Missouri Valley Special Collections staff recently processed the S. Stephen Lispi Collection containing the work of an artist who, during his career of over 60 years, crafted some of the most recognizable images in Kansas City. The collection not only reveals the fascinating process of this remarkable artist, but it also offers a glimpse into local history through the lens of commercial design.
Sam Stephen “Steve” Lispi (1916 – 2009) received his education at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned a scholarship for lettering and studied under Thomas Hart Benton. As an astute young artist, Lispi enjoyed painting but steered his career toward the more practical avenue of commercial art. After graduating in 1937, he briefly pursued freelance work in New York City, where his older brother Louis worked as art director for Walt Disney Productions. It was in Kansas City, however, that Steve Lispi began to amass an impressive list of clients that would eventually include Holiday Inn, TWA and the Jones Store Company.
As an academically trained artist, Lispi’s philosophy was simple: “Learn to draw and draw well.” This indispensable skill is evident in his masterful illustrations, meticulous hand-lettering, and sheer volume of work he produced during his lifetime. Throughout his career he designed product packaging, banking checks, advertisements, business logos, publication covers, menus, and works in various media, all of which hinged on an expertly executed drawing.
Lispi’s versatility as a freelance artist is evident in the variety of clients he served, many obtained through local printers Saml Dodsworth Company and Allis Press. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he worked as art director for both Colgan Engraving Company and The Secretary, the magazine of the National Secretaries Association. Now called the International Association of Administrative Professionals, the NSA was headquartered in Kansas City. The collection contains several of Lispi’s interior layouts and cover designs for The Secretary, which was printed by Saml Dodsworth Company.
Numerous businesses and organizations, from retail stores to chemical companies, utilized Lispi’s artistic skills in their marketing, and many of his advertisements appeared in The Kansas City Star and Times. Again, his stylistic versatility was a valuable asset in serving his clients. While he produced elegant illustrations for furniture retailers Cousin’s, Payne’s, and Pilgrim House, he also had a knack for humorous cartoons, seen in his work for TWA, Holiday Inn, and Flower and Garden magazine. Lispi also designed logos for several area clubs, including the Kansas City Club, Mission Hills Country Club, and Milburn Country Club.
One of the most impressive components of Lispi’s portfolio is a collection of roughly 100 menus and logos created for popular Kansas City restaurants, such as the Golden Ox, Mr. Putsch’s, and Kona Kai. In many cases, he designed all components of the menu, including the lettering, illustrations, cover design, and interior layout.
Art lovers may recognize the paintings Lispi seemed to use for inspiration in his menu design for Mr. Putsch’s restaurant. Tracings of works by Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet, and Honoré Daumier accompany his sketches for the final menu illustrations.
Most of the menus he designed were produced through Allis Press, the printer that would also connect him with Holiday Inn. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Lispi designed restaurant menus and brochures for many Holiday Inn hotels throughout the Midwest.
During his career, Lispi was actively involved in the Advertising Artists Guild (AAG) and served as its president during the mid-1950s. He also won several awards for his work shown at AAG’s annual exhibitions, including this hand-drawn mailer (right) for the Muehlebach Coffee Shop from 1956.
Although Lispi preferred painting during his free time, he regarded commercial art as an important part of society. In an interview with the Gladstone Dispatch, he said, “Almost everything you see and touch has been designed by an artist of some kind. I don’t see how we can get along without it.”
After a long and eventful career, he retired to his home studio in Gladstone, Missouri, where he enjoyed working on personal painting projects.
This unique collection came to the Missouri Valley Special Collections through a gift by the family and is now available to researchers. To view the finding aid for the S. Stephen Lispi Collection, please contact Missouri Valley Special Collections at 816-701-3427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.