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.
The Shepards were quick studies; they promptly took up and mastered the tools and tastes of their European counterparts on their return to San Francisco. Chief among these was the airbrush technique that’s now synonymous with the visual voice of posters and advertising of the era. It’s a style that’s widely copied in design today in ways that are nostalgic but that continue to look fresh. The subtle fade and gradient effect of the airbrush came to distinguish Dorothy’s and Shep’s work in the 1930s, in both individual and collaborative projects for freelance clients. With this new, very commercial style, Shep became an “avant-garde populist in graphic design, bringing the new aesthetic to all regions of the country,” while Dorothy enjoyed a career that “made her the earliest and most well established female modernist designer in North America.”
It was Shep’s thirty-year working relationship with the chewing-gum giant Wrigley that brought unimaginable opportunities for both him and Dorothy. P.K. Wrigley and Shep had a lifelong friendship that, while sometimes contentious, seems to have been full of good faith. Wrigley not only had Shep art direct all areas of his chewing-gum empire, he also entrusted him to reimagine Catalina Island, which his father had purchased years earlier, as a tourist destination. Shep gave up all other freelance work to focus on the Wrigley account, which took him to Chicago for half the year. Dorothy assisted him as a ghost designer on some of these well-known projects and continued to take on clients of her own back in New York, where the newlyweds had relocated after the Chesterfield company paid for them to live and work for six weeks while creating an original campaign for their cigarette brand. Shep’s highly memorable graphic packaging for the ubiquitous, all-American chewing gum and the all-so-familiar advertising for the brand (think the Doublemint Twins!) is so a part of the fabric of our everyday design culture that it embarrassed me not to know Shep’s name, let alone that of his unsung wife and frequent collaborator.
With Catalina, the Shepards enjoyed four years of unparalleled creative freedom to invent a vacation paradise, one that, according to Shep’s vision, would be as charming and romantic and as much of a draw as any of the well-loved European vacation destinations of the day. (And it was: among the island’s visitors were Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Johnny Weissmuller, and Cecil B. DeMille.) Shep developed the Early California Plan, which provided guidelines for local shop owners about how they could improve their business through a smart, consistent, island-wide design vision. Dorothy was fastidious in her research of the Mexican and Native American influences on the island, and this inspired her choices of color, typography, architectural detail, and even the uniforms for all of Catalina’s tradespeople. She created a system of dimensional signage that was consistent in its use of typography and illustration style. All of these efforts by the visionary couple had a subliminal unifying effect that contributed to its financial success.
In 1936 and ’37, Shep oversaw the complete image overhaul of P.K.’s beloved Chicago Cubs and of Wrigley Field itself. He redesigned the field’s signage and scoreboards, tickets, concession stands, and bleachers, and his new players’ uniforms set the standard for the shape and tailoring of all modern baseball teams. The book includes page after page of Shep’s richly colored and dynamic midcentury Cubs programs and yearbook covers, created with his signature airbrush technique. He’s responsible, too, for the print materials for the All-American Girls Softball League—P.K.’s idea to fill stadiums during World War II.
Shep and Dorothy grew apart in the forties, partly from the strain of their elder son’s metal illness. Dorothy chose to relocate with her younger son to Northern California, where, unfortunately for us, she put commercial work aside forever. Instead, she focused on fine art and taking care of her family. In her late personal work, Dorothy explored abstraction with hard-edged paintings and collage using limited color palettes on white grounds that are reminiscent for me of those of Kazimir Malevich. The Suprematist artists liked to create gradients with their paintbrushes, and perhaps that drew her to their work.
In 1962, the two great designers—Dorothy was fifty-six, and Otis was sixty-eight—reunited, set up house together, and traveled once more to New York City. I was so moved by Hathaway and Nadel’s choice to close Dorothy and Otis’s story with a spread showing two blue-tinted, large format, Polaroid-type candid photographs—one of Dorothy shot by Shep, the other of Shep shot by Dorothy. They are approaching the harbor by boat, each foregrounding a midcentury Manhattan skyline. Their poses in relation to the rail of the boat and to the city seem to suggest that each found separate paths in both life and in work and honored the other for it.
Charlotte Strick is art director of The Paris Review.