One of the pleasures of perusing the AIGA Design Archives is the discovery of someone new. Case in point: early 20th-century book designer S. A. Jacobs, who Jacobs garners a single sentence and image in Megg’s History of Graphic Design and has no Wikipedia entry. Yet in his day he was an important modernist who worked hand in hand with such literary figures as E. E. Cummings, Eugene O’Neill, and Marianne Moore, and artists like Joan Miró and Alexander Calder—though he has little over a dozen entries in the AIGA Design Archives.
Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs was born in 1891 in what is today Iran, and attended Qalla, an American Presbyterian missionary boarding school for boys in Urmia. It was there that he learned the printing trade. His family emigrated to the United States, where at age 24 he worked on the Persian-American Courier newspaper for the Assyrian community and became an expert in multilingual linotype composition.
One of Jacobs’ Greenwich Village neighbors happened to be poet, author, playwright, and artist E. E. Cummings (or e e cummings, if you prefer). Their creative partnership began in 1923 with Cummings’ book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, and for the next two decades Jacobs typeset all of Cummings’ poetry, in essence becoming his “personal typesetter” (first at Polytype Press on West 8th Street in Manhattan and then at Golden Eagle Press in Mount Vernon, New York). So close was their collaboration that in 1931 Time magazine referred to Jacobs as Cummings’ “Persian press agent.” The poet (and client) Charles Norman called Jacobs “Cummings’ friend, explainer, and defender.” Their books together include 5 (1926) and No Thanks (1935). The typesetting of the dedication page of the latter title is particularly notable, and features a list of all the publishers who had rejected the book set in the form of a funeral urn.
But their collaborations didn’t always go smoothly. In a 1935 letter to his Aunt Jane, Cummings wrote, “You should watch me arguing for two and a half hours (or some such) over the distance between the last letter of a certain word and the comma apparently following that letter but actually preceding the entire next word.”
As a designer and printing press owner, Jacobs employed a modernist design sensibility, though that doesn’t mean he limited himself to sans serif type. Other significant works he designed include Glenway Wescott’s Natives of Rock (1925), Carl Heinrich’s Orphans of Eternity (1929), the Covici-Friede edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1930), and Joseph Kling’s A Full Life (1934). In 1946, Golden Eagle launched the the Small Book Beautiful series with Matthew Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult and Andrew Lang’s Song-Stories of Aucassin and Nicolete. Included in the series were the works of Shakespeare, Donne, and Marvell, all of which featured typefaces by William Addison Dwiggins. And as previously mentioned, Jacobs’ design abilities and printing acumen also attracted visual artists, such as Calder and Miró.
For lovers of books as beautiful objects (as opposed to merely deployers of information), it was S. A. Jacobs who set the standard and helped lead the way.