Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream

Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream

Otis and Dorothy Shepard are the unsung giants of early 20th Century North American visual culture. Together, they were the first American graphic designers to work in multiple mediums and scales with equal skill and vision, from Major League Baseball uniforms and stadiums (The original Chicago Cubs and The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League) to chewing gum packaging and billboards (Wrigley’s and the Doublemint Twins) to the interiors of resorts and hotels (Catalina Island, The Biltmore) to some of the very first neon signs in Times Square.

And the work they did remains brilliant. Together they forged a uniquely American modernism in order to both portray the dream lives of the average Americans and then sell them their own fantasies. The Shepards’ canvases were the largest ever given to designers: Billboards were new in the 1920s, springing up everywhere to keep pace with the country’s rapidly expanding roads and highways.

As the duo rose to prominence in the 1920s and ’30s it was simply impossible to live in America and not see their work rising up alongside a newly built throughway, or, later, zooming past on a trolley car, elegantly stacked in supermarket aisle, or proudly worn by newly-minted baseball heroes. And as revolutionary as their visuals were, so too were their lives: Dorothy Shepard was the first female modernist designer in the United States. She was a now-forgotten pioneer in a traditionally male field.

At a time when print communication was paramount, Otis and Dorothy Shepard were among its ruling elite. They lived well and largely: In glamorous houses and rooftop studios from San Francisco to Manhattan and on lengthy trips to pre-World War II Europe. They counted among their closest friends modernists and movie stars including Joseph Binder, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Laszlo Maholy Nagy, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Johnny Weissmuller.

And through it all Dorothy and Otis took beautiful photographs and carefully documented their lives and work. Dorothy and Otis: Designing Americais the story of their times told through their graphics and photographs. It is a Fitzgerald-esque saga of self-invention, high living, and turbulent emotions in Depression-era America, and the untold tale behind some of our greatest visual icons in sports, travel, and entertainment.

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