Meet Cipe Pineles: The Remarkable Life and Illustrated Recipes of the Forgotten Pioneer Who Blazed the Way for Women in Design and Publishing
A labor of love four years in the making, celebrating a trailblazing woman who shattered multiple glass ceilings.
By Maria Popova
One late February afternoon in 2013, as my then-partner and I were cooking dinner at home in New York, my phone rang. It was my dear friend and frequent collaborator Wendy MacNaughton. She knew that I feel about the telephone the way Barthes did, so I in turn knew that there was some momentous reason for the call.
Wendy was calling from the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, where behind a glass case she had discovered something she intuitively recognized as a rare treasure — a set of vibrant original paintings of traditional Jewish foods, alongside recipes written in a most unusual, meticulously hand-lettered typeface. It bore the feisty title “Leave Me Alone with the Recipes” and was dated 1945.
When our mutual friend Sarah Rich joined Wendy at the fair, their inquiry about the author of this magical manuscript was met with a name that meant nothing to either of them: Cipe Pineles (June 23, 1908–January 3, 1991). Upon probing further, they were jarred to realize that the name should not only mean something to them, but should mean very much indeed — especially since Wendy is an illustrator and Sarah a writer with a background in food and design. Cipe Pineles, they found out, was a trailblazer who paved the way for women in design, illustration, and publishing — the first in many boys’ clubs, a woman who embodied Audre Lorde’s assertion that “that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” She was also a pioneer of bringing fine artists to magazines — she hired visionary artists like Ben Shahn and gave young Andy Warhol, who considered her his favorite art director, his first editorial commissions.
Wendy and Sarah had called us to see if Debbie and I wanted to split the cost of the illustrated manuscript four ways — it was too pricey for them alone, but they felt strongly that this was a treasure worth salvaging from antiquarian obscurity. Debbie and I heartily agreed. None of us had any sense at the time of what we had acquired or how it could live, but a strange and wonderful Rube Goldberg machine of serendipity followed, culminating in Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles (public library) — a labor of love four years in the making, using the illustrated recipes as a centrifugal force for a larger celebration Cipe’s far-reaching legacy.
This part-cookbook and part-monograph was meticulously researched and edited by Sarah and Wendy, with contributions by Debbie and me, alongside a small clan of art and design titans whose work was directly or indirectly influenced by Cipe’s legacy: Artist Maira Kalman painted a one-page love letter to Cipe; design legend Paula Scher eulogized Cipe’s tireless crusade for diversity in a field composed almost entirely of white men; design historian Steven Heller chronicled how Cipe’s monumental influence as an art director and educator shaped the sensibility of generations; legendary food writer Mimi Sheraton, at ninety-one, recounted working among the editorial staff at Seventeen under Cipe’s leadership and reflected on their shared culinary and cultural heritage.
Below is my own contribution — a biographical essay exploring how Cipe harnessed her outsider status as woman and immigrant to revolutionize a hegemony — as it appears in the book:
BECOMING CIPE: OUTSIDERDOM AND PERSEVERANCE
Cipe Pineles was the first independent female graphic designer in America, the first female member of the prestigious Art Directors Club, and the first woman inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. A quarter century would pass before another woman was inducted, months before Pineles’s death. Pineles was posthumously awarded the lifetime achievement medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Nobel Prize of design. And yet through all of her acclaim, Pineles was animated not by ego but by a tremendous generosity of spirit. She saw her success as belonging not to her alone but to all the women whom she was pulling up the ranks along with her, to the young designers whose lives and worlds she shaped as an educator and mentor, and to the American public, whose taste she subtly and systematically refined through the unfaltering vision that defined her life’s work.
When I first heard of Cipe Pineles, I thought of her counterpart Maria Mitchell — a pioneer no less trailblazing in opening up an entire world of possibility to women, yet no less lamentably forgotten.
One sweltering July afternoon, I found myself stunned before one particular object at the birthplace of Maria Mitchell — America’s first woman astronomer — on the small island of Nantucket. In the nineteenth century, Mitchell paved the way for women in science and became the first woman employed by the United States Federal Government for a nonspecialized domestic skill — she was hired as “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, performing complex mathematical computations to guide sailors around the world. She was also the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It would be another ninety years until the second woman — legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead — was admitted. The item that stopped my stride, hanging humbly in the hallway of Mitchell’s small Quaker home, was her certificate of admission into the Academy. On it, the salutation “Sir” was crossed out in pencil and “honorary member” was handwritten over the printed “Fellow.” This yellowing piece of paper was the fossil of a quiet, monumental revolution — the record of an opening hand-etched into a glass ceiling centuries thick.
