Back in 1924, the AIGA Design Archives launched with the winners of the “Fifty Books of the Year” competition. That was over 90 years ago, but of the selected entrants one name has stood the test of time: Rockwell Kent. Okay, he may not be a household name (super design-savvy households aside), but his work appeared another 19 times (!!) in the Archives during his lifetime. Kent was a painter, printmaker, illustrator, humorist, political activist, writer, and adventurer (remember, this was a time when you could claim that title without inducing eye rolls).

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Kent’s early paintings expressed his love of travel as well some pretty lofty ideals (see above). “I don’t want petty self-expression,” he said. “I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.” Later, in 1918, he embarked upon the first of many travels that resulted in a series of adventure memoirs that he illustrated in stark black and white. The Design Archives entry from 1924, “Voyaging: Southward from the Straight of Magellan,” features his dynamic engravings, which are firmly ensconced in the Art Deco style of the day. And though it seems surprising, as early as 1929, at age 49, he was already being honored with a monograph of his work.

Rockwell Kent in his studio
Rockwell Kent in his studio

He followed suit in 1930 with an illustrated three-volume limited-edition set of Moby Dick that immediately sold out—no mean feat in the early years of the Great Depression. By that time Herman Melville’s 1851 novel was virtually forgotten and Kent’s illustrated edition played a prominent role in the recognition it enjoys today.

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He went on to illustrate for several publications, including Vanity Fair, Adventure, New York Tribune, Harper’s Weekly, and Life, sometimes under the nom de plume, Hogarth, Jr., and in 1939 ceramic company Vernon Kilns reproduced three series of Kent’s designs on sets of china dinnerware. He was commissioned to create murals for art organizations, the logo for the International Workers Order (IWO), an organization devoted to the social and economic welfare that he also joined, and in 1948 he was elected to the National Academy of Design. So prolific was Kent that the word “Rockwellkentiana” was coined to describe his writings and artwork—although truth be told, it appears he coined the term himself. Hey, sometimes you have to take your legacy into your own hands.