Marilyn Monroe Playboy cover.

Playboy's first cover, featuring Marilyn Monroe, was done 'as a piece of art,' says founder Hugh Hefner.

ART Paul heard a knock on the door of his small studio under the "L", Chicago's elevated rail system. It was 1953, and Paul was taking his first steps in a career that would one day revolutionise the world of magazine design.

Paul had just begun flexing his powerful artistic talents in postwar America's constrained world of commercial illustration. In time, the artist would lead what has been called the Illustration Liberation Movement, based on the belief that graphic art could be high art.

Word of Paul's work was spreading, hence the unexpected visitor. When Paul opened the door, there stood a tired-looking Hugh Hefner, rolled-up paper under his arm.

Hefner, who had just left Esquire, was developing his idea for a new, sophisticated men's magazine, and had been told of Paul's work through a mutual friend.

At first, Hefner wanted Paul to illustrate a story. But once inside the studio, the would-be publisher was impressed by the work the artist plastered over his walls. "I looked at his stuff and immediately thought, this is the guy who could be my art director," Hefner says of that first encounter.

The men talked and Hefner offered him the job. "Normally, it would be wonderful. Why not?" Paul says, speaking from his Chicago home. "I never was an art director before and it would be a nice challenge.

"What made me a little bit anxious — or a lot anxious — was he told me what he wanted to call his magazine. And it was Stag Party.

"And I thought, doesn't he realise that's going to limit the circulation? There were going to be all kinds of problems with that."

Hefner was already having second thoughts when fate intervened: an outdoor magazine called Stag threatened legal action and the title Playboy was born. "We got very lucky in some very important ways," Hefner recalls, six decades on. "If the magazine had have ended up being called Stag Party, I wouldn't be here, particularly when you think about the clubs. It's difficult to imagine waitresses with antlers on their heads."

Name changed, Paul was also swept up by the young publisher's vision. It was Hefner's "personality and his devotion to this thing and his enthusiasm for it" that convinced Paul to sign up. "He kind of got to me after a while," he says.

So began a remarkable adventure that would see the two men create a publishing sensation, often controversial but in equal measure cutting edge.

For the artist, it would provide a platform for the next three decades to challenge conventional thinking. In May, Paul, now 87, will speak via video link from his home in the town where it all began to the agIdeas design conference in Melbourne, part of International Design Week. Veteran Australian designer Ken Cato, who created the event two decades ago, is excited to have Paul involved. He first encountered Paul, with whom he shares membership of the invitation-only Alliance Graphique Internationale, in 1978. "I couldn't believe the gentleness and humility of the person, who did break an enormous amount of ground. He changed the rules, I guess, in a lot of ways," Cato says.

"The journalism that went on around Playboy — the artists, designers, illustrators and people he brought into that culture — was quite extraordinary.

"As young boys," Cato adds, "you grow up thinking of Playboy as this risque magazine, when in fact I think a lot of the intellectual quality around it was very much overlooked or disregarded."

With Paul at the design helm, it was a case of buying Playboy for the art; he used the publication as a platform to try out new and exciting approaches to design and illustration. "I really think, quite frankly, in working for Playboy, he blurred the lines between fine art and commercial art," Hefner says today of the artist he recruited.

Rebellion has been a constant theme in Paul's artistic life. As a teenager, he clashed with his art teacher. "My teacher and I would have small arguments about how art was being taught, which I'm not so proud of today to be telling you, because she was a very wonderful lady," Paul says. Despite their disagreements, she saw something in the student, and submitted his work to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he won a scholarship.

World War II and a stint in the Air Corps interrupted his study. On his return, Paul was drawn to the Institute of Design, staffed by some members of the German Bauhaus who fled Nazi Germany, including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Paul arrived at the school just after Moholy-Nagy's death in 1946 but the Chicago Bauhaus remained a place that challenged and questioned conventional thinking. "The Bauhaus was dedicated, I think, to trying to shake off all the things you probably got stuck with when you were young," Paul says.

In his first year, he was struck by the experimental approaches: feeling sculpture, not just looking at it, bird's-eye views and blow-ups of small objects. "It did wake up a lot of things in a person," he says.

"The very strength of that school was really an osmosis process. It got to you, what they were trying to say and do. I got a lot out of it."

