The Definitive Dwiggins no. 15 Addendum—W.A. Dwiggins, Harry L. Gage and Lucian Bernhard on Modernism

As Dwiggins was writing Layout in Advertising the debate over modernist design in the United States was heating up. It was sparked not by the Bauhaus in Germany or the emergence of die neue typographie there and in Eastern Europe, but by the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels held in Paris from April 28 to November 30, 1925. The exposition has given us the phrase Art Deco. [1] But at the time the graphic art associated with the exposition was referred to by American designers as art moderne, modernistic design or modern design. Thus, in looking at American attitudes toward modernism during the 1920s it is crucial to keep in mind that the words “modern,”  ”modernism,” and “modernist” are usually references to Art Deco and not to die neue typographie. [2]

Entrance to the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

Porte d’Orsay entrance to the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

It is also important to realize that the United States did not participate in the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes on the grounds that the country did not feel it had a sufficient number of modern items from manufacturers and craftsmen. [3] Instead, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover commissioned a delegation on February 6, 1925 to report on the exposition. It was led by Charles R. Richards (1865–1936), Henry Creange (1877–1945) and Frank Graham Holmes (1878–1954) and included 92 delegates from various national trade associations and 49 delegates at large. Of those, 108 actually traveled to Paris to see the exposition. Among them were the printer William Edwin Rudge (1876–1931) (representing the United Typothetae of America), type designer Frederic W. Goudy, and advertising expert Frank Alvah Parsons. [4]

“Report of the Commission Appointed by the Secretary of Commerce to Visit and Report Upon the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art, in Paris, 1925″ was issued March 18, 1926. The only portion of it devoted to graphic design was Appendix D “Art and Industries of the Book” (pp. 82–88) written by Rudge. French books were praised for their bindings and illustrations, but otherwise were considered unexceptional. They were considered technically inferior to American books and thus there was nothing to learn from them. Rudge concluded that, “What can be profitably brought back by the American craftsman, however, is a respect for that courage of artistic conception, and above all that independence from the snobbery of ‘periods’ and tradition of past ‘styles’ which are so lamentably crippling modern bookwork.” [5] He urged American designers to accept the modern styles, whether one liked them or not.

Even before the Commission’s report was issued, the influence of the Paris exposition was being felt in the United States. Richards had organized a traveling exhibition of selected works from the exposition that opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in January of that year before moving to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then across the country. In Boston the MFA exhibition was followed by a three-week exhibition of modern European printing at the New Chamber of Commerce building that lasted from March 30 to April 10.

The Rudge appendix to the Hoover commission report also provoked two symposia in Direct Advertising: “Can We Create a Modern American Style of Printing?” and “Service of Mammon Never Yet Produced Art, and Never Will.” [6] The first of them appeared at the end of 1926 in an issue with a new, “modernistic” cover by Dwiggins that replaced one that had been in use since 1919.

Cover of Direct Advertising, vol. XII, no. 3 (1926). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Cover of Direct Advertising, vol. XII, no. 3 (1926). Design by W.A. Dwiggins. This cover design was in use, with a continuous change of colors from issue to issue, since 1919.

Cover of Direct Advertising, vol. XII, no. 4 (1926). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Cover of Direct Advertising, vol. XII, no. 4 (1926). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

The participants of the first symposium were printer Irving K. Annable (b. 1867) (Berkeley Press, Boston), advertising expert Earnest Elmo Calkins (1868–1964) (Calkins & Holden, New York), W. Arthur Cole (1891–1961) (President of the AIGA), designer Everett R. Currier (1877–1954) (Currier & Harford, New York), librarian John Cotton Dana (1856–1929) (Newark Public Library), designer Walt Harris (1881–1947) (Youth’s Companion), advertising executive Paul Hollister (1890–1970) (Barton, Durstine & Osborn), designer William A. Kittredge (1891–1945) (The Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley & Sons in Chicago), printer J. Horace McFarland (1859–1948) (Mount Pleasant Printing Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) and artist/designer Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978) (New York). None of these men were modernists and only a couple of them indicated any sympathy with—or even understanding of—modernism. Their focus, as indicated by the title of the symposium, was on “style.”

