“Ornament is a music of space.”
—William Addison Dwiggins
The early 20th century designer William Addison Dwiggins was an ardent advocate for decorating the printed page. Like the fleurons of early printers, he designed ornament that harmonized with type, “not by reworking elements culled from early printed books; rather by making his own designs,” said Dorothy Abbe, Dwiggins’ long-time assistant.
This was something I experienced firsthand on a recent used bookstore sojourn, when I happened to come across a copy of Thomas Dreier’s The Power of Print—and Men. The book was “designed and decorated,” according to the colophon, by Dwiggins and published by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in 1936. I was instantly drawn to the bold pattern of random geometric shapes blanketing the paper covers. Inside the book, striking headpieces constructed out of the same shapes introduce each section; all of which complement two of Dwiggins’ Linotype faces, Metro and Electra. This book whet my appetite for Dwiggins and his daring use of ornament.
Dwiggins’ early career centered heavily on advertising but when diagnosed with diabetes in 1922, he veered toward his passion for books. Between 1923 and 1928, he designed 12 volumes for eight different publishers and “in nearly all of these books Dwiggins made use of one or the other of the decorative processes” he advanced, according to Abbe. He went on to design 280 trade books in their entirety for Alfred A. Knopf—establishing the publisher’s house style—and contributed title pages, binding, lettering, or other decorative details, such as vignettes and initial caps, to another 55 during his years-long relationship with the publisher that lasted until Dwiggins’ death in 1956. He was also commissioned to design special editions for Random House, The Limited Editions Club, and The Overbrook Press.
Dwiggins received the AIGA medal in 1929 and in 1937, AIGA presented the exhibition, “The Work of W. A. Dwiggins,” at the Architectural League Gallery in New York (the second of three AIGA solo exhibitions honoring Dwiggins). The press release announcing the 1937 show, which is tucked away in the AIGA’s archives, describes Dwiggins as “a calligrapher, type designer, typographer, a technician in many untrodden ways of illustration and decoration, notable book designer, puppeteer and an authority on puppeteer joints, and manipulation, a thinker and writer.” This incredible range of talent was on display across hundreds of pieces in the exhibition: the exhibition catalog prominently featured 65 examples of Dwiggins’ stenciled headbands, initials, colophon devices, and illustrated chapter headings in a 32-page section of the catalog titled “Scrapbook.”
The examples in the catalog were printed in only one-color and presented out of context, making it difficult to establish a frame of reference or understand the work’s impact. I wanted to experience the full effect, so I used the list of 259 exhibited items in the catalog as a guide to search local San Diego libraries for actual books designed by Dwiggins.
When I only tracked down one, I reached out to the Boston Public Library, which holds all of Dwiggins’ personal and studio records—an extensive archive organized by Abbe. Unfortunately, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department was under renovation and closed to researchers. Instead, they referred me to Bruce Kennett, author of the upcoming biography, W. A. Dwiggins, A Life in Design, who kindly invited me to his New Hampshire barn-turned-home-studio. We spent one mid-October afternoon oohing and aahing over his Dwiggins collection, which includes unusual memorabilia and an impressive stockpile of books whose literary spaces—covers, spines, and pages in-between—sing the song of Dwiggins.
As Kennett leafed through the 500-page mock-up of his illustrated Dwiggins biography he pointed out examples of Dwiggins’ various approaches to ornament and illustration, from pen and ink drawings paired with hand lettering to more efficient methods like stamping and stenciling, which Dwiggins found to be huge time savers especially when it came to repetitive elements and background patterns. From trade books for large publishing companies to limited editions for smaller private presses, “Dwiggins made his stamps and stencils primarily to decorate and illustrate books,” said Kennett.
