Michael Bierut and Friends Beat Shepard Fairey to ’21st Century WPA’ Punch

niemann mural.jpg
(Photo: Pentagram)

Sure, Shepard Fairey has had a chat with the Obama administration about something akin to a Works Progress Administration for the 21st century, but Michael Bierut is way ahead of him. For the past nine years, the Pentagram partner has led the firm’s work for the Library Initiative, a Robin Hood Foundation program to build new school libraries in elementary schools throughout New York City, and the results have earned comparisons to WPA murals. While architects such as Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Richard Lewis, and Deborah Berke have handled the design of the more than 60 libraries completed so far, Pentagram created all of the graphics, including signage, wayfinding, and this master logo for the initiative:

bierut library.jpg

“We were trying, on a corny and simple level, to say ‘this is a library with a surprise inside,'” Bierut tells us. “I also like any logo that works when typed in any font (or at least any font with caps and an exclamation point).” Among the surprises inside the new libraries? Extraordinary murals that fill the space from the top of the bookshelves to the ceiling with the bookish whimsy of artists and designers including Christoph Niemann (his murals for P.S. 69 in Clason Point, the Bronx, are pictured at the top of this post), Peter Arkle, and Charles Wilkin. Maira Kalman, for example, curated a four-walled, three-dimensional alphabet scrapbook for P.S. 47 in the Bronx, while Stefan Sagmeister and Yuko Shimizu emblazoned the walls of P.S. 96 with an illustrated Sagmeisterism: “Everybody who is honest is interesting.” A squad of faux ladybugs is involved.


“What we learned in doing this, surprisingly enough, was that this work was first and foremost for the librarians,” says Bierut. “They’re the ones who really create the experience for the kids. They’re the proprietors; our job was to give them the best possible shops to run.” The murals were a hit with this key audience, as Bierut learned during a tour of some of the completed libraries. “One of the librarians pointed out that the lights on the murals were on a separate switch, and that every night when she closed up, she always turned that light off last,” he says. “That really touched me.”

For more about the Library Initiative, including photos of the murals, check out Pentagram’s recent ‘New Work’ post on the project.