Jessica Helfand | Essays

Annals of Ephemera: Town & Country Cookbook

Cover, Town and Country Cookbook, 1953

Books are, by their very nature, often judged by their covers. Like miniature posters or single-frame film trailers, the book cover is the visual prologue to what lies beneath. Book cover designers are visual choreographers who frame miniature narratives in order to tease prospective readers into wanting more. Which often means showing less.

Or not.

It's unclear what, exactly, inspired the anonymous designer of this 1953 cookbook. A cursory glance at the stark red-and-white palette suggests shades of a Russian Constructivist influence, but a closer look reveals nothing of the kind. There is no apparent formal strategy at work here (save for the ascender of the lowercase "d" in "and", which shoots skyward and bifurcates the entire cover) and no structural rationale, but for a book that was spiral bound and typewriter-typed, the cover represents someone's formidable effort to make something striking.

And striking it is. The typography seems to combine a kind of Currier and Ives illuminated capital (a weak riff on the splendors of Imre Reiner, popular in post-war greeting card design) with a series of hand-drawn letterforms that are generously spaced apart so as to minimize their sameness. "Cookbook" is reversed out of a ribbon-like field of red, while "Cookie" is underscored with a smudge of black ink that appears to have been lifted from a Ronald Searle caricature. And what is there to say about the attenuated descender of the lowercase "y" in "country" — with its loop at the end, like a grace note lifted from a Bach gavotte? It's so bad it's good.

Finally, there's the decapitated head and shoulders of a little boy, his mouth wide open in what appears to be a look of genuine sugar-induced insanity. Is this a look of anticipatory glee, or a child breaking out in hives? Did those Filbert Butter Balls on page 22 freak him out completely, or did his mother just walk into the kitchen naked? It's an unsettling image — one part Hitler youth, one part Dennis the Menace — that echoes its surrounding tableau of typographic uncertainty. In a comparatively early exposition of mash-up, the Town and Country Cookbook leaves nothing if not a curious aftertaste.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Graphic Design, History

Comments [11]

The paper's age and texture, along with the plastic binding that matches the T and C's red is the most beautiful part. Where did you find it?
Joey Roth

Yes: it's a mottled, pebbled, off-white and the red has a velvety, saturated patina. I found mine on eBay. but these things come up all the time: what I'm interested in is the anonymity of the creator.

There are also some wonderful sites in which collectors and curators share and describe their finds: one of my all-time favorites is here.
Jessica Helfand

The cover was probably produced by a layout/paste-up artist working in a modest print shop, possibly with no formal design education. It would be interesting to look through trade publications from the early 50s, to see if it there are any articles on the likes of Lester Beall or Latislav Sutnar that may have directly influenced this person's attempt at constructivist collage.
Daniel Green

When I was 12, believe it or not, I worked in the ad department of Bergdorf Goodman, New York. I was fired after a week, but in the time it took me to screw up their addressograph system, I met a great guy who referred to himself as a "commercial artist." He did advertisement art for BG, but in his off-time he did the exact kind of thing Jessica is celebrating here for book covers and brochures. Fact is, that was the style of the day. Of course, the old trades like PM/AD and PRINT, ran stories about Beall (and even Sutnar). But there were others like Matthew Leibowitz and Ernst Reichl who also designed in this manner. In its context the T&C design was pretty far out.
steve heller


Interesting assessment. Remember the Good Ole Days of Designing was very Cookie Cutter in Nature and Practice. Remember there were Specialist for each Discipline of Design. Cover Designer, Layout Artist, Typographer, Photographer, etc. My assessment the Cook Book was Designed by an Art Studio which employed many of the above specialist. Art Studies were cross pollinated between offering full service in all expertise in Visual Communication services to include Design, Illustration, Photography, Typography, Hand Lettering, Film.

The Good Ole Days clients could choose between:

1. The Independent, Bass, Beall, Rand, Lustig, Goldsholl, Danziiger, Matter . etc

2. Ad Agencies, Young & Rubicam, J Walter Thompson, N.W. Ayer & Son, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, Doyle, Danne, Bernbach, etc

3. Art Studios, Lester Rosen Associates, Stephan Lion, Monogram Art Studio, Chartmakers Inc.,Harry Watts Associates Inc., etc

An aside, Art Studios also Boast of having Access to the MOST Renowned Independent Designers of the Era. Many of the Independents listed above Art Studios Claim to have them on Retainer. Not Sure How This Worked.

Art Studios No Longer Exist Today. They have Morphed into Creative Service Placement Agencies, like their predecessors Boast of having Access to the Best Creative Talent.

4. Design Firms & Studios, Self Explanatory.

The Cook Book appear to me to have been Designed by an Art Studio, has that Cookie Cutter Flava to it, where it passes through many specialist hands.

My assessment is based on your Analogy the Interior not having any Continuity to the Cover or Overall Character and theme of the Cook Book.

DM The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity

this guy in Texas has some incredibly tasty design morsels. Great place to see Lustig and Rand rarities, among others.

felix sockwell

"A cursory glance at the stark red-and-white palette suggests shades of a Russian Constructivist influence, but a closer look reveals nothing of the kind". I disagree. But yes book cover designers are visual choreographers and book cover itself is a visual prologue.
Well said

This kind of a find scares me because its an amazing cover which someone put a lot of love and attention into, and 50 years later it ends up for sale on ebay for a nickel. Arguably there's a kind of disposable/transient nature to graphic design, but its sort of sad to think about how much contemporary design we've all fretted over which will end up in the bargain basement.
David Hartman

David - it sure is getting a lot of love and attention now, eh?

I think one of the more important things this post illuminates is the thrill of discovering anonymous authenticity. There's something simply dumbfounding in finding well-crafted "outsider art", be it music, photography, or graphic design by an "amateur" or other incidental artist. It's American folk art at its finest.

It is lovely, and a great piece of design ephemera. The cookbook genre has is a particularly interesting piece of forgotten/unknown design. Alas the secret is out, I have scoured thrift shops, and garage sales for years to mine the fascinating world of mid-century and beyond cookbook design. The questions I now have regarding this post and the comments are twofold:

1. What will be the undiscovered gems generated by today's designers that will invoke a sense of wonder and envy 50 years hence? My vote goes to those clubnight cards found in every record store, coffee shop and car windshield that announce that Wednesday is Ladies Night and DJ Scrapple will be pumping it up on Sunday nights. Lots of Photoshop filters, hipster typography, and UV coatings via cheap digital printing.
2. Design Maven had a fascinating take on the hierarchal structure of the graphic arts/commercial arts community back in the day. What would that structure look like today and who would populate these various levels of Hell?
Mark Kaufman

Wow, what a find! The design is exquisite... who doesn't marvel at a young boy squealing in delight, on the cover of a much coveted cook book no less? Invokes a sense of wonder, nostalgia, and excitement... genius!

Jobs | July 13