Like Mitchell’s, Pineles’s path to success was neither straight nor free of obstacles.
Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Vienna at the end of Europe’s last untroubled decade before the horrors of the World Wars forever scarred the face of the Old World, young Ciporah — who soon became Cipe and never looked back — grew up as the second youngest child in a family of five, with two sisters and two older brothers. In search of relief for her father’s diabetes more than a decade before the first insulin injection saved a human life, Cipe and her family migrated across Europe’s most venerated spas and sanatoria before settling in Poland, right outside Warsaw. (How tempting to imagine young Cipe crossing paths, without ever knowing it, with some of Europe’s intellectual titans who frequented the continent’s spas around the same time, seeking cure for their own bodily bedevilments — Rainer Maria Rilke, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka.)
From a young age, flavor and color were married for Cipe. One of her earliest memories was of walking in the woods with her siblings, gathering strawberries — “red caps through the green grass” — and sitting down by the river to savor them. In childhood, as in her professional life decades later, she was also unafraid of a difficult and even dangerous climb to the top. She recounted one particularly memorable hike in the mountains on the border between Poland and the area then known as Bohemia, on which she and her siblings had chosen one of the highest and most formidable peaks to climb. “With great difficulties after falling a few times we reached at last the top,” she wrote — a sentence of inadvertent prescience as an existential allegory for her later life in the creative world.
But the adventurous idyll was violently interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after Russia’s Red Army invaded Poland in 1920, twelve-year-old Cipe and her family returned to Vienna. Years later, as a high school senior in America, she won a national essay contest by the Atlantic for her vivid eyewitness account of the Bolshevik-inflicted tumult in Europe, which she described as a time of “suspense, excitement, and uncertainty.”
Back in Vienna, the Pineles sisters had set about learning English by memorizing Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a strategy with a serendipitous payoff when they finally arrived in America in mid-October of 1923 (“a very beautiful day,” Cipe recalled of the morning she first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty) and entered school just before the holidays, impressing classmates with their season-appropriate vocabulary. “From the beginning we have hard work,” she wrote shortly after arriving, “but I think that in a few months, when we will speak and understand more English it will be much easier.”
So began Pineles’s life in America as a prototypical immigrant, marked by the peculiar, if lonely-making, privilege of being in a culture but not of it. “There accrue to the outsider great benefits,” wrote the trailblazing biochemist Erwin Chargaff — a compatriot and contemporary of Pineles’s, who immigrated to America around the same time and for similar reasons. The European sensibility she had unconsciously absorbed in her formative years would later bring to her design work a level of originality and sophistication that rose above her American peers.
At the end of her senior year of high school, classmates wrote alongside her yearbook portrait: “She knows she draws well. A little Polish girl who won our hearts.” She was voted “best natured member” of her graduating class — a title that reflected the core values of kindness and generosity that never left her, even as she ascended the rungs of the corporate world in the golden age of unfeeling self-actualization.
During her final year of high school, Cipe received a fifty-dollar art scholarship — a non-negligible sum that covered more than a third of the annual art school tuition at Pratt, where she enrolled in the fall of 1926. Her graduation portfolio at Pratt was strewn with food paintings, from a loaf of bread to a chocolate cake. It was also an ode to her first big love, watercolor. Once again, a sort of character summary by her classmates appeared next to her senior portrait:
The most remarkable water colorist in our class. Boys, it’s too late: Cipe is wedded to her art — and they’re both happy.
Beneath the tongue-in-cheek remark lay a deeper truth about Cipe’s attitude toward art and marriage — one nurtured by her older brother Sam, who was instrumental in encouraging her vocational autonomy. Before Pratt, she had voiced to him her reservation that attending college would keep her from finding a husband to support her. Sam reportedly replied: “Marriage is not a full-time occupation. Did you ever hear of a doctor or a lawyer giving up his profession because he was getting married?” (That her youngest sister became a doctor in an era when the field was almost entirely male is probably not coincidental.) In another conversation, Sam reiterated the sentiment: “Marriage is not a substitute for having something to do in life.” Pineles did eventually get married — twice — but although she was a classic Jewish mother in some ways, including in the kitchen, she never let her family life contract her expansive devotion to her art.