McFarland said that there was no need for an “American style,” that many styles could co-exist. Currier claimed that Americans were not interested in a modern style. Both Calkins and Ruzicka believed that a modern style would develop eventually. Dana, calling style an elusive thing, said that it had to develop out of a temperament and that it could not be invented. In his view, the “modern spirit” was a vague phrase. [7]

Cole was tone-deaf: “…I believe that so-called Modern Art is imitative….”. For him the design of Modern Color by Carl Gordon Cutler and Stephen Pepper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923) with jacket and binding by Dwiggins and interior design by Bruce Rogers was a notable example of creative work. Annable described modernism as “heavy masses of color and drawn lettering of indescribable shapes.” [8]

Binding of Modern Color by Carl Gordon Cutler and Stephen Pepper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Binding of Modern Color by Carl Gordon Cutler and Stephen Pepper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Only Kittredge and Harris evinced any interest in modernism—though failing to understand it. Kittredge, echoing Rudge, complained about “warmed-over period design” and declared that, “It is eminently desirable that the art of our time, including printing and advertising design, reflect the life and moods of our time.”  Harris described, “Modern Art as applied to the graphic art in printing is Decorative Art.” with an emphasis on flat colors and rhythmical drawing. [9] Kittredge urged Direct Advertising to ask Dwiggins’ about the role of decoration in modern design.

Dwiggins was included in the second symposium alongside Kent D. Currie (b. 1893) (Olympic Press, Baltimore), photoengraver Edward Epstean (1869–1945) (Walker Engraving Corporation, New York), advertising manager Charles A. MacFarlane (The Beckett Paper Co., Hamilton, Ohio), author of The Principles and Practice of Direct Advertising (1915), printer Carl Purington Rollins (1880–1960) (Yale University Press), printer Henry H. Taylor (Taylor & Taylor, San Francisco), and Maurice Weyl (1869–1936) of publisher Edward Stern & Co., Philadelphia. The responses were illustrated by two of Dwiggins’ new “concrete-mixer” style stencil designs. This group was just as obtuse as the first one.

Currie, MacFarlane, Taylor and Weyl all agreed that an American style of printing could not be forced, but would only occur on its own. Meanwhile, Rollins praised the illustrations of Rockwell Kent, calling all other illustration “terribly namby-pamby drawings by sentimental girls who have neither imagination, technique nor experience.” More importantly, he said that, ”Dwiggins’ work is delectable—but where is it? It all goes to the fabrication of advertising and a few very choice jeu d’esprit which no one sees but his lucky friends.” The anti-advertising Rollins concluded that “you cannot harness art to the chariot of Trade.” [10]

Dwiggins was the only respondent who addressed the question in any significant way, though he too was focused on Art Deco:

I do not think it is possible to deliberately develop a style. Consequently I do not think it worth while to try. To my mind you cannot invent or create a style. A style results from a set of conditions, an event, or some extraordinary person’s performance. A style comes into being without any body directly fostering it—and in spite of any body’s effort to prevent it. [11]


…I have been aware of the Modernist influence in design for some time and am heartily in sympathy with it. I respond easily to the state of mind that it starts with—the state of mind of being “fed up” with antiquarian revivals—and I like its experimental tendencies—the “let’s go” motif. The modern style will influence the design of printing, of course—is influencing the design of printing—and many of us are glad of it. I think that a great many of us are sufficiently “fed up” on imitations of the antique to be in a receptive mood for any new style.…

But, be careful what you classify as “Modern.” Lots of the things foisted upon us as “modern” printing are nothing more than crude (and factitiously naive) imitations of a very unfortunate moment in design: the Style 1850. 1850 is just far enough back in time to begin to be “antique.” And a revival of 1850 is quite as maddening to the complete Modernist as a revival of 1550. “Modern” is something else again. Just what it is you would be pleased to discover? [12]

Dwiggins’ work was in flux at this time, marked by Deco-like decorations inspired by his use of celluloid stencils. [13] His brand of “modernist” decorations graced the otherwise traditional-looking poster he designed for Harry L. Gage’s talk on “Modernism in Typography” for the Society of Printers at the end of 1927.

Poster for "Modernism in Typography" talk for the Society of Printers by Harry L. Gage, 9 December 1927

Poster for “Modernism in Typography” talk for the Society of Printers by Harry L. Gage, 9 December 1927

Gage’s text was as reactionary as Dwiggins’ design. He claimed that Bodoni, