Sign Language

I f you’ve ever been inside a building on Yale’s campus, or ambled around the Chapel West district downtown, or stepped inside city hall, or driven along the verdant Merritt Parkway, you’ve almost certainly seen Strong Cohen’s clean, classic handiwork.

Co-founders and -owners Tom Strong and Marjorie Cohen opened the graphic design firm in the shadow of Yale in 1968. Marjorie, a native of Woodbridge, had studied art and architecture in Michigan, then returned to Connecticut to work with a local architect. Tom, a New Hampshire man, had finished his Yale graduate coursework in art and architecture in 1967. Tom credits Marjorie (and her contacts) with their early success: “She knew architects and found work for us early on.” Later, Tom’s Yale contacts helped the firm forge a working relationship with Yale that persists today.

Strong Cohen leaves its mark in plaques that designate classroom numbers, building directories and fire escape route maps, all designed at the firm’s second-floor office at 1146 Chapel, above Hull’s Art Supply. At Yale’s Culley-Heyman Tennis Center, near the Yale Bowl, striking banners produced by Strong Cohen (pictured second above) depict many of the school’s athletic legends, and most of the meeting rooms in the Yale’s Shared Services building on Winchester Street feature Strong Cohen-designed collages.

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The firm’s longstanding relationship with Yale means Strong Cohen doesn’t have to engage in much outside solicitation to remain busy; the firm doesn’t even have a website. But it has a stable of clients that are very loyal, according to Strong, which he attributes to the work. “Do good work which is remembered, and people will call you again,” he says.

In 1997, when officials wanted to update the Merritt Parkway’s fading signage, they approached Strong Cohen. Inspired by the roadway’s original wooden signs with thatched borders, the firm honored the history by including the present drawn-on jagged “edges” in the new design. Updates included a new shade of green, a new typeface and a revamped parkway shield bearing the Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel), Connecticut’s state flower.

Back in its own corner of the city, Strong Cohen was commissioned to produce a series of “New Haven Notables” banners, unveiled in the summer of 2012, for the Chapel West Special Services District, an organization dedicated to neighborhood maintenance and improvements along Chapel Street between York and Sherman. Strolling around the area, it’s hard to miss Meryl Streep, who got her MFA at Yale, looking out from the side of Miya’s, or legendary New Haven doo-wop group The Five Satins serenading a corner parking lot at Park and Crown. Many of the town’s long-gone celebrated citizens are honored—Eli Whitney, Charles Goodyear, Benjamin Spock—as are more contemporary figures like Karen Carpenter, one half of the 70s mega-duo The Carpenters, and Craig Breslow, now a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox.

Tom Strong has a personal appreciation for history. Selections from his collection of graphic design posters, including hundreds of Swiss posters depicting work by the likes of Josef Muller-Brockmann and Armin Hoffman, have been shown in myriad art exhibitions. His stash of National Park Services maps—he owns every single one in every incarnation to date, amassing them simply by requesting them from the individual parks—still inspires his own work.

He traces his passion for collecting to a major childhood event. “I was a half-orphan at the age of nine—my dad died young, so collecting became a way to compensate for the fact that I couldn’t have a train or a new bike every year.” Now, his collecting habit inspires and informs design decisions. “So much of our work is preparing work to be made by others, so we just concentrate on a design and on telling a story that often reflects our own history.”

Strong and Cohen maintain a small staff by choice. Tom explains, “I have found that I am so disorganized that I don’t like having too many designers under me waiting [on me]. If I have two, I can give them directions more easily. That makes me saner, happier.”

What will surely make those looking to learn more about Strong Cohen saner and happier is that long-overdue website for the business, which Cohen says is coming sometime in 2014. It’s just another sign of the times.

Strong Cohen
1146 Chapel St, 2nd Fl, New Haven (map)
(203) 865-4511

Written by Will Gardner. Photos 1, 3 and 4 by Dan Mims; photo 2 by Will Gardner.

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Will Gardner is a writer and instructor who has written for The Portland Mercury, The Stranger and the Dallas Observer. He relocated to New Haven two years ago and has already visited 53 of Connecticut's State Parks, and refuses to move until he sees them all. He also has an unhealthy obsession with the Bee Gees.

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