Pineles’s name worked both for and against her. To the American ear, Cipe Pineles bears a peculiar ambiguity. An ambiguous foreign name functions like the screen behind which orchestra auditions are performed — the applicant’s gender, ethnicity, age, and other potential points of bias are obscured to let the music speak for itself. But unlike orchestras, which employ this strategy deliberately to avoid bias, the magazine world of mid-century America had no such noble commitment to impartiality. The screen of Cipe Pineles’s name was accidental and as soon as her gendered identity was revealed, the opportunities dwindled or disappeared altogether. She would later recount: “I would drop my portfolio off at various advertising agencies. But the people who liked my work and were interested enough to ask me in for an interview had assumed by my name that I was a man! When they finally met me, they were disappointed, and I left the interview without a chance for the job.” Some prospective employers explained that if she were hired, she’d have to work in the bullpen — an enormous corporate hangar of men — where a woman’s presence would be ill-advised and downright unwelcome.
Still, she pressed on. Reluctantly, she took a job as a watercolor teacher at New Jersey’s Newark Public School of Fine and Industrial Art in the fall of 1929, at a salary of ten dollars a week, but she continued to search for work in the commercial world. Compounding the persistent gender obstacle was the inopportune timing of cultural catastrophe: Pineles had graduated from Pratt just before the devastating stock market crash of 1929 and was attempting to enter the workforce at the dawn of the Great Depression.
Determined to succeed, she scoured the New York Public Library for a list of advertising agencies working with food accounts, purposefully pursuing her passion for the intersection of food and graphic art.
She was eventually hired by Contempora — the experimental consortium of designers, artists, and architects including Lucian Bernhard, Paul Poiret, Rockwell Kent and others — where she designed fabric designs and dimensional displays. But her real breakthrough came obliquely to her direct efforts. The magazine magnate Condé Nast saw her pattern design and window fabric displays for Contempora. They were unlike anything Nast had seen. He immediately hired Pineles as an editorial designer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, both of which she imprinted with her singular vision. She continued to move up in the magazine world. By the mid-1940s, she was shaping the visual voice of Glamour and earning the magazine every prestigious accolade of design.
It was in this period that she began illustrating Leave Me Alone with the Recipes, perhaps because she was contending for the first time with negotiating the competing roles of traditional womanhood and a thriving corporate career, which she followed to the very top over the next half-century, eventually pouring the confluence of her accomplished expertise and her generosity of spirit into teaching as well. She became a passionate and beloved educator at Parsons, where she taught editorial design for nearly two decades.
Exactly thirty years after she wrote and illustrated her family cookbook, Pineles had a chance to resurrect her love of the intersection of the culinary and graphic arts. In 1975 — a tumultuous year for her, marked by her induction into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the sudden death of her lover — she spearheaded the Parsons yearbook project, themed “cheap eats”: a collection of illustrated recipes for delicious but affordable meals by students, faculty, and celebrated artists such as Maurice Sendak, Larry Rivers, and Elaine de Kooning. Alongside an original painting, Pineles herself contributed a recipe for kasha served with meatballs, a version of which appears in Leave Me Alone with the Recipes.
The students’ introduction to the yearbook encapsulated Pineles’s influence as an educator, artists, and cross-pollinator of food and design, and it captured the spirit and sensibility of her unpublished 1945 family cookbook with uncanny precision. They wrote:
The style is in the color, the scale, the original and unusual use of common items and of art materials. The recipes and ideas in this cookbook are made with the same ingredients any student on a budget would buy; but it is the resourcefulness and inventiveness as well as the artists’ love for cooking which make for good design and especially creative meals. Eating is more than food… it is visual impact, contrast, style, scale, mood, fragrance, color.
Visual impact, indeed, was the raw material of Pineles’s work. But from it radiated a larger legacy of cultural impact. A century earlier, to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar, Maria Mitchell had remarked, “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Pineles’s life and legacy were one quiet but continuous incarnation of this incantation, the reverberations of which live on as the palpable pulse animating the corpus of possibility for every contemporary woman in publishing and graphic design.