Joe Kimberling, 1966-2012

Photograph by Debra DiPaolo

Yesterday the publishing industry lost one of its finest designers to complications from cancer, and Los Angeles magazine lost one of its transformative talents. From 2000 to 2009, Joe Kimberling was the art director of the magazine and a key architect in its metamorphosis over that decade into an award-winning publication with a national presence.

Joe had worked at Entertainment Weekly and for the designer Roger Black (whom he revered, along with Bob Newman) before joining the magazine in 2000. He had an incredible grasp of type and knew how to play with it and talk to it, a knack for developing relationships with illustrators (realize that this was a guy who had a tattoo of artist Chris Ware’s character Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, on his forearm), and an innate talent for creating layouts that could be as stunning in their simplicity as they could be in their complexity.

Growing up in Nebraska, being schooled in Chicago, living in New York—it’s no wonder that Joe took so passionately to L.A. and its weather. Like many a former New Yorker before him, he immediately purchased a convertible on arrival, only to realize that no one else here but a recently transplanted New Yorker buys a convertible. But he relished it, bopping around town with the top down even when the sun wasn’t shining, living in the hills, going to the beach. He worked on a tan (who gets a tan?). He spent his weekends at campgrounds in Malibu with his puppy, a bucket from KFC, and whatever trashy star biography he found on the freebie table. His office carpet was a mosaic of Slurpee spills and various fast-food drippings, his inbox overflowed with toys from Amazon or Target that were headed for his nieces and nephews in the Midwest. He was an eternal boy and as unpretentious as it gets.

Which is not to say that he didn’t have refined tastes. Joe had impeccable judgment in all matters pop culture. There was not another pile of CDs in the office that I raided more than his, another coworker’s opinion about TV shows I should be watching that I valued more, another peer’s recommendation on movie trailers to get excited about that held more weight.

His passion for the city worked its way into his ideas and beautiful designs. He was endlessly creative and seemed to genuinely enjoy collaborating with editors on layouts and, like any true art director, equally enjoyed disagreeing (loudly) about whatever boneheaded direction they were proposing or “sketch” they were putting forth. He was a genius headline writer and so many of his placeholder heds and deks ended up in the magazine or on the cover. He had an infectious sense of humor and was a bundle of nervous energy even when there was nothing to be nervous about. For a while he was letting out an odd laugh that didn’t sound like him—it was high-pitched, choppy, forced. I asked him what was going on. “I’m testing out a new laugh,” he responded. “I don’t think I like it.”

Joe was way too humble to ever be comfortable with the idea that other designers looked up to him. Three times in five years he took home “Designer of the Year” from the City and Regional Magazine Association and he was also recognized by the Society of Publication Designers and the Type Directors Club, yet he had zero desire to publicly acknowledge the accolades.

One morning on the way to work I pulled up next to Joe in his convertible on Beverly Boulevard, only to realize that he wasn’t going anywhere: He had run out of gas. He was embarrassed but also giggling, and I couldn’t help but join him. I returned with a canister from the gas station to fill up his tank, and two days later in my inbox was a poster by Chris Ware from the Whitney Biennial that now hangs framed in my living room. It was classic Joe: spontaneous, generous, and in its own inimitable way a work of art.

Here are some of Joe’s most memorable Los Angeles magazine designs.