Tuesday, October 28, 2008

“How Long Is a Piece of String?” Lou Dorsfman, 1918 to 2008

Lou Dorfsman died last week. He was a legend in the world of graphic design for having designed “every aspect of the Columbia Broadcasting Company’s advertising and corporate identity, including the set of Walter Cronkite’s newsroom and the typographically elegant sign system for CBS’s New York headquarters, known as Black Rock,” as his ample NY Times obituary says.

Michael Beirut has written an elegant post that summarizes Lou’s career achievements in "The Four Lessons of Lou Dorfsman.”

I knew a more flesh and blood side of the man. I was a young associate editor at The Museum of Broadcasting, which had been founded by William S. Paley 1975, when Lou came to oversee the publications after he retired from CBS in 1991.

For the first few years we worked together Lou used the talents of a cadre of designers who had worked for him at CBS and then gone on to set up their own studios. I developed the editorial for exhibition catalogues or screening schedules that we needed, and Lou worked his magic. That process was thrilling to be a part of.

“How long is a piece of string?” is my favorite of his many in-process lines. He said it to our client whenever they were asking for specifics about costs for a project that was just in the brainstorming stage. Something can be anything. It’s the creative challenge to find out what it should be. “M.A., when are you going to go get a real job?” was another line he said, a lot. More about that later.

But what was most distinct about working with Lou was . . . it was FUN! We laughed and laughed over things big and small. He was enjoying being retired from a high-pressured job, and I was too young to worry. We were the perfect partners. His Zorba-like spirit for living filled the office. He was irreverent, funny, boisterous, cantankerous, smooth, polished, charismatic. He loved his community of designers and embraced the knowing spirit that binds those who demand good typography together into a band of brothers.

And they were all men. Lou was from a gender-specific time in big-time design. He didn’t apologize for it and he didn’t’ defend it. There was a raunchy side to his humor, which sparked and crackled when he was with the brethren but was willingly stifled by a sense of decorum around women (or at least around me).

It’s a shame that Matt Weiner never met Lou Dorfsman: the Lou-gene is completely missing from his Mad Men and they are a bloodless, one-dimensional lot in comparison.

For ten years we worked closely, as his loyalty to William S. Paley meant he was going to continue to keep an eye on Paley's museum venture. He could be a very warm colleague, as he followed the vicissitudes of my dating with interest and advice. He loved to go out to lunch with the publications staff-—he was interested and engaged in everything.

One day, for no particular reason, he gave me a copy of the book about his career, Dorfsman & CBS, with this inscription, “To Dear M.A., Talented, hard working, underpaid . . .a delight to be in her company as an associate and friend-—all best wishes and here’s to a rewarding big career” Lou Dorsfman

It turned out that the piece of string we worked on together was long enough to turn into something "real" for me. It’s cliché to say “he taught me everything I know” but that doesn’t make it untrue.

I can’t match the professional accomplishments, but when things get needlessly grim in the office, I think about his ebullient spirit, and Bronx street kid sense of fight, and insist we all lighten up. For me, that's the best part of his legacy. The Gastrotypographicalassemblage (pictured above) is very nice too.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

A beautiful tribute, a more moving obituary than the NY Times, and one that takes you closer to the man. Thank you.

dorki said...

Very well put MA.

It is indeed a wonderful thing to work with a recognized master of your profession. Not only are projects done with artfulness and elegance, but one learns a little of what true professional greatness is.

Glad to have been shown a bit more about Lou.

M.A.Peel said...

Thank you. It really is a pleasure to share stories about Lou. He was one of those forces of nature you meet once or twice in a lifetime.