This poster, designed for the New York Subway Advertising Company, exemplifies the signature approach of American graphic designers Otis (Shep) Shepard and Dorothy Van Gorder—the poster prioritizes the image as text becomes peripheral to the overall message. It combines reductive, abstracted forms with ample airbrushing to create a dynamic arrangement.

The pair met in 1927 when Shepard, acting as Art Director for Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Company, hired Van Gorder upon her graduation from California School of Arts and Crafts (now, California College of Arts). [1] The two were married in 1929, and on their honeymoon traveled throughout Europe, where they were exposed to the proliferation of avant-garde styles commanding the public sphere. In particular they were struck by the graphic work of Joseph Binder (Austrian, 1898–1972), and quickly began incorporating modernist aesthetics into their own work for clients back in the US. [2]

Shepard and Van Gorder’s most prominent work from this period is characterized by a masterful handling of airbrush techniques, an effect the two continued to employ for the entirety of their careers. Together, the Shepards worked successfully throughout the 20th century across media and scales—from chewing gum wrappers, MLB uniforms, and the entirety of the Santa Catalina Island resort environment (all part and parcel of the Wrigley Empire), to advertising billboards and posters. Though both designers had extensive independent careers with clients and commissions of their own, the two worked together frequently, with Van Gorder acting as an unsigned collaborator.

Kristina Parsons is a Curatorial Assistant and the E. McKnight Kauffer Research Cataloguer in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

[1] Charlotte Strick, “Shep and Dorothy,” The Paris Review, Nov. 15, 2014, accessed Dec. 6, 2018, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/11/15/shep-and-dorothy.

[2] Jim Northover, “The First Couple of American Billboards,” Eye, no. 89, vol. 23, 2014, accessed Dec. 6, 2018, http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-first-couple-of-american-billboards.

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