Mr. Illustrator -- Ed Fotheringham's '50S Style Is Making Him A '90S Success

If you were thumbing through the Dec. 5, 1994, issue of The New Yorker, the big illustration on page 111 was hard to miss. There was Bill Gates, unmistakable in clown-sized nerd glasses, spread-eagle in a T-shirt and jockey shorts, his skinny, hair-nubbed legs and arms pointing straight like compass arrows seeking north.

The pocket protector in the T-shirt pocket was an artful detail. It made Gates resemble a plucked chicken whose project on quantum physics had just won the state science fair.

Elsewhere in the illustration, titled "Codex Gates" in a looping, old-fashioned script at the top, was a floppy disk that said "Leonardoware" and a couple of human embryos in vitro with power plugs trailing out of their hairless heads like electronic umbilical cords.

The illustration was a tongue-in-cheek editorial comeback to the big news three weeks earlier that billionaire and budding art collector Gates had paid $30.8 million for a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript. And it accompanied a three-paragraph e-mail missive from Gates explaining why he'd bought it.

But what set the Seattle graphics and illustration world abuzz was that "Codex Gates" was signed by Mr. Fotheringham, the nom de plume of Edwin Fotheringham, then a 29-year-old Seattle illustrator who only two years earlier had been working as a stock boy at University Book Store.

Irreverent success

It wasn't Fotheringham's first full-page New Yorker illustration. In the Nov. 14 issue he'd drawn film writer/director Quentin Tarantino with a pointer in one hand and a pistol in the other, explaining a flow chart of his movie "Pulp Fiction" to studio moguls and demanding that they ". . . give me the cash."

But "Codex Gates" was a coup. It was irreverent, snide and witty. In a jab at Gates' penchant for junior-high adjectives, it's full of scribbles supposedly done by Gates describing such ideas as "Leonardoware - the software that will lead to total domination," and "supercool and cool! Cool stuff!"

A nice job, especially considering Fotheringham had less time to do it than most illustrators take just to boot up their computers. (Which Fotheringham does not use. Doesn't own one. Says he can't turn one on.) The New Yorker - even the flashier, stiletto-heeled, more Hollywoodish Tina Brown version - is still as prestigious a forum as either an illustrator or writer can hope for.

"The art director called up and asked me to do it and then said it had to be faxed to (editor) Tina Brown the next day," said Fotheringham. "It was an incredible 24 hours."

Thanks partly to his exposure in The New Yorker, Fotheringham is hot.

He's arguably the most sought-after illustrator in Seattle (which is different from being a locally published illustrator), especially among sophisticated, high-profile, national clients. He's got a contract for at least the next year with Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, the nation's most upscale retailer, to illustrate all their newspaper ads, direct-mail cards and just about anything else they need for their promotion campaigns, big and small. His Neiman Marcus illustrations have just this month started appearing in national editions of The New York Times. His swirling calligraphy is being used for the chain's restaurant menus.

He's also done illustrations for, among other clients, Entertainment Weekly, Interview, Ink, Garden Design and Mr. Showbiz, Starwave's on-line entertainment magazine.

Cocky, funny and abundantly talented according to everyone who's worked with him, the Phinney Ridge resident talks in a boisterous stream of chortles, guffaws and hyperbole, punctuated by moderately profane language. A native Oregonian who moved to Australia as a kid, then came back to get a fine arts degree at the University of Washington, he still talks with the Down Under twang of an Aussie surfer.

He sounds like Crocodile Dundee on a caffeine buzz, especially when reveling in the perversity of the world of illustration, art, graphics and style as it relates to his sudden fame and good fortune.

`Good taste' with an edge

"Illustration is (expletive) amazing," he says. "They pay you to advertise yourself! If you sign your name big they call you. It's great. It hits you so hard in the face that you've sold out. I love it. When I started doing illustration it seemed so (expletive) experimental. It had nothing to do with the snotty fine-arts crowd."

What art directors find so appealing is Fotheringham's unabashedly retro yet edgy style. His images are outlined in black ink and have a cool, '50s hipster look. Women are invariably sleek '50s gazelles, fashion models with fishnet stockings, hip-hugging skirts and flipped hair. His illustrations, no matter what their purpose, often suggest album covers for bebop jazz or readings of beat poetry.

