Mitch Shostak Remembered

Mitch Shostak Remembered BY ARTHUR HOCHSTEIN / Illustration by Sean McCabe

On June 25, 2014, the design community and a large circle of friends lost one of its favorite sons, Mitch Shostak. SPD posted something immediately, when the sad news was fresh, before there was time to reflect. This post contains remembrances from those who knew and loved him.

On September 16 from 6-8pm there will be a gathering of friends and colleagues at the School of Visual Arts Chelsea Gallery, 601 W. 26th Street, 15th Floor, in Manhattan, to celebrate Mitch's life. 

Mitch really knew how to live--his life was filled with friends, fishing trips (catch-and-release, of course), bike rides, jazz, travel, and single-malt Scotch tastings with a garrulous group. He was always at the center, the centripetal force that gathered people together. And at the center of his center was the love of his life, his wife Carolyn.

Younger SPD members may not know Mitch. Many years ago, after working at several top-tier publications, he opted to form his own studio, Shostak Studios, which designed a lot of publications that didn't have the visibility or star power of the Vanity Fairs, New York magazines, and Wireds of our world.

  • Here's a gallery of magazines and magazine covers designed by Mitch Shostak and Shostak Studios over the past 30 years. Convene, October 2009.
    Here's a gallery of magazines and magazine covers designed by Mitch Shostak and Shostak Studios over the past 30 years.

Convene, October 2009.
  • Snap, February 2010.
    Snap, February 2010.
  • XRDS, Summer 2010.
    XRDS, Summer 2010.
  • Green Source, January 2007.
    Green Source, January 2007.
  • Babson Magazine, Fall 2011.
    Babson Magazine, Fall 2011.
  • Cachet, March/April 2003.
    Cachet, March/April 2003.
  • e-Biz, September 1, 2001.
    e-Biz, September 1, 2001.
  • The New York Times Magazine, The Business World, June 12, 1988.
    The New York Times Magazine, The Business World, June 12, 1988.
  • BusinessWeek, August 12, 1985.
    BusinessWeek, August 12, 1985.
  • BusinessWeek, March 4, 1985.
    BusinessWeek, March 4, 1985.

Mitch brought tremendous grace and style to that work. He carried on a tradition. Like some of the great art directors of the 1950s, he created tasteful trade, custom publishing, and B2B magazines, showing us how design could elevate and advance any kind of publication. He made his clients' publications look smart, elegant, and state-of-the-art. 

There was a time in the go-go publishing world of the 1990s when it felt like there was a magazine design studio on every corner (or in every loft), but one by one they shut down as people went back to staff jobs or became independent consultants. Mitch was one of the last with a thriving studio, and he continued to lead and mentor a stream of talented designers. A visitor to Shostak Studios saw a humming center of activity, with Mitch calmly directing multiple projects. The walls were filled with works-in-progress, printers churning out page proofs, designers battling deadlines, and stacks of just-printed magazines piled around the office. As the media world underwent a revolution, Mitch, as long as he could, kept the dream of a thriving, independent creative studio alive. And as long as he did, we could all think, "yeah, I could do that, too!"

In addition to being a talented designer, Mitch was an astute businessman. That's something more of us right-brained types would do well to embrace. As a boss, he was tough and demanding, but encouraging, and rewarded the hard or inspired work of his designers. With clients he was fair and accommodating, but tough as well--he didn't let himself or his studio get pushed around just because someone else was paying for their services.

I met Mitch in 2008 when I was recruited to design a magazine for former baseball player Lenny Dykstra. Mitch's studio had collaborated on the project with its first publisher, and he offered to work with me on this go-round. I won't belabor the details, but suffice to say, the project was a roller-coaster ride through an alternate universe. He and I supported each other throughout, and he graciously opened up his studio to help me in any way possible. From our many hours together grew a close, if all-too-brief, friendship. Those who knew him knew Mitchell was an island of serenity and beacon of reason in any situation. He had the most beautiful way of saying, without saying, "You worry too much; just let things run their course, and it'll all work out fine." There was never a time when I was with Mitch, or talked to him, that afterward I didn't feel better about myself--or life in general. He was so comfortable in his skin that he made you more comfortable in yours.

Another way Mitchell made people think, "yeah, I could do that, too!" was through teaching at SVA. Mitch was passionately committed to teaching and inspiring a new generation of designers and art directors. He crafted his teaching the way he crafted his work, and brought in the best of the best to share their experiences, tricks of the trade, and pearls of wisdom.

