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Picnics in Pictures

September 20, 2023
Herman Miller Picnic Poster

Graphic designer Steve Frykholm's picnic poster series for furniture company Herman Miller is inspired by classic outdoor eats, like sweet corn. The series represents some of the best known examples of American graphic design from the latter half of the 20th century. / THF188350

Watermelon, popsicles, barbecued chicken, hot dogs, sweet corn, lemonade and cherry pie. These are quintessential American picnic foods — sticky, drippy foods best eaten with your hands while sitting on a picnic blanket in the summer heat with friends or family by your side. These are symbolic foods, foods that hold memory. When graphic designer Steve Frykholm was tasked with creating a poster to announce his company’s employee picnic, he relied on these foods to communicate much more than a workplace memo ever could.

Born in 1942, Frykholm attended Bradley University and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Between these degrees, he served in the Peace Corps at a Nigerian government trade school for girls. There he learned how to screen print alongside his students because, “It was a trade school. I thought they should learn a trade,” he recalled. Screen printing agreed with Frykholm. He later explained, “I like the smell of the ink, cutting the stencils, the saturation and the color. It’s the physicality of it. Why do people like to plant vegetables, dig in the dirt and see things grow? You just do it for the joy of doing it.

Shortly after graduating from Cranbrook, Frykholm was hired at Herman Miller as the company’s first internal graphic designer in 1970 — and he quickly made his mark. One of his first assignments at the Zeeland, Michigan-based furniture company was to design a poster for the summer employee picnic. Inspired by classic picnic foods, his 1970 poster features bright-yellow sweet corn against stark white teeth and red lips on a black background. That first poster became the rubric for what would become a seriesof 20 — he designed a picnic poster each year from 1970 until 1989. After the first, Frykholm mostly eschewed representations of human form in the posters (but of course, a hand must hold an ice cream cone!) and leaned into using enlarged representations of picnic food.

Frykholm’s picnic posters are some of the best-known examples of American graphic design from the latter half of the 20th century. The glossy, pop-art graphics were beloved by Herman Miller employees, design professionals and museum curators alike. They are held in the collections of numerous institutions, having first been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1980 and by this institution, The Henry Ford, in 1988.

Katherine White is curator of design at The Henry Ford.

This post was adapted from an article in the Summer-Fall 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

To learn about the designer who succeeded Frykholm, read about Kathy Stanton's poster series here.