Since 1970, Steve Frykholm’s posters for Herman Miller’s annual company picnic have featured a mouthwatering spread of summer potluck staples.
Frykholm has whipped up pies oozing bright red cherries, chicken thighs searing over white-hot briquets, bacon snaking through a trough of baked beans. His very first poster, two rows of teeth sunk deep into a cob of corn, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.
On a visit to Herman Miller’s headquarters a few years ago, it was thrilling to peek inside the archives of the iconic midcentury furniture manufacturer. But I was most excited to see the original 1982 picnic poster Seven Layered Salad, which looked like it was screenprinted directly from the summers of my childhood.
Seven layer salad is a Midwestern institution, where the preparation is as important as the presentation. It consists of an entire head of chopped iceberg lettuce carefully covered with layers of vegetables—one of which must be frozen peas—all frosted like a cake with a thick coat of mayonnaise. I can taste its cool, tangy crunch in my Missouri backyard, accompanied by the throbbing hum of cicadas, the still-icy peas bursting on my tongue.
When the Herman Miller book came out this year, Herman Miller: A Way of Living, I was tickled to find the recipe card that inspired the poster printed right there in the book—although Frykholm’s design portrays a slightly different version than what’s shown on the recipe.
“I don’t think I followed it,” Frykholm told me, laughing, when I reached him by phone this week.
In 1982, Frykholm had been at Herman Miller for 12 years, hired as the company’s first in-house graphic designer. Two Herman Miller staffers, Barbara Loveland and Linda Powell, who run the West Michigan Graphic Design Archives, had procured the recipe card from a local designer named Len Adams.
“I remember how it said ‘serves lots,’” said Frykholm. “I just loved that.”
Frykholm took some creative liberties with the ingredients—including swapping out a few of the seven layers so they’d read better at poster scale.
“I couldn’t decide between carrots on the bottom or the celery on the bottom. I think I wanted the two greens together,” he said. He also nixed the water chestnuts. “People wouldn’t know what they are.”
After making a trip to the grocery store to gather raw materials, Frykholm came up with a rather innovative way to create his sketches. “As I recall, I cut up a lot of radishes and celery and threw them on the Xerox machine.”
For Herman Miller fans who want to make the salad at home, however, the recipe’s method ends abruptly—“spread mayonnaise”—without any additional guidance. There’s also the word “tomatoes” mysteriously scrawled in blue pen on an empty line of the recipe card. (“That may have been my handwriting,” says Frykholm.)
For assistance, I turned to my mom, who, I learned, was not a seven layer salad doctrinarian. “It was easy to make because you could use up all the stuff in your refrigerator,” she told me, which is what she often did for a low-stress, one-dish meal on humid summer nights. She did, however, locate two different versions of seven layer salad in her Midwestern cookbooks. I tested various layer combinations to strike the perfect balance of color and crunch.
When you make the salad, you must become a designer—you are choosing your layers based on both how they look and how they perform. Both of my mom’s cookbook recipes called for green bell peppers, which impart the right texture, although I felt that my salad already had enough green. You could try yellow peppers for contrast. Water chestnuts, although they were indeed visually bland, were better than radishes, which I felt overwhelmed the other flavors. Instead of slicing the red onion into rings, I chopped them to make all the vegetables roughly the same size. Tomatoes were colorful, but didn’t make the cut in my version—too watery.
Now think of the mayonnaise like spackle, which you must apply in a way that creates an airtight seal on which to place the cheese and bacon. One of my mom’s cookbook recipes recommended using Miracle Whip, which I suppose would be fine. But we were always a Hellman’s household.
One last thing: Do not thaw the peas. This is what makes the salad a potluck win. As the peas thaw, they chill the other vegetables, making it the best possible dish to bring to an event where it might have to sit out for a few hours.
That detail intrigued Frykholm, who admitted that, aside from composing the vegetables on a Xerox machine, he’s never actually made the salad.
“I’m gonna make it now, I’ll give it a whirl,” he said. “I think I’d shred my own cheese, though.”
He paused as he read through the recipe again. “Wait,” he said. “A pint of mayonnaise?”
Seven Layer Salad
Adapted from the Herman Miller picnic poster
1 head lettuce, chopped
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 10-ounce package frozen peas (do not thaw)
1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts
1 cup chopped red onion
1 pint mayonnaise (half of a 30-ounce jar)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 8-ounce package shredded cheddar cheese
10 slices bacon, cooked crisp and chopped
Place lettuce at the bottom of a large bowl (preferably a clear, straight-sided glass bowl so you can see the layers). Add vegetables, in layers. Do not toss. Mix mayonnaise with sugar and spread on top. Sprinkle cheddar cheese on mayonnaise mixture. Top with chopped bacon. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before serving.
Can substitute chopped radishes or bell peppers for any of the layers for additional color.