Dickey Rowan ‘39: Designing Woman

by Anne Dullaghan

There was a day when department store owners were called “merchant princes” and their palatial emporiums were adorned with murals and decorations that changed with the seasons: chandeliers became sculptures, merchandise was richly displayed in armoires or imaginative constructions, and ledges held elaborate figures costumed for special events. Families drove from far-lying suburbs to show the children the magical Christmas windows or Easter fantasies. Those were exciting days for an artist.

For more than 60 years, Dickey Rowan was one of the prominent department store window and graphic designers in the country. Her sculptures, murals, chandeliers, props, and seasonal window tableaux have inspired countless consumers to take a little extra time to enjoy their surroundings.

Today, enticing consumers is a science nearly as precise as trying to identify every gene in the human genome. Specific lighting, colors, music, and staging all elicit unconscious impulses to purchase. When Dickey started in the business, however, thing were different. “We just did what we liked,” she says.”People would draw up store interiors and show us what they wanted. Clients used to say if they couldn’t find anybody that could make it, they’d call us.”

Dickey credits her career success to her Scripps mentor, Millard Sheets, as well as to the opportunities to collaborate with Scripps’ renowned professors-a benefit today’s students can also take advantage of.

“I worked with Millard on some murals for the San Francisco World’s Fair my senior year,” she recalls. “And I was the only girl on that crew. I came to Scripps at age 15, and in three years finished all the work I needed to graduate with both a math/ science and an art/music major.”

From there, Dickey earned her teaching degree from Claremont Graduate School at age 20, and set out to teach high school. “There was only one job open that year, and I didn’t really want to teach,” she says. “But I knew I had to do something. I went to Millard, and he sent me to Bullock’s. He had been doing the designs for Bullock’s Christmas windows. I worked for a couple of months executing murals that Tony Duquette, the well-known Hollywood artist and decorator, had designed.”

Impressed with her work, James Brewer of Bullock’s suggested that Dickey open her own business as a designer, with Bullock’s as her flagship client. In 1941, at the tender age of 21, Dickey’s business took off.

“It was a really big job doing decor for stores,” she notes. “We did the design for Robinson’s in Santa Barbara, Glendale, Newport Beach, and Woodland Hills. At one point, I had something in every Broadway store-and Robinson’s, and there were over 100 combined.”

Over the next 47 years, not only did her clientele grow to include major department stores, but also Paramount Pictures, Standard Oil, and Los Angeles International Airport. Additionally, she worked with architects Charles Luckman and William Pereira, as well as designers Bob Mackie, John Truscott, and Toshio Yamashita.

While making her name in the art world, Dickev also made an indelible mark on Scripps. One of her designs graces the fountain in Seal Court. Additionally, in 1998, Dickey participated with three other alumnae-Ruth Andersson May ’40, Leonora Pierotti ’34, and Scottie (Eugenia Scott) Waterhouse ’37-in Scripps'”Alunmae Artists of the 1930s” museum show.

“I was born with a sense of how to make things,” she says. “My daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have it; my mother was that way, as was her mother. We’re lucky because a lot of artists work in two dimensions-that’s it. I’ve always had the ability to do three dimensional things and that’s been a great advantage. To succeed in the design business, it helps to have a range-painting, drawing, metalwork, sculpture-because some of those who only did one thing didn’t last too long.”

Today, Dickey continues to draw, paint, and create. “I ran my business from the age of 21 to 82, but when I was working so hard, I didn’t realize how much fun I was having,” she says. “I’m drawing better now than I did when I was younger. It’s a big asset and certainly keeps me more interested in 1ife. And it keeps my grandchildren more interested because they keep wanting my drawings and portraits!”