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Artist-Designed Choking Victim Signs and the Creative Future of Restaurants

More and more restaurants are commissioning artists to give mundane compliance signage a creative makeover.

Alabaster Pizzo, “Choking First Aid poster” (2016) (all images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

In 1978, shortly after the discovery of the Heimlich Maneuver, New York City introduced its first Choking First Aid poster. The orange-hued design, which the Department of Health distributed to businesses for free, was sloppy, accidentally picturing a hand with six fingers. In the 1990s, Parsons School of Design professor Paul Young and his student Laura Berkowitz redesigned the original poster, with primary-colored, Constructivist graphics picturing a blue character choking on a fish bone. (Though other designs from Young’s class emerged, Berkowitz’s was the most widely dispersed among restaurants.) This was a promising early example of an artist-designed compliance sign, but it didn’t last long: In 2010, the city’s free version of the Choking First Aid poster was updated again to a dull gray design — one that only reinforced the bland homogeneity of many restaurant interiors at the time.

While New York City’s Department of Health requires all restaurants to display compliance signs — including Choking First Aid posters, No Smoking signs, and Employees Must Wash Hands signs — its guidelines do not specifically require boring, uniform designs for such signage. As Morgenstern’s, a popular SoHo ice cream shop, puts it on their website, “you can comply with the [Department of Health] without compromising your aesthetic standards.” In recent years, more restaurants have taken advantage of this flexibility, and the city has seen a refreshing new wave of artist-designed compliance signs, from Tarot card-themed Choking First Aid posters to psychedelic watercolored “Employees Must Wash Hands” bathroom plaques. In the face of rising rents, some of the nation’s strictest Department of Health standards, and competition in gentrifying neighborhoods, an eye-catching compliance sign can be the small detail that makes a food establishment stand out.

Step into Relationships, a new gallery-cum-coffee space in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, co-run by Nina Schwartz, a former curator at Salon94 and Gavin Brown’s 356 Mission in Los Angeles. In a departure from her formal gallery training, Schwartz saw this space as opportunity to make art more approachable. Relationships is full of affordable, funky furniture designs, hand-shaped plant holders, and yes, artist-designed compliance signs. In the bathroom, a watercolor of a bat with “Employees Must Wash Hands” written beneath it in slime green bubble letters, designed by artist Nikki Maloof, hovers over the sink.

Nikki Maloof, “Employees Must Wash Hands” sign at Clinton Hill’s Relationships art gallery/ coffee shop

Domicile, another new coffee shop in Brooklyn, paid as much attention to creatively reinterpreting cottage cheese ceilings into a futuristic sea punk interior design as it did to exciting signage. Owner Brianne McCabe commissioned artist Morely Talmor to create squiggly, amoeba-shaped laser cut No Smoking (Even E-Cigs) signs and a Choking Aid Poster featuring playful geometric cut-outs. The MP Shift, a James Beard-award winning restaurant interiors company whose clients include hip, pastel terrazzo-filled restaurants, commissioned Todd Selby, the photographer behind The Selby blog, for the Matter House “Employees Must Wash Hands” signs.

Morey Talmor, Employees Must Wash Hands signs at Domicile coffee shop, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (photo courtesy of Brianne McCabe)

Many artist-created compliance posters serve as fun standalone designs, like something you might find for sale at the New York Art Book Fair. A few businesses are marketing them as collectibles: Morgenstern’s sells illustrator Jessica Che’s Tarot card-themed Choking First Aid poster for $70 on its website.

For some artists, these creative poster design commissions have been an essential launching pad to other gigs. Lucky Peach, a beloved, now-defunct food and art magazine, once released a line of choking victim posters just for fun, designed by Mexico City-based illustrator, Rachel Levit. In recent months, chef Enrique Olivera’s acclaimed Atla restaurant commissioned Levit for her magical realist illustrations. For Massimo Mongiardo, a graphic designer and co-founder of Sublet Studio, a New York-based restaurant branding group, a choking poster commission ultimately landed him a job branding Metta, a Fort Greene restaurant.

Morey Talmor, “Choking First Aid” poster atDomicile coffee shop, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (photo courtesy of Brianne McCabe)

The bespoke compliance sign is more than just a cute way to spice up an otherwise mundane diagram meant to promote public safety. Artist-restaurant collaborations also help businesses expand into the territory of cultural centers.

“More and more, uniqueness and depth of concept is what distinguishes spaces from one another,” says Arley Marks, owner of Honey’s Bar in Bushwick, who commissioned musician, illustrator, and cartoonist Matt Thurber for his compliance sign. “There are so many cookie-cutter new establishments opening everyday. It’s the little things that, when put together, create a unique and special environment. [Restaurants] have always been a place for creative business owners to involve members of their community.”

Morey Talmor, First Aid Kit signs at Domicile coffee shop, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (photo courtesy of Brianne McCabe)

In an oversaturated food arena, smart restaurant owners like Gerardo Gonzalez, of Chinatown’s Lalito, have turned their businesses into something more fluid, performative, and queer. Lalito ties together art, politics, and food by hosting dance nights and activist-oriented dinners. Gonzalez’s friend, Danny Bowien, of the contentious Mission Chinese, frequently commissions artist Justin Hager to cultivate their skater boy/ Metallica vibe. Characters in Hager’s posters often resemble the green-haired, Eckhaus Latta-modeling Chef Bowien himself. For restaurant superfans, Mission Chinese also recently launched a line of custom streetwear.

Not all artist-designed compliance signs are worth celebrating: in one poster, circulated in restaurants around New York City, the artist made the unfortunate choice of sexualizing choking victims, by illustrating a woman in a slip dress with straps falling off, in need of the Heimlich Maneuver from her male savior… yawn.

But overall, New York City’s many artist-restaurant collaborations signal a promising food industry future, in which the line between art galleries and eateries is increasingly blurred. It’s clear that more and more restaurants are serving up not just culinary innovations, but whole buffets of cultural entertainment.

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