The Definitive Dwiggins no. 38—Alvin Lustig and W.A. Dwiggins

The 1950 Fifty Books of the Year competition held by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) did not include a single book published by the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. This was the first time that had happened in the history of the competition. Knopf was not happy. He apparently complained to W.A. Dwiggins who responded with this note:

The whole art of book designer has been shaken loose from its foundations—there is not doubt about that.

It’s the work of these Rand fellows, and the Bauhouse [sic], working in Chicago at advertising typog. which is not anything like book typography. These people use type masses as grey elements in a picture technique, without any concern for the movement of the narration, or the authors’ dramatic intention. They think that they are interpreting the authors’ intention, but I am sure that they are fooling themselves. Just plain type, reasonably arranged, is what the story needs.

I think that the bizarre Chicago style, dearly loved by most publishers as a sign of ‘the latest thing’, has been a trouble to you, in the highly competitive book publishing business, and I can understand how they are pushing you. I can imagine your sales people saying to you “Why don’t we get out some modernistic books like these other people? Our stuff is pretty tame.”

Well…typography for some of Gertrude Stein’s writing can be as ‘modern’ as you please. But when you came to a book about G. Stein, the author would want people to read it; and I’d swear that most Chicago advertising style wouldn’t be easy for most folks to read…Isn’t there bound to be a reaction? back to simple, old, honest-to-goodness readable books?

Don’t let the Fifty Books juries bother you. Give ‘em time to get over their temporary bug-house-ness. [1]

Dwiggins’ private complaint about the state of book design was soon followed by a public one. In June 1951 he wrote to the AIGA:

I certainly do not want to be listed as belonging to the Joseph Pennel [sic] sour-belly school which screams about any change in the arts, and says any experimental work is rotten—but I must say that in the region of books I think these Our Time boys: Armitage, S.A. Jacobs, Rand, etc. etc., are destroying the function of books. Their influence is spreading widely (vide your editor)—I submit that the books they turn out just simply can’t be read: they catch the public fancy, plainly, and are exclaimed over—but what about the time when the entranced purchaser gets the book home and tries to read it?

Big question involved. Are written and printed texts passing out as an engine of human communication? Are people getting so used to Our Time printing gymnastics that they really can read them?…Up to me, anyway, to carry the flag, for the ‘function of the book’! [2]

Dwiggins was referring specifically to the book designs shown in the Books for Our Time exhibition sponsored by the AIGA Trade Book Clinic earlier that year. The exhibition, a watershed in American publishing, was commemorated in Books for Our Time edited by Marshall Lee (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951). The catalogue included essays by Merle Armitage, Herbert Bayer, John Begg, S.A. Jacobs and Ernst Reichl. It also included two books designed by Dwiggins: The Time Machine (1931) as entry no. 21 and The Power of Print and Men (1936) as entry no. 125.

Two of the Our Time designers that Dwiggins attacked, Paul Rand and Herbert Bayer, had become Knopf designers after the war. For The Tables of the Law by Thomas Mann (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945) Rand designed both the jacket and interior. The latter is notable for having a text block deliberately placed low on the page so that the top margin is double the bottom margin—in contradiction to traditional practice. I suspect that this bit of show-off typography which served no functional purpose had been eating at Dwiggins for years and contributed to his cranky comments on modernist book design.

Along with Rand and Bayer, Knopf had also been turning to Alvin Lustig to reinvigorate the appearance of the company’s books. This was on the initiative of Blanche Knopf who was more interested in the modernist designers than was her husband Alfred, contrary to his public pronouncements. The production staff, led at that time by Sidney Jacobs, was also more interested than Alfred in bringing in a new generation of book designers. But Dwiggins was still Knopf’s chief outside book designer. With that in mind, Jacobs sent a batch of books designed for the company by Harry Ford, Jean Carlu, Warren Chappell, Charles Skaggs and Alvin Lustig to Dwiggins on 30 April 1951 for his opinion. He included a note specifically praising Chappell’s work and saying that he wished Lustig, who he described as “a smart fellow,” would do more designs for Knopf. [3]

According to Greg D’Onofrio of Kind Company, the design studio that created the Alvin Lustig website, Lustig designed only two books for Knopf: The Outsider by Ernesto Sábato (1950) and Two Legends: Oedipus and Theseus by André Gide (1950). He also designed jackets or covers for nine books published by Knopf and its subsidiary Vintage Books (a line of paperbacks begun in 1954).

  • Monsieur Teste by Paul Valery (1947)
  • Parenthesis by Jacques Lemarchand (1947)
  • The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup (1953)
  • Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun (1953)
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1954)—Vintage; 2 vols.
  • The Law of Civilization and Decay by Brooks Adams (1953)—Vintage K22
  • Stephan Crane: Stories and Tales (1955)—Vintage K10
  • Five Stories by Willa Cather (1956)—Vintage K28

Intriguingly, this list includes two books whose bindings and interiors were designed by Dwiggins: The Flowers of Friendship and the reset version of Growth of the Soil. I recently purchased a copy of the former, complete with the jacket by Lustig.