To that end, one of his final wishes was the establishment of the Mitch Shostak Scholarship Fund at SVA. The fund has been established to support student designers of extraordinary talent. Contributions may be made to The Visual Arts Foundation, 220 E. 23rd St., Suite 609, New York, NY 10010. If you'd like to contribute, and help keep Mitch's legacy alive, please indicate The Mitch Shostak Scholarship Fund on the memo line of your check.

This past May 5, on my birthday, Mitch left a voicemail on my phone. He said, "I have something I need to tell you." Knowing he was ill, my heart sank. He then proceeded to launch into a rousing acapella version of "Happy Birthday." In about seven weeks he would no longer be with us. Leaving that voicemail, with what he was going through, said more about Mitch than any person ever could. 

Mitchell expressed clear, concise design and storytelling in his work and his life. In fact, his life may have been his greatest design.

The following remembrances by his friends and colleagues do a damn good job of describing that life and design.

* * *

Mitch with his famous untied bow tie at an SPD Gala, with Arthur Hochstein and Diana LaGuardia

Fred Woodward:


1 / The great Gil Scott-Heron once said, "Someone's got to always be on the job, because there's always a job out there to do."

I served on the board with Mitch at the Society of Publication Designers, back during the toughest of times--the kind of times when you get to see up close what people are really made of. Mitch was made of the right stuff, the truest grit.

SPD was in serious debt--no need to say exactly why. Bankruptcy was strongly suggested. Just close the doors and walk away. Instead we decided to pay back everyone we owed everything we owed them.

Mitch was our negotiator. He'd walk into an angry office, convince them of our good intentions, and leave with a reasonable payment plan (and sometimes a new friend). 

I never saw anyone say no to Mitch. I mean, how could you?

Everyone on that board did the job--COMRADES!--and we were in the black within three years, for the first time maybe ever.

Not to go all Capraesque on you, but there would be no SPD today if there had never been a Mitch.

2 / A handful of us continued to get together after we left the board for the occasional, roughly seasonal night out. Our friendships may have been forged in fire, but they grew stronger over the years by candlelight--we must have eaten at every decent steak house in the city at least once. The evening would start at the bar. Mitch, always the last to arrive, would order the smokiest single malt they had, holding up a finger: "Bartender, just one ice cube, please." The steak, a medium-rare rib eye. Bacon, almost as thick as the steak. Goose-fat hash brown potatoes. Maybe a wedge of iceberg with blue cheese. Spinach no one ever ate. A few bottles of really good California red, usually of Mitch's choosing.

We'd talk about the usual catch-up kind of stuff: work, industry gossip, travel plans, museum shows, childhood memories, the Yankees, my kids...And towards the end of the evening, usually over a shared hot-fudge sundae, we'd always reminisce about our time together in the trenches at SPD.

Then, too soon, out onto the sidewalk, a big group hug, kisses good-bye, and home our separate ways. Till next time...

3 / I used to see this guy at the SPD Gala milling around during cocktail hour--a real never-met-a-stranger kind of guy--a whiskey in one hand and slapping backs with the other. Laughing and hugging and kissing cheeks. All dappered up in a full tux topped off with a crisp white formal shirt. Old school. Except that the shirt was unbuttoned and the bow tie was undone. Now, this was at the beginning of the night's festivities, and this guy looked like it was 1965 and he's hanging out backstage after the last show at The Sands with Frank, Dino, and Sammy.

Okay, that's cool, I thought. But a little later you'd see the guy up at the podium and it was still untied. Wow. He's not gonna tie it. He likes it that way. Dude's ballsy.

It's years later. The same guy is by now my good friend, Mitch Shostak, and we're in the dressing room, just the two of us, at the Hammerstein Ballroom preparing to go onstage at yet another Gala, and his tie is still undone.

Now, we all know that Mitch was a smart and sophisticated man of many enthusiasms--he knew a lot about a lot of things. He was a talented and highly disciplined craftsman at work and at play. Nothing he couldn't do.

I ask you today, right now, in the Golden Age of could the guy not know how to tie his own bow tie?

I tied it for him that night, standing close behind him, both of us looking into the brightly lit makeup mirror, my arms around his neck, talking him through every step, just like I did with my son when he was still a little boy. There we were, this picture framed by high-watt lighbulbs, two salt-and-pepper-bristled-and-bespectacled-six-footer-fiftysomething doppelgängers--though Mitch was admittedly the more handsome, what with those dancing blue eyes of his, at least as blue as Sinatra's...

