Monday, December 1, 2014

Never heard of Dorothy and Otis, couple who designed the American Dream? What about Wrigley's Gum & the Chicago Cubs?

DOROTHY AND OTIS: Designing the American Dream by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel (Harper Design, November) includes over 330 four-color prints of seminal design art by people I never heard mentioned in art school. As amazing as the discovery of this work, is the text that accompanies the book. Instead of dry art book prose. Hathaway and Nadel, who had access to the couple's archive, were able to conjure both the idiosyncratic personalities of Dorthy and Otis and their excitement at creating a visual language for their America--1920-1940.

The book begins with Otis "Shep" Shepard, a poor Midwest boy, who teaches himself to draw. He leaves home at 14 to work odd jobs, including itinerant actor and set designer, and free-lance sign painter. Young Shep even meets Jack London in San Francisco and learns about carousing. Still in his teens, he gets into the real fight of  World War One and draws vivid scenes from an air balloon and down in the trenches. Shep's portraits of his fellow soldiers are equally affecting, enhanced by his singular style. When he returns, theater posters, programs, other graphics show his humor and sophistication, as he reinvents himself as a raconteur and commercial artist.

Dorothy Van Gorder, the precocious daughter of an Oakland Professor, graduates high school in three years and repeats the feat at California College of Arts and Crafts. Dorthy's an early bohemian feminist, wearing art school black, designing costumes in a modernist style probably influenced by the Ballet Russe. Her drawings have a freshness and sensitivity of line, married with abstract design.

While Shep's realistic style, a kind of iconic approach to billboard design, ensured his employment in commercial work, his jaunty personality meant he was soon manager of teams that produced such work. There were artists who specialized in hands or glasses, but he was the overall concept guy and, eventually, an account exec, who would sketch ideas in meetings with clients. In 1927, when Dorothy and Otis met, he was working for the most important billboard design agency in the country. Shep was looking for graduates from the California College and Dorothy fit his requirements. Not only was she technically adept with innovative design ideas, she also was enamored by modernism.

Shep, again self-taught, was starting to adapt modernist ideas. Dorothy, was already excited by the new style happening in Europe. Unafraid to try new ideas, she became the first important female designer in North America. Though she always said she "rode on his coattails,"the style they evolved, working together and later separately, was a cross-fertilization of design sensibility, elegance, and humor.

Print communication was at a zenith, and large-scale billboards were treated by them as sophisticated murals with a purpose. Drawing the eye was everything but how they did it--with evocative shapes and images--evolved. In Shep's work, at first copy was equal to image. Then the image predominated, changing from realism and sentimentality to sensual abstraction. Often lettering only appeared on a package to identify a product. Both Dorothy and Otis were brilliant in their use of abstract design and color. Dorothy was in her element with patterns and Shep was a pioneer of the airbrush finish.

Superstars of their time, they left the agency and worked out of rooftop studios in Manhattan, San Francisco and pre-world war II Europe. Like modernist friends, Joseph Binder, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Laslo Maholy Nagy and the movie stars Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Johnny Weissmuller, they were both of their time and developers of it. Dorothy and Otis designed sports teams, chewing gum (Wrigley's and the Doublemint twins), resorts and Islands, (The Biltmore and Catalina Island) and the world's largest neon sign.

Their love and work were at first inseparable. Mutual respect and inspiration fueled accomplishment and fun--hard partying, glamorous lives, amid the rigors of war and the great depression. Much of it they documented with beautiful photographs. Their story also includes the difficult facts of raising children with the demands of career, and then the toll of aging. Over time with personal tragedy, their emotions toward each other changed. They lived apart and then, like the deep friends they always were, found each other again.

I was moved by this story of working designers, commercial artists, who had wonderful exciting lives but despite fame in their time, were unknown before this book. The aspirations of Dorothy and Otis, like many artists who toil anonymously, was to make great work. I thought of my grandfather, a master sign painter, who scaled his billboards by hand and could draw straight lines on a wall. Among his papers were the original logos for Grayhound and Canada Dry, designed as part of a sign,
Craft brought satisfaction with no thought of publicity. Now, if he had been able to copyright those images, who knows? Financial stability might even have followed.