The priest’s hat, Henry Wolf’s “double” cover for Domus 737

An event that could never happen again today. The story of a 1992 cover that arrived at the editorial staff and shocked them all. Recalled here by Giuseppe Basile, long-time Art Director of Domus.

In 1992, under the direction of Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, we decided to entrust the great Henry Wolf with the cover of Domus’ April issue. A very prestigious name, already author of important pages of American and international graphics.

These decisions are sometimes risky, and questioning such authoritative figures means giving them freedom of interpretation. Even during general briefs, one can receive surprising answers from those who have an unusual approach to a visual project (like saying: if you go to the doctor, then you have to take your meds). As always in these cases, the editorial staff had high expectations, and when the envelope arrived from Henry Wolf Inc. in New York, we all unwrapped it in a flash, editor and colleagues together.

It was not an easy package to open, it had been prepared for a long journey. The first thing I noticed was the accompanying note, written in his own handwriting, saying: “This is my proposal, what I would like for your April cover”.

Henry Wolf. Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images
Portrait of American graphic designer and photographer Henry Wolf as he poses in a studio, 1968. The photo was taken as part of a shoot for Esquire magazine. Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images

Next to it, on an elegant card, there was the sketch Wolf’s note was referred to. He had obviously used one of his photos in which a beautiful model, standing in profile, was wearing only nylon stockings and panties, with designer pumps on her feet in an elegant and expensive ensemble. In front of her, on a backless chair, the ergonomic version designed to sit on your knees, there was a dressed-up man, elegant but reserved. The man was dressed in a bow tie, with Corbu glasses on his face and a bouquet of flowers in his hands for the woman. The message was clear: the sexy girl represented architecture and the man the architect, engaged in a courtship, a declaration of love.

Although everything was perfectly realised, the impeccable photography and the perfect characters in their interpretation, silence fell on the editorial staff, a silence that no one wanted to break.

The cover won the award for best cover of the year at the usual AIGA census in New York.

In fact, knowing Wolf’s photographic and graphic work, the proposal for Domus was in perfect style. However, no one – except Alessandro Mendini, who did some great things – could have imagined such a disorienting vision with the themes that Domus has always dealt with and the ways it has done so. We were not prepared or perhaps ready for such a brave choice.

Even in an attempt to break the silence I lifted the stand and saw a second note, again handwritten by Wolf, saying “this is what you expected”.

Henry Wolf, copertina Domus 737, aprile 1992
Henry Wolf, Domus cover 737, April 1992

Next to it, another wonderful photo, a graphic photomontage. Wolf had inserted a red disc along the diameter of St Peter’s dome. At the base, a simple graphic nod of the same colour drew shoulders and chest, the figure depicted a prelate. We immediately christened the sketch the “priest’s hat”. Wolf described it as a tribute to the highest classical architecture Italy is a symbol of.

Lampugnani smiled and immediately fell in love with the cover, which was printed without hesitation, the master was right and he knew us well ;-)

The cover won the award for best cover of the year at the usual AIGA census in New York. It was 1992 and the cover was transgressive in that world. Today it would probably be considered offensive in our world. But this Wolf could not have imagined.

Henry Wolf was born in Vienna in 1925.  At the age of 16, he came to the United States. He was art director for magazines (Esquire, Harper’s Bazar, where he succeeded his mentor Alexey Brodovitch) and then for companies such as Jack Tinker & Partners and McCann-Erickson. In 1966 he became EVP and creative director of Trahey/Wolf Advertising. In 1971 he founded Henry Wolf Production Inc., whose interests were in photography, film and design. Gold Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (1976). In 1980 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of New York’s Art Directors Club. He won countless awards, including five consecutive Art Director of Year awards. He died in 2005. 

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