV. Without it, fans say, generations might never have seen music videos or partied in basements.

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Mr. Lois began his advertising career in 1956 as an art director with Sudler & Hennessey in New York. Two years later he landed a similar position at Doyle Dane Bernbach, which, under William Bernbach, was arguably the most creative shop in town in the 1950s.

After a year at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Mr. Lois joined two colleagues, Fred Papert and Julian Koenig, to form Papert Koenig Lois in 1960. With Mr. Lois as creative director, it became the first ad agency with an art director as a principal. It went public in 1962, raising its fortunes and starting a trend. By 1967 it was a major agency, with $40 million in billings.

In 1962, Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, asked Mr. Lois how to improve the magazine’s covers, which were then conceived and assigned by an editorial committee. “Is that what you do when you assign a story to Talese or to Mailer — you have a group grope?” Mr. Lois recalled saying. “You need to get one guy who understands the culture, who likes comic strips, goes to the ballet, visits the Metropolitan Museum.”

Mr. Lois was hired for the job as a freelancer. His covers — photos or montages, sometimes with hand-drawn elements — were often textless, making their point strikingly with a single image. He was credited with 92 in all, though the origins of some were later disputed. Many were controversial — Liston’s Santa cost Esquire $750,000 in dropped advertising. But 32 of his covers were installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008.

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He portrayed President Richard M. Nixon having rouge and lipstick applied for a TV appearance during the 1968 presidential campaign, and, on another cover, Nixon’s rival that fall, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, as a dummy on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s lap.

As for the enigmatic Warhol cover that showed the artist falling into his signature Campbell’s soup can, Mr. Lois told Fast Company magazine in 2012: “A lot of people looked at it and said I had him drowning in his own fame. Some people said it was the end of pop art. Other people say it’s an iconic celebration of pop art. Well, OK!”

George Harry Lois was born in Manhattan on June 26, 1931, one of three children of Harry and Vasilike (Thanasoulis) Lois, Greek immigrants. His father was a florist. George and his sisters, Paraskeve and Hariclea, were raised in the Bronx.

After 1 1/2 years at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he dropped out to work for designer Reba Sochis.

He married Rosemary Lewandowski, an artist, in 1951. They had two sons, Harry, who died in 1978, and Luke. In addition to Luke, Mr. Lois, who lived in Greenwich Village, leaves two grandchildren.

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Mr. Lois left Papert Koenig Lois in 1967 and founded Lois Holland Callaway and was its chair and CEO until 1976. He then joined Creamer/FSR. In 1978, he founded Lois/EJL, which went through several name and leadership permutations in the 1980s and ’90s. He was chair and creative director when the firm went bankrupt and closed in 1999.

Mr. Lois and his son Luke then founded Good Karma Creative, an advertising and marketing venture.

Mr. Lois wrote several books, including “Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!)” (2012).

Since his heyday, the advertising world that once nurtured individual creativity has vanished, Mr. Lois told the magazine Creative Review in 2012. “What happened finally,” he said, “is these terrible conglomerate, no-talent, so-called marketing monoliths started to buy up agencies, and you have five or six or seven agencies running the world, and if you’re part of them you’ll never be a creative agency. It just doesn’t work.”