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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.
1,059 backers pledged $171,574 to help bring this project to life.

W. A. Dwiggins: The Quintessential Maker

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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. 

A key aspect of Dwiggins’s working style was a clear-eyed understanding of process and technique. Whereas some of his contemporaries tended to be resistant to the new, Dwiggins was always open-minded about emerging technologies, even while critically evaluating their usefulness. One telling example of this is his advocacy in the 1920s for paperbacks instead of casebound hardcover bindings — a radical concept for the U.S. market when he proposed it. Another is his preference for the use of line art rather than halftones in books where illustrations accompanied text, an old-fashioned notion at a time when halftones were very much the current fashion. Dwiggins argued that line art in black or solid colors harmonized much better with printing types, and was perfectly suited to reproduction by letterpress on soft paper, whereas halftones required clay-coated paper to appear at their best.

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. 

What follows are additional examples that show Dwiggins uniting the skills of a designer and sculptor with the mind of an engineer. We think members of the current maker movement will find Dwiggins inspiring, too, so please share with your favorite maker, hacker, or tinkerer and encourage him or her to order a copy of the book before our Kickstarter campaign closes on April 28. 

WOOD WORK

Dwiggins began drawing and lettering at a young age. He also worked steadily with wood. His parents’ gift for his eighth birthday was an eight-foot plank of clear pine, which he whittled and carved to his heart’s content. Decades later, as a virtuoso marionette designer, Dwiggins would capitalize on the deep understanding of the character of wood that this early play had allowed him to develop. 

Toys carved and assembled by a very young Dwiggins. (He made the two boats later, as a teenager.) Carving marionette bodies in the early 1940s
Toys carved and assembled by a very young Dwiggins. (He made the two boats later, as a teenager.) Carving marionette bodies in the early 1940s

A TOOL FOR EVERY TASK

In the 1920s there were no X-Acto knives … Dwiggins created his own by taking sections of hacksaw blades, grinding them down to a razor-sharp edge, and mounting them in wooden handles, which he then bound with cord in the style reminiscent of Japanese artisans. His sharpening stone was housed in a hand-carved cherry box. He also built a printing-press out of corrugated cardboard, which he then used to produce his multi-color marionette tickets. At times, Dwiggins would construct an implement to carry out a single operation. He accepted no obstacles to the creative process — if he lacked a tool, he invented one.

An assortment of Dwiggins’s knives, drills, and other tools; cardboard printing press
An assortment of Dwiggins’s knives, drills, and other tools; cardboard printing press

PUPPET ENGINEER

Since time immemorial, marionettes have hung passively from strings. Dwiggins reimagined the construction of these puppets. By inserting lead weights at precise locations in their bodies and limbs, and setting strings with equal care, he was able to endow the puppets with an uncanny naturalism in their gestures and movements. Dwiggins provided detailed explanations of these methods in his book Marionette in Motion, published by Puppetry Imprints in 1939. 

A spread from Dwiggins’s 1939 book about counter-balanced marionettes. All text was lettered by hand
A spread from Dwiggins’s 1939 book about counter-balanced marionettes. All text was lettered by hand

THE M-FORMULA

Dwiggins made around sixty marionettes, but he never operated them (what puppeteers call “acting down the strings”). Instead, he always watched his marionette plays from the audience. In observing how light fell on the marionettes’ faces, he realized that more angular faces were far more expressive than those with more “natural” contours. At around this time, he employed the same concept of angularity in a completely different arena: type design. While designing very small (7-point) types for newspapers, he incorporated the same sharp angles in the curves of the letterforms. He called this the “M-Formula” after his marionettes. 

Soft face and letterform (left); angular face and letterform (center); M-Formula drawing
Soft face and letterform (left); angular face and letterform (center); M-Formula drawing

SPECIAL EFFECTS

To provide special effects for his marionette theater, Dwiggins designed a device that could simulate the light of an open fire. He cut patterns into two sheets of paper — one stationary, the other mounted on a drum. In the center, a simple incandescent light bulb provided illumination, while its heat induced motion through vanes cut into the top of the drum (the way a candelabra’s vanes cause movement) thus eliminating the need for a motor. Dwiggins built a fireplace at the edge of the set, making it visible to the audience. Then he placed the firelight device in the wings, just offstage, so that it cast wavering patterns onto the stage through the fireplace opening.