Dwiggins’ wooden-stamp technique, which he whimsically referred to in Stencilled Ornament and Illustration as a “rubber stamp prelude,” is on display in the ten chapter headings in Modern Color by Cutler Pepper published in 1923 by Harvard University Press. Influenced by stamped motifs, such as “sprigs and flowers,” on Indian printed cotton, Dwiggins experimented with carving individual elements on small type-high pieces of cherry wood. He manipulated these like rubber stamps, pressing the wooden motifs on an ink pad, stamping them onto paper, and filling in as necessary with pen and ink. According to Kennett, his highest level of achievement with this technique is the intricate detail on the title page of Streets in the Moon by Archibald MacLeish, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1926. Kennett explained how Dwiggins found it difficult due to the opaqueness of the wood “to see exactly where the impression was being made in relation to other elements already placed on the page.” So, Dwiggins continued to search for better methods.
Further experimentation led to his signature hand-cut stencils crafted from thin transparent celluloid with handmade tools Dwiggins fashioned after Japanese craftsmen (the X-acto knife was yet to be invented). One big advantage was being able to see through celluloid, plus he could flop the stencil to create a reverse image. Dwiggins developed a graphic vocabulary of hundreds of cut-out lines, curves, and solid shapes. “He could combine a few elements in myriad ways, while always providing a bit of imperfection and variety in the design, never something purely mechanical,” said Kennett.
Using India ink and a modified shaving brush, he worked directly on paper, intuitively repeating, mixing, and combining elements one at a time while composing a variety of naturalistic and geometric patterns, borders, and ornamental vignettes. This method was first applied to ornament in his 1928 Paraphs, a collection of seven essays authored by Dwiggins under the pseudonym Hermann Püterschein. He used stencils to create a zigzag pattern on the book’s cover, as well as the thick and thin lines of the title page border, and a series of unique graphic vignettes throughout. This was the first of two books written by Dwiggins that were published by Alfred A. Knopf. The second, Millennium 1, was a marionette play published in 1945.
Sometimes he worked out the image first in pencil, ink, or watercolor, then taped a sheet of celluloid over the drawing, which he traced lightly onto the film by carefully pushing the knife away from him. Before the final cutting, Dwiggins placed black paper underneath the celluloid to make sure that the intended scratches showed up. If needed, he rubbed French chalk into the scratches to make them more visible. If the design involved more than one color, he cut separate stencils to represent each color, which served as final artwork for color separations. Dwiggins applied this method to figurative illustrations in Robert Nathan’s One More Spring published by The Overbrook Press in 1935. These colorful, stylized, gestural renditions of characters and scenes from the story introduce each chapter.
In limited-edition books, like H. G. Wells’ The Treasure in the Forest published by Press of the Woolly Whale in 1936, Dwiggins availed himself of the stencil method that the French called pochoir. He cut a different stencil for each color and applied the color by hand with a brush, often assisted by his wife Mabel.
For monochromatic designs, he used black drawing ink. For transparent color he used gouache, and to achieve opaque color, he added white. To accurately register the different stencils, he constructed cardboard and wooden printing frames that held the paper in place with gauges. Each image in the book was an original one-of-a-kind and in some cases, he deliberately altered the color to add to the uniqueness. “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,” said Dwiggins in Bookbinding in 1936.
“Dwiggins’ ornaments, both in their structure and color, often screamed for attention,” wrote type historian Paul Shaw. “In that respect, they were a far cry from the intricate and classically ordered type ornament ‘pictures’ designed by Bruce Rogers and T. M. Cleland, to which they are sometimes compared.” Dwiggins’ book jacket design for James M. Cain’s Serenade, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1937, is among those bold, unconventional designs that howl to be heard, or in this case seen.
In addition to decorating books, stencils of individual letters, full alphabets, and musical notation were on hand in Dwiggins’ studio for all kinds of other purposes. He cut custom stencils for routine daily needs, like postal instructions that he stenciled onto envelopes to complement his calligraphy: Printed Matter, Registered, Receipt Requested, Special Delivery, First Class Mail. He even applied this method to early phases of type design by constructing stencils of recurring letterform stems and curves.
Through his inventive stencil technique, Dwiggins inserted a lyrical form of abstract decoration and colorful stylized illustration into the vernacular of American graphic design. At least for a while; the European Modernism lurking around the corner would soon banish decoration. “Ornamentalism came to be seen as old fashioned,” said Kennett. Now, the old is new again.