Modern Elder

According to author Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Working around the clock this only amounts to about a year and a half of one’s life. John Klimo had put in over 400,000 hours Art Directing his life. Right to the bitter end. He was an elegant raconteur who was both witty and sharp. John's intellect could have you holding your sides with laughter as easily as he might intrigue you with an insightful comment or an autobiographical story. John was my generous mentor, professional adviser, and dear friend. If you don't already have one of these in your life, I highly recommend you seek one. From the moment we first met, I knew him to be a gentleman that personified style, passion and conviction. Giving his opinion was John’s way of Art Directing the world around him. And rightfully so - he’d been doing it for over sixty-five years. The epitome of an Art Director, John had been thinking creatively since he was a young and gangly New York punk.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, the Silver Screen presented to the public a new generation of aristocracy. This one was not born of wealth, but on movie screens around the world where the beautiful women and dashingly handsome heroes of Hollywood captivated the imaginations of millions. When these stars traveled on ocean liners, they were sure to travel on the largest, fastest and or most beautiful ones. Nicknamed “Ship Beautiful,” The RMS Aquatania had more than her share of celebrities aboard. In early 1933, a modèle de ville for Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli had fallen in love with the ship’s purser. Sadly, the drunken purser later died falling down a flight of stairs aboard the luxury liner, and left behind six-month old John and his grieving mother. For John, the movies would be as much of an escape as they were a source of inspiration, adult role models, and personal vernacular that he would often do impressions of. John had Norma Desmond down.

As a teenager growing up in New York City during the 1940’s, John Klimo’s life presented itself to him in cinematic fashion. As a Creative Director, he’d been in this role for a very long time. When he was seventeen, John found himself in a street fight and to defend himself he used the only weapon he had – a rolled-up copy of the Fall issue of Vogue. Having had no formal education, John was trained by some of the best and worst in the fashion design world, at a time when street-smarts were valid credentials. With a career in Advertising spanning decades, John got his start designing the windows for fashionable department stores after working alongside some of the finest haute couture designers of Europe. Art Direction of luxury fashion, fragrances and cosmetics, personal care and comfort with a keen sense of style became John’s forté and his life. He truly directed the art. And his professional opinion mattered every step of the way.

I never remember where I first heard this, but it’s one of my favorite quotes about technology and design thinking: “The only button on your keyboard that lets you be creative is the one that says ‘delete.’” No computers or digital advantages of any kind, John was old school. Scissors, #11 X-Acto® blades, C-prints, and SprayMount® were the only tools needed to make all of our comps (ad layouts) when we worked together. I had a BFA from ArtCenter, but I got my Masters, so-to-speak, from the school of Mr. John Klimo. Thirty-eight years later, on Christmas morning, I called him from my car, which was parked in front of his apartment building on Park Avenue and 65th Street. He wouldn't let me up to see him in the condition he was in. The call came to me two weeks later that John had died quietly at home. His lawyer told me there would be no funeral, memorial service, or even obituary. There is no grave to visit. In many ways, he vanished without a trace. The end of an era - one we surely will never witness again.

John was yet another tall, white-haired man, wearing a vest and carrying a pocket watch, but, of course, he added the brown suede Oxfords which will forever be tough to fill. Even if they are my size. The last time John and I were together, he was dressed in his all black summer wardrobe, walking with a cane. His long, white ponytail and Gitanes Blue cigarettes in tow, we grabbed a street-side table at Sant Ambroeus Coffee Bar just outside The Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. I went inside to place our order when a lovely older woman approached me and said, ‘Excuse me, but your friend is such a nice man. It’s wonderful to see.” I asked her how she knew John and she said ‘John? You mean that’s not Karl Lagerfeld?’ 


  • Michael Katz

    Beautiful tribute and now I better understand your sense of style and carefully planned wardrobe 👌

  • Vijay Aluwalia

    The only button on your keyboard that lets you be creative is the one that says ‘delete.’ Love it Mike. Thanks for sharing

Leave a comment