Monday, October 27, 2008

before wordle there was gastrotypographicalassemblage

RIP Lou Dorfsman, generally acknowledged to be the father of corporate design, who worked at CBS for over forty years, setting standards for branding back when it was called corporate communications. Son of a sign-painter, Dorfsman worked at CBS from the late 1940s through the 1980s, becoming creative director of the company. He designed two proprietary fonts: CBS Didot and CBS Sans and, in what was a revolutionary idea for the day, insisted on their use not just for advertising and marketing, but for corporate stationery, insertion orders, memo pads and matchbooks, thus ensuring all communication materials were identifiable as part of the CBS brand.

When CBS moved into a new building in 1965, Dorfsman was charged with the job of creating the interior and exterior graphics. He conceived design standards for every last detail, down to numerals on wall clocks, elevator buttons, even elevator inspection stickers and mailboxes. Discovering a 40 foot empty wall in the new building's cafeteria, he killed a committee's plans to put up wall maps of New York and envisioned a wall of solid type,  similar to a typesetter's tray turned on its side. He designed a 3D collage of more than 1,450 hand-milled wood letters and images related to the cafeteria's fare, calling it "Gastrotypographicalassemblage". In office parlance it became known as "the Wall."

The Wall (33 feet long x 8 feet high) graced the CBS cafeteria for over 25 years, until the 1990s when new management decided to scrap it. It would have been lost but for the building superintendent who called Dorfsman to tip him off to the wall's removal. (By this time, Dorfsman had moved on to the Museum of Broadcasting.) Dorfsman called Nick Fasciano, a designer who'd created several of the wall's sculptures, and Fasciano collected the discarded panels and brought them to his home in Long Island. There, they they sat in storage for more than 20 years, safe but deteriorating, until being acquired by The Center for Design Study, a not-for-profit in Atlanta.

The Center is seeking to restore The Wall, a daunting endeavor in the nonvirtual world where there's no button to press to reboot or refresh. More than 25 percent of the letters have damaged beyond repair; they must be re-milled. The sculptures must be recreated by hand. If you'd like to do your part to save a landmark in design history, you can make a donation to the project here.

images via AIGA and Flickr


Anonymous said...

Fun post. Did he have anything to do with CBS Sunday Morning as well (that show maintains that sensibility)?

I remember a place called Mittens Letters (sp?) that manufactured plaster casts of characters in different sizes/fonts, and possibly did wood at an earlier period. They were used for interior signage or as part of a concept in photography. They went out of business in the late 80s and I walked by the place as boxes of characters were being tossed into a dumpster. Not recognizing history, and not wanting to carry around a big heavy box of plaster I just kept walking.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I wonder if Louise Nevelson was in mind when he came up with that wall....

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Thanks, Auntie. I believe Dorfsman must have had a hand in CBS Sunday Morning as the show debuted in 1979 and he didn't retire until 1991. He was legendary for being a control freak re. CBS visuals, including sets for shows.

Wish I'd known about Mittens Letters when it was around. Though, on second thought, probably better I didn't. No doubt I'd have a giant box of plaster casts cluttering up the apartment, gathering dust...

Nevelson influence. Interesting.