"He's got really good taste," said Christine Curry, illustration editor at The New Yorker. "You can get someone who can draw, but then they don't have good taste. He's also extremely fast. . . . I think we're due to use him again soon."

"His work has a lot of personality and charm mixed with sophistication, and it's very distinctive," said Georgia Christensen, Neiman Marcus' creative director. She notes it is the first time in at least 20 years that the 27-store national chain has used illustration rather than photography for its newspaper advertising. She says that "because Edwin's work so obviously looks like it was done by hand, which is was, it stands out from all the computer generated, very slick-looking illustration you see, and from fashion photography."

Bob Robertson, the chain's executive art director, says Fotheringham's is a "crossover look," edgy but fashion-conscious, editorial with attitude. Robertson, formally a Nordstrom art director, is the link between Fotheringham and Neiman Marcus. Robertson saw Fotheringham's portfolio at Nordstrom and was impressed, though Nordstrom didn't use him. When Robertson moved to Neiman Marcus and realized that the chain wanted something fresh, he suggested Fotheringham.

Fotheringham admits he picked up the spirit of his style from '50s illustrators David Stone Martin and from Andy Warhol, who used an unusual blotted-ink drawing technique in his fashion illustration before he became the high priest of '60s pop art. Fotheringham had met Seattle graphic artist Art Chantry after Chantry had noticed some of Fotheringham's work, and Chantry showed him Warhol's early work. Later they collaborated on Mudhoney's "Piece of Cake" CD cover, and Chantry, then The Rocket's art director, hired Fotheringham to do some illustrations and covers for the magazine.

Once loathed graphic art

Fotheringham had already been pumping out concert posters and CD covers for his friends in '80s punk bands, though his main ambition was to be an action painter. His abstract paintings had been shown in town with some success. In college, he loathed the very idea of graphic art. After meeting Chantry and landing on a style, his attitude changed.

"Ed could always take a really bad idea, take it home, and bring back something brilliant," said Chantry, who is not easily impressed. "He's excellent. He's one of the best I've ever worked with."

Kate Thompson, a Starwave art director who was formerly an art director at The Weekly, Eastsideweek and the New York-based Entertainment Weekly, hired Fotheringham whenever she could when she was in the print business.

"He's hot," she said, "on a national level, not here. A lot of illustrators in this town get real soft and corporate, and that goes over well here. But he's got a real retro/edgy style and an intelligence that's appreciated in New York, where they want a harder edge."

Fotheringham makes no bones about his contempt for the local art directors who wouldn't hire him in his pre-New Yorker days, which means just about all of them except Chantry and Thompson: "This little tiny market is so stagnant and back-stabbing, they won't even look at you when you're new. Then once you've been to New York, why work here?"

Former punk rocker

He does makes exceptions. He recently drew a cover for The Stranger, which he said was "great."

Fotheringham finds it hilarious that he has become known as a CD cover illustrator for such Seattle bands as Mudhoney, Love Battery, Estrus and the Muffs. He used to be part of the '80s punk music scene, a self-described "awful" singer and guitar player in local bands Lucky Joey and Thrown-Up. But his graphic style, he snorts happily, is "completely inappropriate for the music."

Still, he loves to do CD covers. Mudhoney's newest release, "My Brother the Cow," is a Fotheringham phantasmagoria of Jetson-era rockets, spaceships, guitars and marimbas, all looking as if they tumbled off a cocktail napkin from the Seattle World's Fair.

Mudhoney has been good luck for Fotheringham. Financed by a check he received from his illustration on "Piece of Cake," and buoyed by encouragement and a list of New York contacts from Chantry, Fotheringham traveled to New York in early '93 with his portfolio tucked under his arm. He found New York art directors encouraging. Within a couple of months he was doing small, drop-in illustrations for The New Yorker.

Fotheringham is well aware that, like yesterday's fashions, his retro style could quickly become passe. In the meantime, he's riding a wave of popularity and laughing all the way to the bank. Someday, maybe, he'll get back to his painting.

"I'm not counting on anything," he says. "I'm totally playing it by ear. I'll sell the style as long as people buy it."