Paul set out on his own and began freelancing out of his small studio. And then Hefner came knocking on the door. The artist wanted to push boundaries, a sentiment shared by Hefner. Conceptually, the magazine was very much a reaction to a postwar conservatism and a perfect vehicle to challenge conventions. Apart from its hallmark nude photos, the magazine would evolve as a potent mix of excellent writing, illustration and design.

In postwar America, Hefner saw an opportunity. Most of the men's magazines were outdoor-adventure-themed, such as Stag. "I was interested in something a little more sophisticated and urban," Hefner says. "Part of it without question was bringing something sophisticated and adult into a very conservative decade."

Hefner, who had also served in World War II, had expected the decade after the war to be a celebration, similar to the Roaring '20s after World War I. "When skirts went down in the late '40s and early '50s, I knew we were in big trouble," he says. "Playboy was a response to that."

Paul was a "perfect fit" for what Hefner wanted to do. "I could not have done it without him," Hefner says. "We were breaking boundaries and redefining the very nature of publications and . . . illustration."

The first edition said everything about where the magazine was heading. Before Playboy, Hefner says, magazine illustration had been very photographic, Norman Rockwell-like. "I was looking for somebody who could give me something different," Hefner says.

Paul spent time looking at the displays on the news-stands and drug stores, and found a similarity in magazine covers: usually a big head shot of a celebrity, too much type and very little white space.

The first edition cover shot was of Marilyn Monroe, a photograph taken in a ticker-tape parade in New York. ''She had her hand up … waving to the people, and around her was a lot of confetti and stuff,'' Paul says. ''What I did was I wanted to simplify the cover. I wanted to make the cover stand out because this magazine that was being born didn't have any marketing at all. You just had to be seen.''

Paul focused in on the image of Monroe, against stark white background, with the words forming a kind of falling confetti. They included ''first time in any magazine, the famous Marilyn Monroe nude'' - a calendar shot that Hefner had bought.

There were more than artistic reasons behind the striking cover design. ''Well, we had no money,'' Hefner says. ''What we managed to do is be creative in place of money. We didn't have the money for a full colour cover, so we did it in black and white, but we did it as a piece of art.''

Paul also created the Playboy bunny logo, originally designed as an end note for stories. He recalls a contest between two images: his rabbit in silhouette with bow tie, and another rabbit in a smoking jacket with champagne glass drawn by a different cartoonist. Paul's rabbit, of course, prevailed and became one of the world's best-known logos.

Yet it was always much more than just Paul's own work. He commissioned thousands of artists, including some of the biggest names, Salvador Dali, George Segal, Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol among them.

A preface in the catalogue for the 25 years of Playboy exhibition neatly captures the brief that Paul gave to the artists. In the days before colour photographs, illustrators naturally gravitated towards the realistic school of illustration. Photography's rise threatened this.

''The 'Playboy approach' in illustration was to recognise the special qualities that set the artist apart from the photographer,'' the catalogue preface says. ''Paul's mandate to the illustrator was to create illustrations that needed no captions - art that captured the full mood of the piece and not simply some particular situation within the text.''

''I was given as much freedom by Hef as any publisher could have,'' Paul says today. ''I am an artist as well as a designer, so I also feel strongly that higher-quality illustration can add a great deal to a magazine and that it's important to let illustration be art.''

Despite what it achieved journalistically, the very nature of the magazine and its nude photos ensured a running debate about female exploitation. Paul recalls at some of his speaking engagements, a woman would stand up and criticise the magazine for ''turning women into sex objects''.

''But as the magazine grew to be successful, when women would complain at a lecture, other women would stand up for Playboy,'' he says. Surveys also showed a surprisingly large number of women readers, he says, and a monthly column of advice and information on sexuality was popular with both women and men.

An art teacher once asked Paul to make a presentation to his class at the University of Illinois at Chicago. ''After my presentation he said that he really liked Playboy but did it have to have that fold-out Playmate?'' he says.

''I said to him that if we took out the Playmate you'd have a very different magazine.''

■Art Paul will take part via video conferencing in the International Design Forum on May 23 at 12.30pm, part of agIdeas 2012, May 21-25. agideas.net