From couture to cornstalks: Joe Eula’s design gift to Davenport Farms

Joe Eula illustration of Toni Hollingsworth, 1960s. (Courtesy of Harper Design | Harper Collins)

On our harvest-season road trips, we’re typically in quest of the most sublime cider donut, our favorite fleeting heirloom variety of apple, a perfectly carvable pumpkin, the weirdest, squiggliest ornamental gourds to arrange as a centerpiece. Spotting business advertising with outstanding graphic design is generally not a prime motivating factor. But when one drives past Davenport Farms’ stand at the corner of Route 209 and Cottekill Road in Stone Ridge, it’s tough not to be arrested by the stylishness of the signage. The boldly sketched black-on-white images change seasonally; perhaps the most iconic is that half-shucked ear of corn (Davenports’ sweet corn being a perennial contender for the crown of Best in the Hudson Valley). Clearly, this was no routine job by some mundane sign-painter.

Examples of Eula’s graphic gifts to Davenport Farms.

Does the highly evocative, dashed-off quality of that corn painting jog some association in the back of your mind? Perhaps of fashion illustration? Bingo. One of the most influential artists in that field, the late Joe Eula (1925-2004), long kept a country house in nearby Lomontville. According to Bruce Davenport, Eula had been a friend of his father for many years, and got to know Bruce in the 1990s.

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By all accounts, Eula was a man who was not at all shy about letting it be known, quite loudly, whether he loved or hated something, aesthetically speaking. Cathy Horyn, in her 2014 biography Joe Eula: Master of 20th-Century Fashion Illustration, recounts a notorious fashion-industry tale of “when he went to a Saint Laurent couture show, but after three looks he got up and said, ‘This sucks,’ and it caused a huge scandal…But…they still stayed friends.” Another thing that Eula unabashedly hated, and said so, was the look of Davenport Farms’ roadside advertising. So he offered to paint them some new signs, and with a few well-placed brushstrokes, a local, family-run agriculture operation was rebranded as a weekend destination.

Polaroids of Joe Eula by Andy Warhol, 1977.

Joe Eula led a remarkable life. Raised in hard times by a widowed Connecticut storekeeper, he won a Bronze Star chasing Nazis on skis in the Apennines as part of the fabled 10th Mountain Division during World War II. (His nickname for his mother, captured in his wartime letters home, was Fatty.) Success in the fashion world came quickly after his return stateside; Town & Country magazine and Saks Fifth Avenue were already buying his illustrations while he was still enrolled in the Art Students’ League in the latter half of the 1940s. By the mid-’50s he was a regular illustrator for Eugenia Sheppard’s influential column Inside Fashion, which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and was syndicated to more than 80 newspapers. The works of Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, St. Laurent, Versace, Lagerfeld and all the other rising star designers of the mid-20th century were his subject matter.

This was an era when large, clunky cameras were not allowed into small, intimate Paris haute couture salons, so correspondents had to bring artists with them, and the ability to sketch very quickly was at a premium. His obituary in the Guardian quoted Eula as having claimed, “I was considered the fastest pencil in the field.” He once managed to capture a strictly forbidden sketch of Coco Chanel before she could walk over to him and snatch his drawing pad away. But more than that, Eula’s drawings distill the essence of a look very pungently in a few short strokes. He summarized his less-is-more aesthetic approach with the comment, “If you could do it with one line, why put down 50?”

Illustration by Joe Eula (courtesy of Harper Collins)

By the 1950s, Eula was already swept up into a world of glamour and celebrity and decadent partying. He became friends and later operated a joint studio with photographer Milton Greene, known largely for his sessions with Marilyn Monroe. Together they hung out in jazz clubs, and Eula went on to design the album cover for Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. Concert posters became an area of interest, beginning with Davis; his designs for the Supremes and for Liza Minelli’s Liza with a Z tour are among his best-known. Lauren Bacall was a frequent subject. Impressed by Eula’s posters for a National Farm Workers’ Union benefit, choreographer Jerome Robbins invited him to design costumes for his ballets Dances at a Gathering and Goldberg Variations. Later on, Eula became a fixture of the glittery club scene at Studio 54.

Eula got to know Andy Warhol quite early in the latter’s career as a shoe designer. According to biographer Horyn, “Warhol once called Eula ‘the most important person’ in New York, saying, ‘He knows everybody who’s anybody…all the really chic people.’” The illustrator is also credited with having introduced Warhol to the designer Halston, for whom Eula served as creative director throughout his 1970s heyday, playing a huge role in shaping the Halston label’s flowing, unfussy signature look. His New York Times obituary terms Eula an “instigator and provocateur” during his decade with Halston: a heady time when the fashion house was even redesigning jets for Braniff International Airways.

In the 1980s, Eula began spending more of his time at his country home, doing drawings and watercolors of flowers and vegetables. A line of china with flower and animal motifs that he designed for Tiffany is still in high demand. And that ear of corn and other rural images that he painted for Davenport Farms in his retirement years can be found on tee-shirts and coffee mugs sold at the farmstand. “Joe loved to teach his way of looking at the world, and he changed the way I see things. I had the honor of getting a full scholarship to the School of Joe,” writes Bruce Davenport. “He was a good man, generous with his talents and I’ll never forget him.”

To order the Joe Eula biography by Cathy Horyn, visit https://bit.ly/2EPdUT9. To read more of Bruce Davenport’s reminiscences about the eminent illustrator, visit https://bit.ly/2AAFLma.

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