Rajie Cook, who helped make sense of public spaces, dies at 90

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Rajie Cook, who helped make sense of public spaces, dies at 90
Symbols Signs representing, from left, "Escalator (up)," "Nursery" and "Ground transportation" designed by Cook and Shanosky for the US Department of Transportation.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Rajie Cook often joked that museumgoers were more likely to encounter his artwork in their travels than a portrait by Matisse or a landscape by van Gogh. They saw it whenever they took an elevator to an upper gallery or stopped in the restroom.

In 1974 Cook & Shanosky Associates, a design firm started by Cook and Don Shanosky a few years earlier, won a contract to develop a set of symbols that could be universally understood and that would efficiently convey the kinds of information people in a public place might need — which restroom was for which gender, the location of the nearest elevator, whether smoking was permitted and so on. The signage the two came up with, 34 pictographs (with others added later), is still in use today: the generic male and female figures; the cigarette in a circle with the red line through it; the minimalist locomotive and plane to signify train station and airport.

But Cook’s artistic interests went well beyond utilitarian signs. By the time Cook & Shanosky folded in 2002, Cook had already begun dabbling in a different sort of art, creating three-dimensional sculptural assemblages — boxes incorporating found objects. Most of them were inspired by his exploration of his own heritage as the son of Christian Palestinian immigrants and by what he saw on his many trips to the Middle East.

He thought of the works, which have been exhibited in museums and galleries, as “art activism.” One box contained the names of children who had been casualties of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, with the bottom quarter of the box filled with spent cartridges. Some of the children were Jewish, but most were Palestinians, something Cook thought was not reflected in coverage by American news outlets.

“Only part of the story is being told,” he said in a 2018 interview with Palestine Museum US in Woodbridge, Connecticut.

Cook died Feb. 6 at a hospice center in Newtown, Pennsylvania, near his home in Washington Crossing, his family said. He was 90.

For much of his career, Cook was known as Roger Cook, thanks to a fourth-grade teacher’s whim.

“My teacher thought Rajie was too difficult to pronounce,” he recently told Bucks County magazine, “and suggested that I be called Roger instead. In a flash, my birth name was changed, but my parents raised no objections in deference to the educator.”

Only decades later, when he began exploring his heritage through art, did he revert to his given name.

His last name, too, was someone else’s idea, imposed on the family long before his birth. His paternal grandfather’s last name had been Suleiman, but he was given the nickname Kucuk, the Turkish word for small, by Turkish occupiers because of his small stature; later, when the British occupied Palestine, they turned that into Cook.

Rajie Cook was born July 6, 1930, in Newark, New Jersey, to Najeeb and Jaleelie (Totah) Cook. His interest in art manifested itself early.

“In grammar school, I was usually the student who sat in the back row, sketching and drawing while the teacher and the rest of the class were focused on other subject matter,” he wrote in “A Vision for My Father,” a memoir published in 2016.

After graduating from Bloomfield High School in New Jersey in 1949, he enrolled at Pratt Institute in New York, where he earned a degree in 1953.

In 1960, while he was working for a Philadelphia advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son, a freelance illustrator named Don Shanosky was assigned to one of his projects. Cook moved to the New York design company Graphic Directions in 1962, and in 1965 he again encountered Shanosky, who was applying for a job there, which he won.

In 1967 the two struck out on their own, forming Cook & Shanosky Associates and setting up shop in Manhattan.

Shanosky, who now lives in Florida, said in a phone interview that they ran an announcement in Graphis Magazine about the new firm.

“The image that we used kind of sums up how he and I related to one another,” he said. “It was two hands, one pencil. That kind of symbolized how we worked.”

Their designs, whether for annual reports, advertisements or a government client, were always joint efforts, not credited to one or the other. And their philosophy was straightforward.

“We held firm to the principle that design communicates to its maximum efficacy without frills, contrivances and other extraneous material,” Cook wrote in his book, “that if the core idea is a good one, it will shout loudest when it is not overshadowed by ornamentation.”

That philosophy was a good fit for the pictogram assignment. The project was intended to prepare for the American bicentennial celebration, which was expected to draw a lot of foreign visitors who would need help navigating airports, historic sites and other public spaces.

The effort was overseen by the Department of Transportation and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (now known simply as AIGA), and that meant there were a lot of eyes on Cook & Shanosky, which at the time was still a small shop. The firm was given parameters about what the symbols needed to do, and it drew on existing symbols from throughout the world.

“We kept in mind that people seeing the pictographs would be speaking different languages, using different alphabets,” Cook wrote, “and in some cases were illiterate.”

Once the initial designs were offered came the review by a committee, which had plenty of opinions.

“Because most of the committee were designers themselves, there was a lot of, ‘Did you try this?’” Shanosky recalled. The committee members came armed with a roll of black tape and a roll of white tape.

“They would say, what if this was moved there, or what if this were shorter,” he said. “They would cover up our black symbol with white tape to make it shorter, or use black tape to make it longer” — before, usually, agreeing on something very much like what he and Cook had initially presented.

Cook reproduced some of the notes the firm received from these reviews in his book, including these ones regarding the symbol for a drinking fountain, a figure bent at the waist over a stylized depiction of a fountain:

“Figure: Lower body out of proportion with trunk.”

“Is arm necessary?”

“Arm necessary to indicate that figure is not bowing.”

In 1985 President Ronald Reagan presented Cook and Shanosky with an award for “outstanding achievement in design for the government of the United States.”

Cook is survived by his wife, Margit (Schneider) Cook, whom he married in 1955; two daughters, Cynthia Rhodin and Cathryn Cook; three siblings, Lillian, Wade and Edward Cook; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Cook said he took up making sculptural assemblages after encountering the work of artist Joseph Cornell, who was known for his shadow boxes. Cook’s work was featured in numerous exhibitions, including one called “Made in Palestine” in 2003 at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston.

“I remember my dad — he died at the age of 94 — old and blind and sitting by the radio saying he was waiting to hear something good on the radio about peace in the Middle East,” Cook told The New York Times in 2004, when he was interviewed about the controversies sometimes caused by exhibitions of Palestinian art. “I’m 74, and I don’t know if I’ll ever hear it either. I don’t want to die at 94 still waiting for peace.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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