Fast forward. It's the next year's Gala. There he is across the room, again...his tie hanging loose. That RASCAL.

4 / Mitch was a guy who, like some of us, got awfully lucky in love. But unlike most of us, he never took his beloved wife for granted, never missed an opportunity to tell us all just how deeply in love he was. When he spoke of Carolyn, his face would quite literally light up; his wonderfully mellifluous baritone would rise an octave or two, along with his temperature. His cheeks would flush to the crimson of a New York State Macoun apple in late October. And those bright baby blues would shine like xenon high beams on a cold, clear night.

Somehow, in all my years of knowing him I never met Carolyn, not until the last time I saw Mitch. But, of course, after all those early morning board meetings and late-night tipsy dinners, after all his many, many lovely stories about her and their magical life together, really, I already knew her.

Like all great storytellers, Mitch was sometimes prone to a bit of hyperbole. But in the case of Carolyn, after being around her for just those first few minutes, well, I have to say that the old boy may have sold her short.

5 / I've been listening a lot lately to a mix I made of Jesse Winchester songs back when he passed away in the spring after his own fight with cancer. He was a longtime (and under-appreciated) singer-songwriter favorite of mine, as well as a fellow displaced Southerner.

"Nothing But a Breeze," a song he wrote back in 1977, begins:

Life is much too short for some folks
For other folks it just drags on
Some folks like the taste of smoky whiskey
Others figure tea is too strong
I'm the type of guy who likes it right down the middle
I don't like all this bouncing back and forth

A much more recent song of Jesse's ends this way:

I wave bye bye
I pray God speed
I wish lovely weather
More luck than you need
You'll only sail in circles
So there's no need to cry
No, I'll see you again one day
And then I waved bye bye

6 / These are the unedited notes I wrote down after hearing we'd lost Mitch, maybe the only words I really needed:

There was never a time that I was around Mitch that he didn't make me feel better about myself, about life, about the world.

He was a great friend to many, and loved by all.

He was the sunniest, least cynical, most optimistic full-grown man I've ever met, or hope to meet.

He smiled through his pain.

He didn't have a mean bone in his body.

He never lost his ability to be absolutely amazed.

His sense of right and wrong was as true as the North Star to a lost sailor.

His heart was 66/100% purer than Ivory soap.

He was good and kind and sweet and smart and funny and gifted and generous.

He was the kind of man I hope my son will grow to be.

He was my brother from another mother.

I loved Mitch, I was blessed to know him (for much too short a while), and I miss him.

I expect to be missing him for the rest of my days.

Fred Woodward is the design director of GQ.

* * *

Mitch Bird Painting.jpg
The painting that Mitch gave Robert Newman in early 2013

Robert Newman: In late 2012 I went to visit Mitch at his downtown studio. I had been laid off from my job and was looking for advice on how to get freelance work and run some kind of business. Mitch was always the master of that. He managed to create a thriving design business, produce brilliant work, and still have plenty of time to have a rich and bountiful life. I wanted to tap into some of that genius! I found that Mitch had basically shut down his studio, although he did have abundant good wisdom to impart. He was most excited about his latest project: elegant, detailed paintings of birds, which were breathtakingly beautiful.

Flash forward six months, and I was in a hospital on the Upper East Side, recovering from a serious accident and head injury. I had just been flown up from Florida and was barely conscious, passing in and out of awareness. Somehow Mitch slipped through all the security that was set up and the strict "no visitors" rule and stopped by my room to deliver one of his paintings. He slid it on to the bed (I could barely wave hello), smiled, and walked back out. I had to ask someone later if Mitch had actually been there because it felt so dreamlike, but the painting remained as proof of his presence. I spent many hours in the hospital admiring the bird painting and reading the inscription, "May the blue bird of happiness and good health smile upon you!"

When I finally got out of hospitals and rehab, one of the first things I did was send Mitch a thank you note, written on a card that featured a beautiful Charley Harper bird illustration. After Mitch's health took a turn for the worse, I went to visit him at his apartment (which was as beautiful and airy as his studio), and he had the Harper bird picture propped up opposite his bed. His love of nature and beauty was embedded in his soul.

Mitch liked to ride around on his Vespa scooter on the back highways of Northwest Connecticut, where he had a family house. Several times he stopped by my place, which was just down the road, and left friendly notes and drawings tucked into the front door. Mitch was a remarkable art director, teacher, mentor, and friend, a rare human being who was fully-realized, completely well-rounded, and filled with love. 

Robert Newman is the creative director at Newmanology.

* * *

Mitch on a lake near his weekend home in Northwest Connecticut

Francesca Messina: In my 20's I landed by a sheer stroke of luck at The New York Times, working with the most talented art directors and editors in the business. Needless to say, I was in over my head. I sat in a desk in the hallway on the 9th floor of the old building on West 43rd Street. One day, Mitch's face appeared over the divider. He welcomed me with a smile and a "hello, kiddo!" Immediately, I knew I had a friend. Over the next 28 years, Mitch was my trusted sounding board and colleague. He worked for me, I worked for him, we collaborated and served on the SPD Board together. Mitch had the great gift of listening, of putting clients at ease, of making you feel that you were in safe and trusted hands. 

One day, I had to tell him that I needed to fire him from a project due to cost cuts. We went to Fanelli's to talk, and over a whiskey, of course, he ended up comforting me. That's just a part of why Mitch gathered enormous good will and trust wherever he went. He wasn't a pushover, but he believed in the power of great magazine storytelling and in the next great project that was yet to present itself. And more than most, he was secure in himself, and his abilities, enough to believe that everyone he met (OK, with a few exceptions) was a new member of the Mitch Shostak circle of friends. 

Many colleagues passed through Shostak Studios on 11th Street. I called it "the happy place," and I would look forward to days that included meetings there as a welcome respite from the office politics that defined my day jobs. 

Mitch was old-school, an art director in the best sense, who championed the power of image-making, and he elevated the design of the consumer, association and trade magazines he took on. 

I know going forward, I will still rely on Mitch, wherever he is, to guide me and to cheer me on. Thanks, kiddo. 

Francesca Messina is the creative director of McGraw-Hill Construction publication brands, including Architectural Record, Engineering News-Record, Snap, and GreenSource.

* * *

Bill West: Mitch was the best I ever knew at taking a verbal concept and turning it into a visual image. We would talk about stories--it was a good discipline for me, it forced me to get down to the nut. He would suggest images. We would talk about them. And the outcome was a visual image that provided the reader a strong introduction to the story.

I learned a lot working with Mitch. I've done a lot of work since that I've been quite proud of. But working with Mitch was special.

Bill West was the editor of MBA Journal (where Mitch worked with art director John Jay), and worked with Mitch at The Wharton Magazine and Progressive Grocer.

* * *

Jay McGraw: I was saddened to hear the news about Mitch. He was a wonderful guy and a true professional. I very much enjoyed our time working together on several McGraw Hill publications. We all learned a lot from Mitch and admired his dedication and integrity. He was so talented and always a gentleman.

Jay McGraw is the president of The McGraw-Hill Financial Global Institute.

* * *

shostak pano.jpg
A look inside Shostak Studios. Mitch is in the rear, center

From the Shostak Studios Gang / Vivianna Bromberg, Heather Haggerty, Anne Yeckley Todd, Liana Zamora-Vicidomini: Here is a quote from us all: 

Working with Mitch was a great experience. We learned how to be a fair boss, how to approach clients, appreciate jazz, run a successful studio but most of all how to hire fantastic people to work with. Only he could have brought us together to create such a great working environment that turned us all into longtime friends. We will miss him.

* * *

Tom Bodkin: In working with Mitch, I was always struck by what a complete gentleman he was, always professional and amiable. His design was always solidly functional, a perfect balance of content and form. You could always count on Mitch for both reliability and creativity, not always an easy combination to find.

Tom Bodkin is the design director of The New York Times.

* * *

Malcolm Frouman: When I was appointed art director of BusinessWeek magazine almost 30 years ago, one of my first decisions was to hire Mitch as my deputy. It was a good move. As much as I was impressed with his abilities as a designer, I was equally taken by what a nice guy Mitch was. And sure enough, despite enduring the unrelenting pressures of a weekly, Mitch made our collaboration both professional and fun. After he left the gloss of our magazine for the newsprint of The New York Times, Mitch and I remained friends. And when he eventually started his own practice, Shostak Studios, I jumped at the chance to renew the collaboration by hiring him to design and art direct a BusinessWeek spinoff, E-Biz. No surprise, Mitch and his staff did a great job. I consider myself very fortunate to have known Mitch Shostak as a colleague, a friend, and a fellow Yankee fan.

Malcolm Frouman is the former art director of BusinessWeek.

MItch's going away cover when he left BusinessWeek in the late 1980s.

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