Imagine this: It’s 1933 and construction has begun on the world’s longest and tallest suspension bridge over the Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Years of planning, rigorous engineering, and debate have gone into the design. The 80 miles of galvanized steel needed for the two main towers of the bridge have been ordered, as well as the 1.2 million steel rivets that will hold the bridge together. Workers have started to plunge the towers into the foundation in the sea floor, and yet, there’s one important detail still missing. The color.
This Bridge Will Not be Gray, written by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Tucker Nichols and out this month from McSweeney’s, is the story of how the Golden Gate Bridge came to be orange. Written for young readers the book asks: “Isn’t that a strange thing, that a very large group of adults would undertake a project of this size, and not have a color picked out?”
But that’s how it went. The planning committee for the Golden Gate believed it would figure out the color as construction progressed, and the serendipitous and surprising way the bridge became orange is a story that has long fascinated Eggers. In 2014, he asked Nichols, a friend since 2001 and a fellow Bay Area resident, if he’d be interested in co-creating a children’s book about the bridge. (Nichols had already published one children’s book through McSweeney’s.)
“Dave sent me an initial manuscript and it was a story I’d heard before and loved,” Nichols says. “In fact, ever since I’d first heard how the bridge became orange, I would tell it to other people and it always came as a shock. They’d never heard it before. It seemed like a story trying to get out into the world.”
The story goes something like this. The steel used in the Golden Gate Bridge was manufactured by Bethlehem Steel in several East Coast plants, and then shipped, via boat, to San Francisco. A sealant—a red-tinged orange paint—coated the steel to keep it safe from corrosion. One morning, Irving Morrow, the consulting architect for the Golden Gate Bridge, was on a ferry in the San Francisco Bay when he saw the rising orange steel towers on the horizon and he had an epiphany. The bridge should remain orange. A heated debate ensued, but eventually, Morrow would win and the bridge was painted a color called International Orange. One of the most striking man-made objects got that way, in part, because of a fluke and an architect’s resolve.
“Part of the appeal of this story is that it seems impossible,” Nichols says. “Committees decide big things like this and committees are inherently conservative. It feels like there’s no room for whimsy unless there’s some business reason behind it. Outrageous notions, like keeping that bridge orange, can be a good idea sometimes and that is a force that as an artist I am trying to cultivate—a willingness to go with what’s already there and to see if it might work.”
To illustrate the story, Nichols paired simple cut-out paper illustrations with Eggers succinct and witty prose. In the spirit of using what was already there, Nichols determined to start with supplies that existed in his San Rafael studio. “I thought it would be the least fussy way to create the book, to cut out the shapes and put them down and make it spread by spread, almost like a very rudimentary layered flip book.”
Nichols soon realized the management of lots of little scraps of paper is not something he’s well suited for and things got “a bit out of control,” but he eventually packed everything up and had the spreads photographed at a San Francisco studio in May.
Eggers had come to Nichols with an initial draft of the manuscript, but the story evolved as Nichols shaped the illustrations. He was making more spreads than there were words, and the book’s designer played with different layouts while Eggers adjusted the text. This, Nichols says, is a hallmark of how McSweeney’s makes a book. “Most illustrated picture books start with a manuscript and then they find an illustrator who works within the script. There’s not a lot of interaction between the illustrator and the writer, but that was not the case here. The book was not fixed at all. We didn’t know how long it was going to be, the format, the size. It grew until Dave and I felt like it was fully baked.”
The one fixed idea for the book’s design was that it should be horizontal to echo the ratio and span of the bridge itself. Nichols created spreads with this in mind, and he played with layers of paper and backgrounds to evoke the bridge in various weather and times of day. Nichols also imagined the people involved in the bridge’s creation. He didn’t use any real photos to inspire the headshots in the book rather he created the cameo-like faces from his own imagination.
At 110 pages, the book about the bridge expanded beyond expectation, but the length is merited, with a story compelling enough to keep adults interested as they read it (and re-read it and re-read it) each night at bedtime.
Nichols, who knows what it is to re-read books to his own children, also found artistic inspiration in his five-year-old daughter, who spent time in his studio while he created this book. Nichols would give her reject drawings to play with and he watched as she worked. “She’s so bold. There’s not hesitation. She just goes at it and if it doesn’t work out, she does something else,” Nichols says. “I think that’s at the heart of the book. It’s a very childlike decision that ended up getting made with this bridge and yet it ended up being beautiful. There’s something that feels inherently right about that bridge being orange and that’s the real courage of this story in my mind. Morrow recognized that. I can imagine him saying: ‘Doesn’t this look right, you guys? I know this wasn’t on the menu of colors but doesn’t this just seem right?’”