Jacket for The Flowers of Friendship edited by Donald Gallup (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Jacket design by Alvin Lustig. Photograph by André Ostier.

Jacket for The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Jacket design by Alvin Lustig. Photograph by André Ostier.

The jacket is not one of Lustig’s best. It lacks the flair of those he designed for the New Directions Modern Reader series which also employed photography. Here, the photograph of Gertrude Stein is documentary while in those earlier covers photography was used in a surrealist manner to suggest the content of the books (e.g. The Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo [1946]). The only interesting aspect of  The Flowers of Friendship jacket is how Lustig integrated the photograph of Stein with the title by making two of the bands transparent and the list of correspondents translucent.

Lustig’s jacket may be tame his lofty standards, but it remains resolutely modern. Especially once one sees it in conjunction with Dwiggins’ binding. Taking the jacket off of The Flowers of Friendship is a jarring experience. Dwiggins’ binding is among his most exciting for Knopf, marked on the side by a large gold-stamped stencil ornament suggesting an abstract flower. However, no matter how modern the ornament looks on its own, it feels old compared to Lustig’s jacket. It is Art Deco in spirit.

Binding side of The Flowers of Friendship: Letters to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Design and ornament by W.A. Dwiggins.

Binding side of The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Design and ornament by W.A. Dwiggins.

Binding spine of The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Design by W.A. Dwiggins. Execution by Charles Skaggs.

Binding spine of The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Design by W.A. Dwiggins. Execution by Charles Skaggs.

The design of the spine, a typical Dwiggins mix of stenciled ornament and lettering, was executed by Charles Skaggs (b.1917). In the 1950s, as Dwiggins’ health began to falter, he relied heavily on Skaggs to execute many of his binding designs for Knopf. He told Jacobs that “the degree of hand control called for in lettering is beyond me at times—too exhausting”; and referred to Skaggs as a “life saver.”[4] The only collaboration of theirs that is widely known is the jacket for Of Plymouth Plantation 1620–1647 by William Bradford; edited by Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).

The title page of The Flowers of Friendship is a let-down after seeing Lustig’s modern jacket and the spectacular Dwiggins binding. It is set in Bell (with the exception of the imprint), a typeface rarely used by Dwiggins, and lacks his normal sense of space and balance. The text is set in Dwiggins’ own Electra with Electra Cursive and one of Dwiggins’ Abstract Florets (no. 1612) is used as a ‘flower’ to separate the individual letters from Stein’s correspondents. Electra Cursive, designed at the demand of the trade as an alternative to the original Electra Italic (a sloped roman), was rarely used by Dwiggins. For some reason, he tended to prefer his original design. But here it is the right choice. As is the Abstract Floret which adds a small touch of liveliness to the book. (Linotype Baskerville is used for the chapter heads.)

Earlier, I quoted Dwiggins as saying that, ”typography for some of Gertrude Stein’s writing can be as ‘modern’ as you please. But when you came to a book about G. Stein, the author would want people to read it….” His conservative design of The Flowers of Friendship follows that crucial distinction between modernist writing and texts about modernist writing.

Title page of The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to  Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Typography by W.A. Dwiggins.

Title page of The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Typography by W.A. Dwiggins.

Chapter opening from The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Typography by W.A. Dwiggins.

Chapter opening from The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. Edited by Donald Gallup. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Typography by W.A. Dwiggins.

ADDENDUM
“I am going to take the initiative on our discussed project,” Lustig wrote to Blanche Knopf on 4 November 1948, “and have started on some patterned papers. They are mostly experiments in the general ‘feel’ of the problem rather than specific solutions.” [5] This was in response to her request that he create some paper pattern designs for use on Knopf covers. Dwiggins had already begun working on such designs at the end of 1947 in an attempt to find a way to both visually modernize the exterior of Knopf books and simultaneously reduce the cost of binding. The story of this project will be the subject of a future number of The Definitive Dwiggins.

NOTES
[1] This note from Dwiggins to Knopf is undated. It is placed with 1952 correspondence in the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers at the University of Texas, but I believe it is from 1951 based on its contents. See  University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Box 732, Folder 6 which covers the years 1947 to 1954.
[2] University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Box 732, Folder 6.
[3] Sidney Jacobs to W.A. Dwiggins 30 April 1951. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Box 733, Folder 1.
[4] W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 16 November 1951; and W.A. Dwiggins to Sidney Jacobs 16 June 1954. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Papers, Box 732, Folder 6.
[5] Alvin Lustig to Blanche Knopf, 4 November 1948. University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Papers, Box 33, Folder 10.