“W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design” – An Interview with Rob Saunders
Rob Saunders is the founder of Letterform Archive, a nonprofit center that offers hands-on access to a curated collection of over 40,000 items related to lettering, typography, calligraphy, and graphic design, spanning 2,000 years of history. Saunders is a designer, teacher, publisher, and management consultant who has had a lifelong interest in the letter arts. After collecting graphic design and letterforms for over 40 years, he founded Letterform Archive to share the collection. He began his career teaching at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Tufts University, while serving freelance clients and agencies, before founding a book publishing enterprise that included Alphabet Press (graphic design), Picture Book Studio (children’s books), and Rabbit Ears Books (book/audio packages), which was eventually acquired by Simon & Schuster. Prior to founding Letterform Archive he served as a creative and marketing consultant with clients in the hospitality, technology, and financial industries.
Rob, tell us about your latest project…
William Addison Dwiggins (1880–1956) was among the most influential and innovative designers of the early twentieth century. He was a master calligrapher, type designer, illustrator, private press printer, and a pioneer of advertising, magazine, and book design. In short, he was the quintessential maker — fabricating his own tools, mastering traditional skills, inventing new techniques, and experimenting with design in areas as wide-ranging as modular ornament, stamps, currency, furniture, kites, marionettes, and theatrical sets and lighting. More than any of his contemporaries, Dwiggins united the full range of applied arts into a single profession: designer.
Despite this, a comprehensive biography of Dwiggins has never been published, and too few contemporary designers and design enthusiasts are familiar with the full scope and remarkable creativity of Dwiggins’s work.
Then, two years ago, I joined forces with Bruce Kennett in a united desire to produce a thorough overview of Dwiggins’s life and work. This is our first publication, written and designed by Bruce, for all of us who cherish Dwiggins and his beautiful legacy.
What led you to this project?
Dwiggins is one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century. His visual inventiveness was matched by his verbal wit: he wrote playful but potent essays that helped to define the field of graphic design, along with charming short stories and book-length fiction. A collection of his writing is appended to this ground-breaking monograph. Moreover, Dwiggins is still respected and beloved in the world of puppetry: the book features a generous sampling of his work in this realm. Gathered together, all these aspects provide a vivid overview of the artist’s life in design.
I’ve been collecting Dwiggins since the 1970s, and the Letterform Archive’s collection is one of the most comprehensive in the world.
Bruce Kennett discovered the work of W. A. Dwiggins in 1972 and has drawn inspiration from it ever since, writing articles, essays, and lecturing widely about the man and his many talents. Bruce has been working steadily on this book since 2003.
We’re using material from the collections of the Archive, the Boston Public Library, and Bruce’s private holdings.
This lavishly illustrated book will celebrate Dwiggins’s remarkable output using the most advanced photography and printing technology available.
How is the production going? I understand you launched a kickstarter project.
Yes. The internet has been kind to us. On our first day, our kickstarter project raised over $36,000 — 73% of our goal! The hunger for a book on Dwiggins is palpable, and we’re grateful for all of our 842 backers.
The project is fully funded, but we’re going for a stretch goal. The print run of the deluxe edition will be based on the number of orders received by April 28, 2017. After April 28, 2017, it will no longer be possible to order a copy of the deluxe edition.
W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design will be produced in standard and deluxe editions. Both will be 9 × 11 inches, with 480 pages including end notes and index, 88,000 words, 1200 illustrations, printed full color throughout with stochastic screening on Sappi Opus paper, Smyth sewn and manufactured entirely in the USA.
The standard edition will be case bound with photographic covers and satin mylar lamination. The deluxe edition will include a specially bound version of the book, accompanied by a signed and numbered letterpress portfolio, housed together in a slipcase. The deluxe book will be bound in Dwiggins-designed decorated paper over boards and a genuine leather spine stamped with Dwiggins ornaments and hand lettering by Richard Lipton.
What can you share about Dwiggins?
Dwiggins was immensely talented. I sometimes call him the father of graphic design. He said that the commercial artist was now a graphic designer, because that is what, in effect, he had become.
Dwiggins was also an advertising genius. There’s an example of his work I can show you that still sets the standard:
Although W. A. Dwiggins is best known for his typefaces, book designs, and marionettes, a careful look at his entire output reveals that he was an innovative thinker across many more disciplines, and often combined artistic expression with a sound understanding of engineering, manufacturing practices, and the nature of materials. As a young man, Dwiggins considered pursuing a career in either naval architecture or chemistry. Ultimately, he chose what in those days was called commercial art — at that time firmly rooted in the visual realm, the domain of ruling pen and brush. A glance over the whole of his career, however, demonstrates that Dwiggins remained as deeply interested in engineering as he was in the visual arts.
We dedicate an entire chapter to his marionettes. Dwiggins noticed that the sharper the features on the marionettes, the more expressive they appeared. He carried that insight to typeface design!
Over a twenty-five-year period, Dwiggins also designed more than a dozen typefaces for the Linotype machine. He understood the limitations of the machine, and designed his types to work within those constraints rather than constantly pushing to the extremes of what was mechanically possible. In the public’s mind the Linotype had long been relegated to the rough-and-ready world of newspaper publishing, and was judged unsuitable for the subtleties of book composition; Dwiggins’s type designs played a central role in changing that perception, and soon made the Linotype a viable option for book work.
We think members of the current maker movement will find Dwiggins inspiring as well.
I hear you are reviving his Electra typeface…
(Laughs) To commemorate and renew Dwiggins’s contribution to twentieth-century typography, we commissioned a digital revival of Electra, one his most important typefaces.
Referring directly to authentic Linotype drawings in the collections of Letterform Archive and the Boston Public Library, master letterer and type designer Jim Parkinson digitally restored the sturdy yet elegant shapes, readability, and vigor of the metal original. Not only is this new Electra used for the book, but backers at certain levels will receive a commercial license for the three fonts: roman with small caps, italic (sloped roman), and cursive.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Marketers will be surprised to learn that Dwiggins was an infographics pioneer. His visual intelligence was and remains breathtaking.
Thanks so much for your time.
Learn more about this historic project >>
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar