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Written & designed by Bruce Kennett. The first comprehensive biography of one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century.
Written & designed by Bruce Kennett. The first comprehensive biography of one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century.
Written & designed by Bruce Kennett. The first comprehensive biography of one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century.
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Another sneak peek inside "W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design" — Ornament

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A Few Words about Chinese Spinach . . .

Dwiggins had a lifelong interest in ornament. Having grown up in a musical household, he had a deep love of the structure and beauty of music, and felt those qualities could be extended to graphic ornamentation as well. One of my all-time favorite WAD (W. A. Dwiggins) quotes is this one from 1920:

Ornament is a music of space.

Dwiggins studied ornament and lettering with Fred Goudy during his time at art school (Frank Holme's School of Illustration in Chicago) and then immediately found ways to use both in his own work as a graphic artist, primarily on book spines and title pages. By around 1915 Dwiggins had begun to make repeating patterns of shapes by using two different techniques: wooden stamps and stencils made from celluloid. To make the stamps he selected tiny blocks of maple and cherry, cut shapes in them “on the plank,” and then charged the cut surfaces with India ink or gouache. These stamps were central to the painting he made for an exhibition of the Boston Watercolor Society. To create the wall hanging in the painting’s background, Dwiggins dipped his wooden blocks in watercolor and added the elements simply and expeditiously, rather than tediously painting those small elements again and again with a pointed brush.

“The Incandescent Cheese,” 1922; full image (left) and detail of decorative shapes
“The Incandescent Cheese,” 1922; full image (left) and detail of decorative shapes

For an issue of Direct Advertising in 1920, Dwiggins wrote a long article about the qualities that music and printers' ornaments share in common. (This essay will be reprinted in full in W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design, complete with reproductions of Dwiggins’s original artwork.)

A spread from WAD’s essay, which will be reprinted in full in “W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design”
A spread from WAD’s essay, which will be reprinted in full in “W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design”

Although Dwiggins used the wooden stamps throughout the first part of the 1920s, it was celluloid that really freed him. Stencils cut in these transparent sheets could be flipped to make a reverse image, and the separate shapes could be positioned on top of the artwork with great precision. To use for cutting the stencils, Dwiggins made his own custom knives by grinding down hacksaw blades, then mounting them in wooden handles that were bound with cord.

Dwiggins's handmade tools
Dwiggins's handmade tools

By 1928, Dwiggins’s work had exploded into a new creative vocabulary. Here are some designs from a single project — Paraphs (Knopf, 1928) — a book of short essays and fiction by Hermann Püterschein (Dwiggins’s alter ego) and accompanied by stencil decorations credited to Dwiggins. 

A few decorations from “Paraphs”
A few decorations from “Paraphs”

Through the remainder of the 1920s and beyond, Dwiggins continued to refine his stencil techniques as he made both decorations and illustrations. 

“A sophisticated flower making the welcoming address at a Kiwanis convention” — WAD
“A sophisticated flower making the welcoming address at a Kiwanis convention” — WAD

In 1928 Dwiggins began to design printing types for Mergenthaler Linotype. As his strength and confidence in this discipline grew, he soon imagined a suite of decorative units that could be used singly or in myriad combinations. The ornaments worked in complete harmony with the neighboring text, since both the type characters and the decorative units were built from the same components of strokes, shapes, and details. The first designs (from the mid-1930s) were “abstract florets” intended to be used with the Electra types. 

Original drawings for Electra abstract florets
Original drawings for Electra abstract florets

Over the next few years Dwiggins developed a full range of shapes, with wildly different personalities, that could be set individually on a Linotype keyboard, or in full slug lines of decoration, via “slides” that could be inserted in the machine. At the time of their commercial release, these decorative units were called “Caravan,” but while they were in development Dwiggins and Linotype’s Chauncey Griffith loved to use the working title “Chinese Spinach.” The Caravan family is still in use today, in digital form as well as in hot-metal. (The deluxe edition of W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design includes a portfolio of Dwiggins’s writings, set in the typefaces he designed for Linotype, and printed by letterpress; Caravan ornaments are featured on many of the portfolio’s twenty pages.) 

A spiral of Caravan decorative units
A spiral of Caravan decorative units

After so many decades of a more austere form of modernism, it is heartwarming to see an appreciation for ornament returning to the visual vocabulary of graphic design. The book offers many more examples of Dwiggins’s countless adventures with ornament. 

 Bruce Kennett, author 

Michael Babcock, Katie Malloch, and 11 more people like this update.

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    1. Missing avatar

      Walter Marder on

      After Will Bradley, Dwiggins must come first.

    2. Missing avatar

      Brian Merrill on

      I agree. Bruce has done a herculean benefit to the design community in forwarding this man's reputation. Dwiggins rightfully holds a seminal, if not widely recognized, position as a renaissance man in the last millenia, leaving much to be an inspiration in a myriad of creative disciplines. It's time his great contributions to the literary and artistic world were reprinted as well. I anxiously await Bruce's contribution to the Dwiggins legacy.

    3. Missing avatar

      Marcia Cohl on

      So elegant, controlled; and yet a graphic language with which he could create endlessly.