Author: Paul deVere
A Bunny for your Thoughts
Playboy Art Director retires to the Lowcountry
Back in 1967, Tom Staebler was about to take a job with Macy’s in Kansas City. Then he got THE CALL. Staebler was just finishing up his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kansas. At the suggestion of a fellow illustrator, he had sent some work to Playboy magazine’s art director, Arthur Paul, never expecting to hear from him. The call came in around Christmas that year, and Staebler’s 39-year career (28 as Paul’s successor) with Playboy began. During his tenure, the magazine became the most popular publication in the world, with subscriptions topping out at 7.5 million. (It still ranks as one of the largest monthly publications at over 3 million subscriptions in the U.S. plus another 5 million worldwide.) Under Staebler’s guidance, Playboy won gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators, the Society of Publication Designers, Graphis, Communication Arts and the Art Director’s Club of New York. Staebler was the guy who talked Andy Warhol into creating the famous Playboy “bunny” cover art for the January, 1986 issue.
Staebler retired from the magazine this year as Senior Vice President and Art Director. He now is a resident at Belfair and is still a consultant for the magazine. He has also taken on the additional responsibilities as a consultant for Celebrate Hilton Head. Oh, and he loves to play golf.
Writer Paul deVere caught up with Staebler at (where else?) a photo shoot. But, for Staebler, this was a different kind of shoot—he was the main attraction this time.
deVere: How does a guy from Topeka, Kansas get a job at Playboy?
Staebler: I absolutely never planned on working at Playboy. While I was in graduate school, I actually did my last year in film. I wanted to go to L.A. and work in film title design. This guy, Joe Isley, he was a wonderful illustrator, he’d done some illustrations for Playboy. He said “Send them your work so you can make some money in graduate school.” We had both done work for Hallmark Cards [headquartered in Kansas City, MO]. You got $50 a card, and it was like a zillion dollars in those days. I got a letter asking if I could come up to Chicago for a visit. So I met with Art Paul [Playboy’s first art director and creator of the “bunny” logo]. He seemed not so eager to have me do illustration, but he asked if I would like to be an art director. That June, I got my Master’s degree and went into the National Guard at Ft. Ord. I got out in early December and called him. He said he’d get back to me. Right after Christmas he called. I was going to work for Macy’s in Kansas City. He said, “We’re ready to go. When can you be here?”
deVere: In 1968, Chicago seemed to have everyone’s attention. What was it like?
Staebler: The summer I was there, they had the Democratic National Convention; we were like at ground zero. All the protests. All the marching. For me, at that age, I thought this was too good to believe. Here we are with the whole world watching. We got out of work early to march. Maybe it’s hard to imagine, but there was such a family atmosphere at the magazine. All the other designers, all the other people who worked there, the atmosphere was so much fun. No office politics, no budgets.
deVere: You probably have a few memorable moments.
Staebler: There are a ton of them! When Hef moved to L.A., we would have our editorial meetings there. So you would prepare all of this material for three weeks and pack it all in carry-on bags. The photography editor had a lot of stuff in his bag, so we said to Hef that if we have to go coach, they’re going to check this. Anything could happen to those transparencies. If we go first class, they’ll stick it all in the cabin. We got to go first class. We were in heaven.
deVere: There’s the cliché that everybody just gets Playboy for the articles. How did you respond?
Staebler: It’s interesting. They said “I read it for the articles” as a cliché, but with all clichés, there is some reality to it. To this day, Hef keeps editing out nudity and putting in more interesting articles. That’s still the way he thinks. He always put tremendous pressure on Art Paul and myself to get the biggest name artists known. He wanted fine artists. He wanted Andy Warhol, he wanted Roy Liechtenstein. He wanted all these top names. Between Art and myself, we actually went out and got them. Hef felt they would be more committed to the article. They really wanted to make it work.
deVere: Playboy had the first Ian Fleming piece. You had writers like John Steinbeck, P.G. Wodehouse, W. Somerset Maugham, Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, and John Updike, to name a few. How did that happen?
Staebler: Shortly after I got there, A. C. Spectorsky, who was then the editorial director, had a writers’ conference in Chicago. He knew all these people. Last year, the photography editor and I were looking back at the photos of that conference. It was unbelievable. There was group photo of about 60 people—the biggest names in literature. There was a period of time when Playboy had the best writers on earth. Better than the New Yorker.
deVere: Tell me about the Warhol cover.
Staebler: I remember calling Andy Warhol. Everyone said he wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t a matter of money, his friends said. He just won’t do it. I thought he might be intrigued by it. That’s exactly what happened. I asked him to do his version of our bunny; I wanted to run it on the cover. He said “I would love to.” He was doing all the iconic stuff then, like the Campbell soup can, and the bunny made sense to him. He did four or five versions of it.
deVere: What was it like, working for a guy who has become an icon himself?
Staebler: I absolutely love the man. He and his daughter, Christie, [Playboy’s Chairman and CEO] have been so good to me over the years. I still talk to Hef two times a week during this consultation period. We had a wonderful working relationship. A couple of things that most people miss is that he’s incredibly honest and, believe it or not, incredibly moral. He has very strong views about the dignity of people. You never have to wonder about where you stand. He’ll say exactly what he means. And then it’s gone. He’s just a sweet guy.
deVere: Thanks for your time, Tom. It’s been a pleasure.
Staebler: Aren’t you going to ask me about my golf game?