Dawn of a New Era

Here’s a new year wish from Rajie Cook, the designer responsible for the universal symbols.

You see his artwork every time you search for the restroom at the airport. Those little black figures, one with a skirt and one with trousers, originated in the mind of Roger Cook, back in the day when he was president of Cook and Shanosky Associates. The New York-based graphic design firm was hired by the Department of Transportation to create universal symbols for travelers. The cigarette in a circle with a slash crossing over, the capital P with a slash over it, as well as symbols for stairs, public telephones and water fountains were all part of the Signs and Symbols project.

“Today, the whole world is in a hurry,” Mr. Cook told a group of graphic design students at Mercer County Community College a few years ago. “When our firm designed the DOT symbol system to be used at airports around the world, we needed to tell people where to go and how to get there, with simple wordless pictographs that instantly said ‘taxi’ or ‘toilet’ or ‘ticket counter.’ Our symbols would be seen by people who spoke different languages, used different alphabets and, in some cases, would be illiterate.”


In 1984, Mr. Cook received the Presidential Award for Design Excellence from President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole. Sketches for the Symbols and Signs projects were acquired by the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in 2003.

In semi-retirement, Mr. Cook, a Washington Crossing, Pa., resident, has turned to making boxes. Inspired by Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), the surrealist father of assemblage boxes, Mr. Cook’s boxes are designed to speak out for human rights in the Middle East.

“I collect things,” is how Mr. Cook’s starts to describe his boxes. Yet the house he built in the woods 35 years ago is anything but cluttered, with gallery-like walls of photographs by Emmett Gowin and Ansel Adams, among others.

There are glass walls throughout the house, offering views of the woods and the gardens Mr. Cook artfully tends. A grand piano, once played by his daughters, sits as sculpture at one end of the living room. Outside, we pass a shiny red English telephone booth he restored. On the way to his studio he built about 12 years ago – nearly as big as the house – he talks about how he moved Cook and Shanosky first to Carnegie Center in West Windsor in 1977, and eventually to Newtown in 1995, steadily shortening his commute until his retirement in 2000.


The studio is filled with such artifacts as a classic Remington typewriter and an old clock mechanism – yet everything is orderly. Stacks of thin oak drawers are filled with flea market finds: a baggie of with plastic eyeballs; a mousetrap made from a circuit board (“I’m building a better mousetrap,” he jokes); Penn Central train tickets from his New York City commute, 1962-1977; a wheel from a clothesline; and brass medals pulled off plaques from his numerous design awards. Shelves are filled with doll heads, doll limbs, old tickets. Old wood saws hang on one wall like works of art.

“I enjoy putting things together,” says the 1953 Pratt graduate. Organizing these artifacts in boxes is an extension of his graphic-design work.

Mr. Cook made his first box in the 1970s, although he had no idea he’d be following up with a series 30 years later. As a member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, he was invited into an exhibit on the theme of color at the Whitney Museum. “My father was blind,” he recounts. Cataracts had caused him to lose his eyesight when Roger was a fifth-grader. “I wanted to make something my father could understand and relate to.” The box is a white Formica square, with buttons on the left and right. When you press the button on the left, a male voice says “blue.” The button on the right triggers a female voice to say “yellow.” Press both buttons at once and hear male and female voices saying “green.”


Over the years, Mr. Cook dabbled in photography, producing Christmas cards he sold through museums. He has created numerous posters for First Night in Newtown since 1999. One of the posters was an assemblage of instruments and noisemakers. About 13 years ago, he assembled a “box” filled with toy blocks, dolls, a toy soldier, marbles, a truck, clown, baseball player and an old leather ball, and photographed it for a Christmas card.

Ten years ago, he began pursuing the box as his medium. Unlike Joseph Cornell’s boxes, which were often painted and looked more like folk art, Mr. Cook’s boxes are like fine cabinetry, made from select woods and using spline joinery and mitered corners. The fronts are made of glass, as were many of Cornell’s.

Mr. Cook expresses his deep-seated feelings about human rights abuses in the Middle East in his boxes, although some are just plain whimsical. Some can be interpreted as whimsical designs, until he talks about their deeper meanings, and then there’s no going back.

One such example is “Future Bound.” We see nine eggs in a grid, bound in string, with a rusted peace dove at the top, a piece of twine around its neck. One might think this could make a nice decorative piece for a country-style kitchen, until Mr. Cook tells you that the dove of peace is tied in a noose and her eggs cannot hatch in the stifling environments of the occupied territories.

Born to Christian Palestinian parents in Ramallah, his given name is Rajie, meaning “hope.” His fourth-grade teacher started calling him Roger, and it stuck – just as, many years earlier, Turkish soldiers changed his grandfather’s Palestinian name to Cook. Rajie Cook’s father brought the family to the United States seeking freedom and education for his children.

But Mr. Cook will not forget his past, or the suffering of those who live in occupied territories. While serving 10 years on the Task Force for the Middle East, a group sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, Mr. Cook traveled to the West Bank, Jordan, Gaza, Israel, Egypt and Syria and spent time in refugee camps. “We visited and talked to people to let them know other people were thinking about them and concerned for their well being.”

Some of the boxes recall the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such as “End of an Era,” in which we see a wooden American flag in red, white and black, with twin towers incised into its stripes. At one end is a pair of broken glasses, and a ticket for the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. There is a fireman’s badge, and printed on the glass front is the text from The New York Times article about the attack that began, “In the most devastating terrorist onslaught ever waged…”

He says not everyone is ready to confront such issues when they look at art. “They would rather see landscapes or lighthouses or beach scenes. But when Picasso did ‘Guernica,’ he got a lot of people thinking about war.”

Other boxes immortalize his commute or his years in business, such as “While You Were Out,” a tower of all the pink message memos he received. And then there’s pure whimsy, such as “Pencil Point Pasta,” a bowl filled with freshly sharpened pencils on a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Next to the bowl sits the guest check.

Some of the assemblages take a month to complete, but others have thought processes that can go on for years. Mr. Cook, who restores old houses in his spare time, says he is not interested in selling the boxes, but goes to sleep and wakes thinking up new ideas for them.

Even though his father – who died at age 94, still waiting for peace – was blind, he could see, asserts Mr. Cook. “Eyes are more than just a way to find the opening in a doorway or the pulls on a drawer. Our eyes and ears are a conduit to help transport information to the brain so we can appreciate visual beauty, music and nature.”

For information: www.rajie.org

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