Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Father of Graphic Design: Dwiggins in Living Color

by Alastair Johnston

Bill Dwiggins (1880–1956), type designer, book designer, typographer, calligrapher, writer, artist & puppeteer is famously the first American to call himself a graphic designer. Philip Hofer writing in The Dolphin, 1935, called him “America’s only truly modern typographer, and by far her outstanding book decorator and calligrapher.” Dwiggins was not a traditional fine press person, having outgrown the Arts & Crafts furrow of his mentor, Fred Goudy, soon after Goudy left the village of Hingham, Mass, for New York in 1905. Dwiggins, who came from Martinsville, Ohio, decided to stay and work as an advertising designer & typographer for Houghton-Mifflin and the Merrymount Press of Boston. 

There’s a great anecdote where Goudy runs into D. B. Updike of the Merrymount Press at a Society of Printers dinner, and says, "Why don’t you hire me, after all I taught Dwiggins everything he knows." Updike replies, "That’s odd because I admire his work whereas yours doesn’t impress me at all..."

Another anecdote I am fond of is that a doctor told WAD [William Addison Dwiggins, a.k.a. Will, Bill, WAD, or Dwig], who was diabetic, that he was heading for a nervous breakdown and he should get out of the advertising rat race before it killed him. At that point he decided to devote his life to making marionettes and entertaining the local children with puppet shows. He carved and clothed the marionettes, wrote and produced a play, but then he needed a poster, tickets and other ephemera to promote it, so was soon back in the world of graphic design. And it was this work that prompted Alfred Knopf to ask him to take on a book design (Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, 1926, was his first job for Knopf).

To digress a moment: In my wasted youth I was inclined to make “music” with others who shared my passion for noisy self-expression. I met a guy named Ralph who built guitars and who told me he came from Hingham. I mentioned Dwiggins and his puppet shows and Ralph recalled the old white-haired man and told me he had attended some of the performances! I was astounded. You didn’t keep any tickets did you?!!

Dwiggins’ book designs are unmistakable. You can spot them from 12 feet away in a dim and dusty used bookstore. He would break words on the spine to fit a design, and frame them with bold abstractions. He is one designer whose dust-jackets are fantastic but you still want to take them off to see what the case stamping looks like with his wild, sometimes seemingly erratic, calligraphy.

As a “black-&-white-smith,” Dwiggins made his own tools, and among them were stencils. He employed them in his type design. He cut many small glyphs, either geometric or organic forms which could be multiplied for dramatic effect, and he used these small elements to visualize and build up decorative matter such as borders, headpieces and endpaper patterns. Cut with a knife, they were more uniform than pen & ink and sharper than brushwork (and harmonized better with the sharp contours of printed letterforms). In his book Paraphs (NY: Knopf, 1928) these geometric ornaments appear as sleek art deco ikebana.

When I decided to write about Dwiggins’ pochoir (or stencil-coloring) today the first place I looked was the bibliography The Books of WAD published by Dwight Agner (Baton Rouge: Press of the Night Owl, 1974), whose descriptions of books are skimpy and often vague. The first mention of pochoir comes under H. G. Wells’ Time Machine (NY: Random House, 1931, above). Agner says “Stencil style color illustrations.” 1200 copies were printed. How likely is it that the images were actually stenciled? Not very. These, like the images in Marco Polo (NY: Leo Hart, 1933) or Gargantua and Pantagruel (NY: Limited Editions Club, 1936), were printed from line blocks in spot color. Dwiggins agreed with Wells’ vision of a machine-dominated future and felt we needed to master technology in order to avoid becoming machines ourselves. Clearly with The Time Machine he was interested in realizing the vision of a luxuriously printed trade book. Remember this was during the depression: there was no market for livres de luxe, though artists like F.-L. Schmied in Paris bravely carried on.

Dwiggins played as hard as he worked: another reason to venerate him. In 1919 he had created the Society of Calligraphers, partly for self-promotion, and to this end he invented an alter ego, Hermann Püterschein (he was trying to polish an old pewter tankard he had bought and exclaimed, “I can’t make the damn pewter shine!” thus giving birth to the Püterschein family), a learned doctor who wrote profound things on the still-unheralded art of calligraphy. In order to boost the ranks he inducted other designers, typographers and printers, sending them a certificate of membership. The heading is stenciled and the seal is embossed, also from Dwiggins’ design. Curiously when Dwiggins was awarded the gold medal of the AIGA in 1929 he was virulently attacked in the press — by his former ally Püterschein!

