Turn Back the Pages: Leo Lionni & Fortune Magazine


Leo Lionni (1910-1999) was a painter, designer, children’s book illustrator, and art director. He was born in the Netherlands, lived in Philadelphia for a year, and in 1925 moved to Italy where he enrolled in a commercial high school. It was there that he met his future wife, Nora Maffi, and discovered Italian politics. Nora’s father was one of the founders of the Italian Communist party and was put under house arrest by the Fascists. He said this about that period of his life: “This was quite a shock, having come from a happy Philadelphia school, where I played basketball and went to proms. It fell on my head like a bomb, and conditioned my life enormously.”

In 1939, due to the political climate in Italy and his interest in design, he took a job at an advertising agency called N.W. Ayer and moved to Philadelphia. At the agency he commissioned work from artists such as Saul Steinberg, Andy Warhol and William DeKooning. After 9 years he wanted a change and moved to New York where he opened up a small office.  Lionni said: “I called the promotion art director at Fortune, whom I had dealt with in the past, to ask for work. Instead, he told me that Fortune was looking for an art director and asked if I was interested. I told them I would do it on a freelance basis, three days a week and that I wanted an assistant who could go to all the meetings.” Fortune agree, and after a brief vacation, Lionni began his 14-year relationship with Time/Life Publications.

At that point Lionni had never designed a magazine. He said: “It fit me like an old shoe, because it brought everything I had learned with passion to some kind of concrete manifestation. I employed my rationality in designing its architecture. As with all the artists I’d been involved with, I defined exactly what Fortune’s limitations were-what it was and wasn’t. That to me is a real Bauhaus approach”.

At Fortune Lionni not only hired illustrators, but also fine artists. He encouraged painters to do picture essays and sent illustrators on-site to work as journalist, with a freedom to draw upon and interpret first hand experience.

Robert Weaver had this to say about him: “Lionni trusted the artist, and once he picked the right practitioner, he let him alone. One valuable lesson from Lionni was when he asked me to do a cover for Fortune. What I did was go to the library and look up all the preceding Fortune covers under his direction. I made up my mind that there was a certain kind of cover that he wanted, which I then proceeded to copy. Of course, I did an ersatz Fortune cover, which he quickly rejected, saying, “No, no, no, no, do it your way.” He looked at my sketchbook and picked out a most unexpected drawing for a cover. I told him that it didn’t look like a Fortune cover, and he said “I don’t want it to look like a Fortune Cover.””

Let’s take a look at a series Weaver did about the Crain Company for the March 1957 issue (I suspect this is the series he’s talking about, but haven’t been able to confirm it).

Weaver continued: “That was Fortune’s Policy, to send artists on stories. I was sent to Ohio and Alabama, just all over.”

For the January 1960 issue Weaver was send to document the Woolworth company for an article titled “Long but Profitable Climb”. He said: “These are assignments for Fortune, where I am realistically and symbolically going up the corporate ladder at W.H. Woolworth’s. It starts with the stockboy, and I use chairs as a metaphor for power. The chairs become more and more elaborate as we go to the top. The drawings were rendered from life. I asked the stockboy just to stand for a few minutes, and finally I rendered the big-time lawyers. As for process, essentially there is not a hell of a lot of transformation between the sketches and the finishes. I’ve simplified the finish a little bit and added some color. I’ve actually made the pictures more decorative. My sketches are notes, and the color variations stay in the mind. I make the drawings without colors, and later I simply bathe the picture in what I remember to be proper light.”

Here are the on-site drawings done for this project.

And the final paintings.

For another assignment Lionni hired an illustrator named Elaine Morfogen to create a series about antiques at an auction house that appeared in the June 1960 issue.

The next article I’d like to share is from the April 1957 issue. A painter named John Hultberg was assigned the job of creating a portfolio about the New Port News.

Here’s the introduction as it appears in that issue: “The paintings on this and following pages are by John Hultberg, a young Californian. FORTUNE commissioned him to go to Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., near Hampton Roads, Virginia, and there paint whatever took his fancy. Newport News, now in its sixty-ninth year of continuous operation, began to diversify in 1922 and to manufacture heavy equipment for many industries. Hultberg who had never been turned loose in a shipyard before, looked out on the Virginia snowscape and saw vast distances filled with angled planes, looming shapes, and swirling lines. Ranging from realism to semi-abstraction, his paintings have captured Newport News’ manifold activities and the tough, austere spirit of all shipyards.”

In 1960, at the age of 50, Lionni left his job as the art director of Fortune magazine and decided to move back to Italy. He said: “Everyone thought I was crazy because I had very little money, but it was what I needed to do.” However, fate stepped in and gave him a new career path. When he was riding a commuter train with his grandchildren he tore bits of colored paper out of an issue of Life Magazine to entertain them with a story he created. This led to a new career as a Children’s book author and illustrator, which he continued to produce until his death in 1999.


Additional Credits:

The Illustration at the top is by Ben Shahn for the July 1949 issue of Fortune.

Leo Lionni’s quotes come from an AIGA article written by Stephen Heller.










Tags: , ,

Categories: Illustration History, Illustrators, New Illustration, Reportage

Author:Daniel Zalkus

Daniel Zalkus is an Illustrator and graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. You can see more of his work at: danielzalkus.com

Don't miss a thing!

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

2 Comments on “Turn Back the Pages: Leo Lionni & Fortune Magazine”

  1. April 3, 2018 at 10:07 pm #

    really nice

    try to look our link


  2. April 7, 2018 at 6:57 pm #

    I loved Leo Lionni’s books as a child. And just like Ludwig Bemelmans, there is so much more behind the children’s books. Thank you for a great overview and giving depth to such a treasured author.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.