July/Aug 2009 Q&A
David Curcurito Shakes Things Up at ESQUIRE
by Christina M. Hinke
For those who wonder what the heck is Esquire doing splashing its covers with those loud type treatments, the hand that inks them is David Curcurito's.
Esquire’s design director for the last four years is just as ballsy as its king, David Granger, making them a match made in publishing heaven as they think up the next “big idea.” Sure, George Lois coined the term and put his own spin on Esquire back in the 1960’s, but this is the 21st century, and the design duo is shredding it up by experimenting with the print world’s latest technologies. Blend that ingenuity with powerful images and Esquire is showing that being fearless can bring new experiences to print.
Prior to your gig at Esquire you worked at American Express. That seems off target considering previously you were creative director for The Source and Complex. What were you doing there?
I was doing the best job in the world. I was selling creativity. It was a lot different than any other custom publication outfit because we had the database of all the American Express cards and we had a circulation. It was a lot of fun. I was only there for four months then Granger called and wanted me to be the design director for Esquire.
Just like that?
It wasn’t that easy.
Were you two friends?
He didn’t know me.
How did you get the job?
Eliot Kaplan is the editorial talent director and he and I met through a colleague. I stayed in touch. One day he contacted me and asked me to throw my hat in the Esquire ring. I didn’t think he thought I could get the job. But, I got the job.
Why do you think that was?
I think I got the job because I think Granger saw I don’t give a shit what other people think. I take a lot of chances and I think he likes that. I think he had a plan to shakes thing up.
How do you like working here?
It’s like home.
I read you would like to work with new photographers. Can you explain?
Basically, all that meant was I was ready and willing to take chances. I wanted to create my own voice. It’s a lot easier to bring people up through the ranks. We’re doing that now. I needed to have my own staff.
Who do you like right now?
Martin Schoeller and I are clicking creatively right now. He is like my long-lost brother. We are doing some pretty cool stuff. We came up with the idea for the May issue over a few Scotches, just having fun and joking around. The next day I am looking at sketches on a napkin and brought it to Granger. A year later advertising sold it.
How did you decide on President Barack Obama, Justin Timberlake and George Clooney for May’s How to be a Man mix-and-match issue?
Obama is the man, isn’t he? George Clooney is everyman. Timberlake we thought might be cool in order to have a younger element in there. I wanted Russell Crowe, but he was a pain in the neck and he didn’t want to do any publicity.
Esquire also devoted a nice chunk of pages in that issue for a profile story on Martin Schoeller, an unusual story for a mainstream magazine. Whose idea was it?
That was my idea to put in a profile. The story was really interesting -- you erase their celebrity status and they become human, they are just people, they are on the same level. He shot the cover, so, why not take that theory of mix and match to create your own human being and then have Martin explain it in his own words?
Who else do you like to work with?
I recently got into Nigel Parry -- we have been hanging out a lot. He is just a top-notch photographer. There is a whole stable of great Italian photographers that are edgy. I like working with people who have lots of enthusiasm and who want to create new, interesting stuff. I rarely hire people who aspire to be someone else.
Celebrities are the face of every cover in today’s magazine world. How can photographers come up with a new way to shoot a celebrity?
We try and take a little bit of the person’s personality. To be honest, we try and come up with fresh ideas and cool photography. On the covers, I come up with the cover type treatment. I think: How can he or she interact with the type? That’s a whole other jigsaw puzzle. The inside stuff we just try to have fun, or be serious when we have to. We try to be smarter than other magazines.
Does the cover’s type come first?
No, the image comes first. The images inspire me to do typography in a certain way.
So, the typeface is created by you. How do you go about creating it?
People would call me looking for that typeface. You can’t buy it. I like to work with tracing paper a lot. I have a cover template and we drop in the photo and then I trace the silhouette. Then I do the handwriting and then I can draw on top of my silhouette, and then I scan it in. There are a lot of things you can do with scanners.
That Ben Affleck February cover, shot by Matthias Vriens, is very in your face.
Ben was cool, he got it. We wanted something different and aggressive. We wanted to toughen him up a little bit.
February’s Obama illustration caused quite a stir.
That was a challenge. It was a challenge because Shepard Fairey is a pain in the neck. He charged us an extraordinary amount of money for something that has been overused. At the time it was the most recognizable illustration in the world. On the newsstand it was Obama mania. Why not put the most recognizable image on the cover?
What is Fairey like to work with?
I have worked with him a couple times. He is an artist. It is his way. There is no bending. He is a commercial guy, but, at the same time, we hired him to do his fine art. It’s tough. In the magazine business we have to bend a little bit to get from point A to point B.
Every so often Esquire has a woman on the cover. Do you hire a photographer based on their skill to photograph a woman?
There are some people who shoot that make women very comfortable on set. There are some people who know how to make women look beautiful. Mark Ohm, James White, Greg Williams. I rarely use Greg for women, but he did a great job (with the Megan Fox cover for June – see sidebar for details).
You’re certainly naming all male photographers. What about the other sex?
I love Sheryl [Nields], she is just awesome. Women can connect with her and she can get great stuff out of female celebrities. We have a fair share of female photographers.
When you have a certain person in mind for the cover, what is your role in talking to the photographer to come up with ideas?
My role is to give them parameters to work within -- we want this to be serious, ridiculous, fun. The people I like to work with on the cover, I like to hang out with. I like to hang out, talk, have a good time and laugh, and inspire and be inspired. A photographer can come up with every idea. If a photographer is scratching her or his head, then I will come up with an idea.
In your four years at Esquire, how would you define the direction you have taken it visually?
Bold, brash, smart, when it needs to be smart, entertaining, engaging. That is what I hope for, that is what I strive for. I think about the issue as a whole and how I can pace it out. I like to mix up the photography. I think about the entire experience.