Spring 1996


Lou Dorfsman’s mural for CBS’s cafeteria brought expressive typography to enviromental scale

In September 1965, a new cafeteria-lounge opened on the twentieth floor of the CBS building at 51 West 52 Street, New York. Occupying the entire eastern wall was an inspired example of the design patronage which had earned CBS and its president Frank Stanton an international reputation – a 35 foot long-mural conceived and designed on an epic scale over a six-month period by company art director Lou Dorfsman.

The Gastrotypographicalassemblage, as it was called, was devoted to the subject of food. Most of its panels were composed of white wooden letters in various typefaces, spelling out 235 culinary possibilities: dill, banana, fudge, pumpernickel, hasenpfeffer, pizza, pâté de foie gras, and so on. Slotted into the grid as a kind of figurative punctuation were details such as a row of plastic bagels, a hero sandwich made out of wax, a composition of 28 tin cans, a pair of wooden feet crushing a cluster of grapes and a frying pan with a plastic egg.

Textual diversion came in the form of a quotation from the poet Longfellow extolling the timeless virtues of bread and butter, a wry reflection by Alice B. Toklas on discrimination in sauces and a recipe for Escargots Bourguignonne. In the centre, the word “EAT”, picked out in neon, confirmed the mural’s close relationship in style and theme to contemporary developments in sculptural assemblage and the Pop Art movement that followed it.

Remarkable for its confidence, ambition and scale, Dorfsman’s wallpiece belongs to a genre so small and specialised – the typographic mural – that “genre” may be too definite a word. (Robyn Denny’s proto-Pop Austin Reed Mural of 1959 is another example.) While its typographic preferences now date it, it is a highly suggestive reminder of what can be accomplished when letterforms are enlarged into expressive compositions at environmental scale.

The Gastrotypographicalassemblage survived in situ until the early 1990s, but time had taken its toll, it needed repair and CBS was on the verge of disposing of it when Dorfsman, who had left the company in 1989, heard about his creation’s plight and intervened. He was allowed to take it away and the mural now languishes, in sections, in a Long Island basement, awaiting refurbishment and a suitable new home.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996