The “Graphic Response to Verbal Stimuli” series was made using pochoir (reproduced below in The Dolphin, 1935). Dwiggins told Paul Hollister, “You take a cork out of the top of your head, and you drop in a word like La Paz, or Congo, or Sinbad. One word at a time. If it’s the name of a place it need not be a place you know ... Then put in a couple of cocktails and some black coffee, and put the cork back in tight, and jump up and down for two or three days and then the word will come out of your fingers onto the paper. Then you give the result — picture or pattern, or whatever it is — a high-sounding caption like ‘Graphic Response to Verbal Stimulus: La Paz.’ That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t mean a thing but it’s a lot of fun.”

Dwiggins used celluloid stencils (which didn’t warp or shrink like mylar and were transparent so he could register multiple colors) and, once he had created a design, he would make separate prints of each color area to be photographed in register and given to the engraver. Dwiggins himself says his first effort at stencil illustration was for One More Spring by Robert Nathan (Stamford: The Overbrook Press, 1935). 750 copies were created but again, examination of this delightful book (below) shows that blocks were made from his artwork to expedite publication.

He planned pochoir art for other books but seemingly always ended up going with zinc cuts, apart from the small-run books from his home studio in Hingham, and The Treasure in the Forest, (130 copies), one of his major artistic achievements.

The Treasure in the Forest, by H. G. Wells (New York: Press of the Wooly Whale, 1936), was designed by Mwano Masassi (a pseudonym of Dwiggins taken from the black slave in one of his puppet plays, see top of page). Handset Caslon type was used and Dwiggins created headbands (which he called “paraphs” rejecting the high-falutin’ French name en-têtes) from stencil patterns. The darkness of the 18th-century looking page frame is in marked contrast to the delicacy of the pastel images.

WAD wrote to Knopf about his color theories because Knopf’s staff didn’t approve of his palette: “I like Far East color combinations; a chutney-sauce effect with lots of pepper and mustard and spices, odd harmonies that make you sit up. I think the Chinese were the greatest color manipulators, and after them the Persians of the miniatures.” When he adds “I like black as part of a color scheme,” we understand his taste for non-keyline imagery, a very appealing facet of his artwork.

The small books Dwiggins produced at his private press Püterschein-Hingham have a wonderful mix of experimental type, page layout and illustration. The War against Waak (1948) shows, in the writing, his admiration for his contemporary, Lord Dunsany. The colors chosen for the illustrations reflect his interest in “Chinese” coloring — even the boats in “The Battle opposite Zond” (above) look Chinese. The book is set in Bulmer type and has large margins (a feature of his earlier works such as Layout in Advertising and Marco Polo); even so he has turned one of the images sideways — and run the caption vertically so you don’t miss that — perhaps as a comment on the awkwardness of landscape pictures in a vertical format. There is room for the image to have run the right way, so he is playing with our expectations of what a book looks like and giving us a perfect abstraction when we first view the picture vertically.

Many designers emulated Goudy, Bruce Rogers or Rockwell Kent, but no one could come near Dwiggins for his liberated approach to design, his creativity and colorful exuberance.


  1. your research and knowledge of dwigginisms is profound, I loved and emulated his "fun element" in all you do - all my graphic design life.
    Cheers and thanks from mal E (down under)

  2. Awesome and insightful read! Fantastic research on Dwiggins.

  3. Thank you for the amazing post! Enjoyed reading this insightful post!

  4. Sch a wounder full collection i really like to this post thanks for shared!diseño web

  5. Just a couple of respectful corrections as I read through your post.

    Regarding stencil material, WAD experimented with *acetate* and found that it expanded/shrank so much with changes in humidity that it could not stay in register and therefore was unusable. (Mylar is completely impervious to humidity but he did not have acces to mylar at the time -- it was just celluloid and acetate. He even wrote late in his life that perhaps vinyl was the answer, but he never had a chance to try it.)

    Are you sure about his use of the word "Paraphs" to describe head-pieces? Seems doubtful to me, or at least I have never seen him refer to them as "paraphs." The paraph is a fancy set of swooping loops made at the end of a signature. His book of that name -- Paraphs -- published by Knopf in 1928, has a slipcase covered with those swooping loops.

    Also, the illustration in Waak is NOT turned sideways. The inhabitants of Waak lived on cliffs. If you look carefully at his illustration you can see ladders reaching up from one ledge to the next. You are correct that the title for the illustration is turned 90 degrees, but not the image itself!

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