When Euro Modernist Design Met American Chewing Gum
20th century and modernist design heroes is confined to the usual suspects – Rand, Lustig, Sutnar, and such – you probably haven’t heard of Dorothy and Otis “Shep” Shepard. These pioneers of populist American Modernism have unjustly escaped mainstream critical recognition for well over a half-century. But a new book has just come along to rectify that neglect: Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream.
“Dorothy and Otis” is written by designer/historian Norman Hathaway and writer/editor/curator Dan Nadel. It deftly chronicles the couple’s Euro modernist design aesthetics, an American outgrowth of A.M. Cassandre Deco-era styling. It deals in depth with an expansive range of accomplishments. Most notable are their iconic, three decade long packaging and promotion for Wrigley’s gum; their total identity overhaul of the Chicago Cubs that set the standard for marketing sports teams; and their spectacular Depression-era branding campaign that transformed sleepy Catalina Island into a luxury travel destination for the likes of Clark Gable, Betty Grable, and Cecil B. DeMille. It also documents their associations with top avant-garde designers such as László Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, and Joseph Binder, whose graphic influence is readily apparent in much of their art.
Fans who’d already discovered the Shepards on their own will be delighted with this volume. And others such as myself, who still vividly recall being captivated by those chewing gum ads that ran from the 1930s through the ‘50s – the ones that depicted slick, shiny, all-American faces rendered in uplifting, future-forward Soviet Socialist poses – will be euphoric. Renowned letterform designer/illustrator Michael Doret recalls his first impressions, which match my own precisely: “I remember seeing Otis’s work on overhead cards in the New York subways when I was too young to even know what a designer was. That work for Wrigley’s was so simple, colorful and vibrant that it always made me smile. And I never forgot it.
Michael Doret, Paul Rogers
“For my money Otis and Dorothy Shepard are two giants of mid-century design who are finally getting the notice they deserve. What’s so wonderful about their work is that it’s just as much at home in today’s world as it was then, and it was unlike most other work being done in their time. It inspired many imitators, but few were able to consistently reach that level of utter simplicity that is so difficult to achieve successfully. I know: I’ve tried to go there myself! I’m absolutely thrilled that they’ll now get the attention they so much deserve, and that a new generation of designers will have the opportunity to witness the Shepard genius.”
Paul Rogers, acclaimed for his illustrations with a retro flair, concurs: “Otis Shepard brought a European Modernist sensibility to American advertising and poster design. His images of baseball players and happy people chewing Wrigley’s gum look as fresh today as they did the minute he peeled back the frisket on his airbrushed paintings. Dorothy Shepard’s career was always in the shadow of her husband’s, and I’m looking forward to reading this overdue review of their long and varied careers.”
Norman Hathaway: I was initially struck by the forceful way Shep drew faces. He used a style that was similar to that of the Modernist European poster artists. They way he simplified shapes and used under-lighting fascinated me.
I didn’t know Dorothy even existed until the Shepard’s granddaughter contacted me. I was dumbfounded to learn about her and her work.
Dan Nadel: I was immediately struck by the combination of what we now think of “Americana” with a distinctly European sensibility. It connected my interest in the Bauhaus with my interest in commercial graphic design that is not “capital D” design.
Nadel: The most appealing part for me is the sheer diversity of their work, their ability to work in multiple mediums and yet always look like themselves. I can’t think of any other designers who applied their aesthetics to so many different surfaces and scales, from menu designs to the largest neon display of the pre-WWII era.
Moreover, I think Dorothy made incredible modernist cartoon imagery, particularly in her signage.
Hathaway: They were both great Modernist designers yet also had the ability to attune that style of work and make it uniquely American. I actually don’t rate many American designers from that time period, but I think Dorothy and Otis, and perhaps Lester Beall as well, were doing work that was as strong as the Europeans were doing. The work is very sophisticated while being accessible to the man in the street. That’s not so easy to achieve.
Hathaway: What struck me was how differently the designer/client relationship worked back then. The ability to work directly with company owners was a huge advantage. They were able to avoid all the layers of management that exist now, and be briefed directly and present their work, which resulted in a vastly superior end product.
Nadel: I remain fascinated by their geographical story. The West Coast story is amazing, from Otis’s days in San Francisco as a bullpen cartoonist/illustrator to Dorothy’s very advanced attitude towards ambition in a men’s world, to their connection to the Northern California avant-garde – Edward Weston, et al – of the 1920s and 30s. They were involved in areas of culture that remain little documented.
Moreover, they then connected with Moholy-Nagy and other Bauhaus exiles in Chicago in the late 1930s and 40s. They are almost visual culture Zeligs in that way. Add to that the great American road trip aspect of the billboards, and it’s quite a stew!
Dooley: What do you see as most significant about Otis’s relationship with Joseph Binder?
Hathaway: Shep always kept up with what was happening in European design and thus made a point of visiting Binder on their first trip to Europe. Shep thought Binder’s approach of rejecting realism for symbolism was much more effective. He immediately changed his way of working upon his return home. Shep was deeply interested in statistics and ensuring his design methods were as affective as possible, and lectured widely on this approach to his peers.
Dooley: And how did they make that aesthetic sense uniquely their own?
Hathaway: When I show the Shepard’s work to people who are unfamiliar with them they take an instant liking to it. Their work is very warm and inviting. Shep was very charming and possessed a great sense of humor and I think that’s reflected in his work. It lacks some of the stuffiness sometimes found in the work of European poster designers, and yet is still very sophisticated and dynamic.
Nadel: I think that was a huge factor. Design in Chicago and the West Coast remains very little discussed. This is being rectified a little bit now, but mostly the fact that they weren’t in the NYC clubs of the 1940s-1960s meant that they simply weren’t discussed and historicized.
Nadel: Well, for starters the billboard industry was dominated by a Western company, Foster & Kleiser, and being in that office placed them at the vanguard of then-contemporary design.
And in Catalina they had a whole island to design! So that location, the idea of an unvarnished West, was crucial to their ability to envision a total environment.
Hathaway: To present Dorothy’s work in order to place her in her rightful place within design history. She was such a great designer and a wonderful draftsman, working so early in the profession when it was a total boys club. Her accomplishments are really important.
Hathaway: Personally, I’m tired of reading designer histories that don’t include personal information, or a context of what was happening socially. Dan provided a wonderful social history that makes the Shepard’s story much more compelling.
Nadel: The Shepard family told us all those stories. They were an offshoot of Shep’s work and the kind of life he lived in and around his work. We felt it was very important to give a full picture of who this man was, and how that connected to his work and his family.
Hathaway: I’m very interested in Betty Willis, the Las Vegas sign designer. She worked for film studios in Hollywood, and designed the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and many others. Like the Shepards she didn’t work in publishing and was based on the left coast and has been deeply neglected. She’s an incredible letterer and a great character.
Also trademark designer Doug Fast. He’s worked quietly in Seattle for fifty years creating famous, stunning work, yet no one knows a thing about him. He did the logos for Starbucks, New Balance, Peet’s Coffee, etc. He believes strongly in hand work, yet creates very delicate, intricate logotypes.
Nadel: Well, they created some of our most enduring graphic icons: Wrigley’s packaging. Shep himself is the key figure in the look of post WWII baseball. So, it’s a big mark.
But in a larger sense their legacy is that they stand as examples of culturally engaged designers who were willing and unafraid to work in all mediums. They were the first American “total designers.”
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