Plans for the flickering firelight device
Plans for the flickering firelight device

Similarly, Dwiggins created this bird for his marionette play “Princess Primrose of Shahaban in Persia.” The bird could open and close its wings. As it soared across the stage, a puppeteer backstage would guide its flight with an elaborate control that Dwiggins constructed out of carved wood.

Bird marionette (left) and the hand-carved control for its operator
Bird marionette (left) and the hand-carved control for its operator

ARCHITECT

Dwiggins designed additions to the family house in 1915 and 1925; on both occasions he made detailed construction drawings and served as the general contractor. In 1937 he designed and supervised construction of a new building across the street, to house a design studio and an elaborate marionette theater.

Design studio with north-facing clerestory window (left), and a pair of wooden latches, carved by Dwiggins for the new building
Design studio with north-facing clerestory window (left), and a pair of wooden latches, carved by Dwiggins for the new building

 KINETIC SIGNAGE

To announce the location of his private marionette theater at 45 Irving Street, Dwiggins mounted a sign on a tall pole next to the path that led from the street. He created the numerals 4 and 5 in a sheet of metal by cutting a pattern of small squares along three sides, then bending the metal outward. This caused the sign to come alive as the direction and quality of light changed throughout the day, casting an ever-changing pattern of shadows and glints.

The 45 Irving Street sign mounted on the pole (left) and a close-up of the sign itself
The 45 Irving Street sign mounted on the pole (left) and a close-up of the sign itself

WEATHERVANE 

For decades a life-size codfish turned in the wind atop the Dwiggins house in Hingham. In 1925 Dwiggins made a detailed shop drawing that spelled out every aspect of construction. He then commissioned a metalworker to make the weathervane from solid copper, including a large compass rose and a set of electrical contacts in addition to the fish. For the living room, Dwiggins built a second compass rose with an array of twenty tiny lamps. Electrical signals from the roof illuminated the lamps to indicate wind direction. It is noteworthy that Dwiggins dove into this project at a time when electricity was still a mystery to most people. 

Detail from drawing (left) and the weathervane itself, still preserved at Boston Public Library
Detail from drawing (left) and the weathervane itself, still preserved at Boston Public Library

KITE TROLLEY 

Dwiggins loved building kites and he flew them expertly; he especially liked traditional Malay designs, which have no tails. To perform theatrical events outdoors, Dwiggins designed and carved a kite trolley: with the main kite already aloft and held on a taut string, the trolley would zip up the string on rollers, powered by its own sail. When the trolley arrived, a cork at the front end would bang into the main kite, releasing a dozen tiny Chinese fish kites or parachutes for neighborhood children to race after and collect. 

Dwiggins (at left) sending trolley aloft as his cousin Laurance Siegfried looks on; the kite trolley with its sail; Dwiggins and Siegfried with a Malay kite
Dwiggins (at left) sending trolley aloft as his cousin Laurance Siegfried looks on; the kite trolley with its sail; Dwiggins and Siegfried with a Malay kite

FURNITURE 

For his own household, Dwiggins built a dining table, a sideboard, chairs, lamps, a sofa, and bookshelves. His bulletin board featured a chinoiserie design carved in relief and then brightly colored. Several rooms in the house featured painted murals, depicting scenes from the legends of Sinbad. 

Lamp with paper silhouettes (left); top of bulletin board (center); mural covered two walls of dining room
Lamp with paper silhouettes (left); top of bulletin board (center); mural covered two walls of dining room

Bruce Kennett, author

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    1. Missing avatar

      Brian Merrill on

      Bruce's crucial insights into the mind of a quintessential maker make me yearn for the release of his seminal volume all the more.