A husband-and-wife team and their influential midcentury designs.
Lucky is the designer who can see in both two and three dimensions. Luckier still is she or he to be married to someone with equal gifts—especially if that mate is a collaborator and not a competitor. So appears to have been the case with Dorothy and Otis Shepard, whose enviable creative lives have been captured in the absorbing, moving, and lushly illustrated new book Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream, by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel.
Both Dorothy and Shep (his nickname since childhood) got their start as commercial artists during San Francisco’s billboard boom of the 1920s. The Federal Highway Act, signed in 1921, helped fund the expansion of U.S. roadways, and advertisers took the opportunity to reach audiences beyond the traditional black-and-white pages of mail catalogs by posting colorful advertisements along America’s highways. Shep, a veteran of World War I, was a man of great adventure, with a strong and lasting interest in the theater. He was well regarded as a commercial painter while employed as an art director at Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Company, a top Bay Area agency of the period. In 1927, he wisely hired the gifted and highly praised Dorothy Van Gorder straight out of the California School of Arts and Crafts, from which she had graduated in only three years, as valedictorian. According to family lore, Dorothy was unabashedly outspoken (and just plain unabashed—she was once evicted from an apartment for sunbathing nude on the roof), and it cost her the Foster & Kleiser job, but almost as soon as she was let go, she was rehired for her prized skills. Hathaway and Nadel write that either in spite of or because of Dorothy’s brashness, Shep, the “raconteur,” soon began courting the “young bon vivant.”
And so their joint artistic adventure began—most markedly with a honeymoon in 1929 to Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Vienna. While there, they purchased Bauhaus furniture and had the good fortune to meet the great modernist Joseph Binder, who was a leader in the European abstract graphic style. “Shep and Dorothy already wanted their work to convey meaning through compositional structure—instead of realism,” write Hathaway and Nadel, but Binder’s reduction of “an image to a series of shapes and forms and [integration of] typography into his pictures” helped refine their approach to design and illustration. Both Dorothy and Otis had been following the modernist movement with great interest back home, but seeing this work and the new techniques in person and to scale had a profound and lasting effect on them. Read More