Monday, April 29

What Do Oreos, Nutter Butters, and Milk Bones Have in Common?

Photo by Jeremy Lange, courtesy of The Independent Weekly.
Emily Wallace guest-blogs for us about food, art, and design. You can check out more of her work here.

The pattern is familiar: a small, circular border hatched with short, shallow lines; an interior ringed with four-leaf clovers. I craned my neck to glimpse a blueprint of one of the world’s best-known designs—that of the Oreo cookie. A copy of the line drawing for its emboss, drafted in 1952, hangs above a closet door in the Chapel Hill home of William J. Turnier.

Turnier handed me a step stool. “His name is in the lower right corner,” he told me. And I climbed up for a look at the print in an attempt to answer one of modern life’s biggest questions—one that had recently appeared as a headline on The New York Times website—“Who Made That Oreo Emboss?” The query, posed by designer Hillary Greenbaum, caught my eye, and I clicked the link in hopes to learn more. What I found near the top of the comments section was Turnier. He appeared as “Bill, Chapel Hill, NC,” and claimed that his father, William A. Turnier, was the artist.

Could it be that Nabisco’s insanely popular manufactured cookie—a thin, pasty smear of vanilla cream sandwiched between two crisp chocolate wafers that is sold in the ballpark of 12 million per year—had ties to North Carolina? A quick online search proved that it might. William J. Turnier, a stately man in his early seventies, appeared wearing an oversized red bow tie on the UNC law school website, so I wrote the tax law professor an e-mail to ask if he shared a name with the Oreo’s rumored artist. “You indeed have the right person,” he shot back. And soon after, we met for a cup of coffee.

As I reported in a story for the Indy Week, William Adelbert Turnier worked as a member of Nabisco’s engineering team in New York between 1923 and 1973. There, he designed dies—basically industrial cookie cutters—to stamp patterns on the company’s baked treats.

According to the younger Bill Turnier, his father also worked on the waffle-patterned Nutter Butter, the vine-embossed Cameo, and the Milk-Bone dog biscuit. “I can be walking down the dog food aisle and choke up,” Turnier said about glimpsing his dad’s distinct lettering style on the grocery-store shelf.

But of all of those, or of any designed cookie for that matter, the Oreo is the stuff of legends. Numerologists used to contact the senior Turnier to inquire about the number of ticks around the cookie’s edge. Even today, bloggers speculate about Masonic-like images in its middle.

Such attention was no surprise to architecture critic Paul Goldberger. As he wrote in the Times on the cookie's 75th anniversary in 1986, "It stands as the archetype of its kind, a reminder that cookies are designed as consciously as buildings, and sometimes better."