This week’s Design for You prize is a signed copy of Steve Frykholm’s Lemonade poster (below). Here Frykholm and Clark Malcolm, who has been a writer and editor at Herman Miller for more than 20 years, chat about the company picnic that began the poster series, Lilliputians, the Peace Corp and how you decide to stop printing such iconic posters.
But first a bit of background: Frykholm, who is Herman Miller’s Creative Director, VP and recipient of the 2010 AIGA Medal, has been in charge of forming Herman Miller’s image and graphic identity over the past 40 years. One of the many tasks he took on was to design a poster every year for the company’s annual picnic. He produced 20 posters between 1970 to 1989.
Over the years the posters have won critical acclaim and been included in exhibitions and collections all over the world including the New York Museum of Modern Art, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Danish Museum of Decorative Art, and the Library of Congress. The posters often surface on Ebay fetching anywhere from a $150 to $700. While a full set of posters went for $7000 at a New York auction in 2009.
Steve Frykholm: They were a real event and that’s all caps. It was a big deal to the employees and their families. They hired me in February of 1970 and Joe Schwartz came in and said to me, ‘Now you are our first internal graphic designer could you design a poster for the picnic. Would you?’ And I said sure, it sounds like fun. He said, ‘Well the name of the picnic this year is sweet corn festival.’
CM: Why did they call it that?
SF: It was one of the few that had a name. But, you know, who was I to challenge it. I was the new kid on the block and I knew a little bit about screen-printing. They really just needed them to put up around the buildings. There was another designer working with me at the time, his name was Phil Mitchell. I said, ‘Why don’t we just do an ear of corn? I will stick it in my mouth and you draw it.’ So we did. And I cut the stencils and we had the screens made and printed them after hours down in the basement because the fumes were pretty intense coming from the ink.
Read on for the rest of the interview.
CM: Did you print them from in the basement at Herman Milller for 20 years?
SF: No – then what happened was we entered the poster into a competition but we didn’t read the small print which said it must be done in editions of 500 or more. We’d only done 50. So I went to my boss and told him and he said if you get in we’ll print 500. So we got in and he kept his word and we printed 500 commercially. They were so popular employees bought them. And then we had a budget to do more the following year. And I kept on going for 20 years and the same company printed them for us up until last year.
That started the tradition of doing food and something served at the picnic. I always viewed it as the view of the Lilliputians because the images were bigger than life and somewhat abstract. And that’s how it started.
CM: How did you decide to blow up the images?
SF: Don’t know, don’t remember. It just felt good. You know, we had these big red lips and these white teeth and this yellow ear of corn. And it happened to be me my mouth but it could have been anyones.
CM: You know, I always thought one of the nicest things about that series was it always presented an interesting view of details. Details have always been an important part of the company and its values and here it was taken literally. You know, you want to see a detail; I’ll show you a detail!
SF: Ha! I usually worked from some sort of photographic model sometimes I’d Xerox things. But I would always have to blow them up bigger than life. You know the other wonderful thing about doing them is nobody passed muster on them except for me. No committees passing judgment, no picnic committee reviews.
CM: From the very first?
SF: Yep, from the very first. Ralph Caplan always teased me because I treated them more as a commemorative rather than an announcement. And the one reason I did was that I had other work to do but you know I always made it by the picnic but sometimes barely.
SF: Look if you are going to get half a chicken and a whole lot of sides for you and your family, is a poster going to get you to the picnic? No way!
SF: If they took them off the walls. Other than that they had to purchase them. We’d charged nominally above cost – we didn’t want to make money we just wanted to have revenue to make the next one.
CM: Were these the first posters you ever did?
SF: I’ve done a few. I did posters when I was in college and stuff. And also at Cranbrook. I really liked to screen-print. I wanted to keep my hand in it. I had learned to screen-print when I was in the Peace Corps in Nigeria. In fact I’ve thought ‘Did I do these posters because I learnt how to screen-print in Peace Corps?’ You know I wonder.
CM: What part do you think the posters had in creating a culture of creativity in the ’70s and ’80s? Herman Miller was just a hopping place.
SF: You know I think they contributed to it. It used to bother me a lot when people thought that was all I did for the company. I’d respond ‘You know, man what a fantastic job – I only do one poster a year!’ [For an excellent slideshow of Frykholm's work check out the AIGA site].
CM: So why did you stop?
SF: I was happy to finish at 20 rather than 19 or 21 and I was running out of food themes. I mean how many are there? I passed the baton. Then I started looking at the sales report. In the early days we’d reprint two or three or sometimes four times. The last year we only sold 18. Brian [Walker, CEO] wanted to keep them going but I showed him the sales report and we just weren’t getting any return for the effort. His cycling jerseys were more popular, so why not focus on those. And he accepted that argument even though they were important to the culture; the posters had run their course. I mean we had a great run – 35 years or something like that?
CM: People can still buy them right?
SF: I don’t think so. We used to sell them here at Herman Miller but we don’t do that anymore. You can find the originals on Ebay sometimes. I still have a modest few in my files. I have 12 complete sets. I collected them thinking I’d give them to museums. I might sell a few myself. I hope I never need to!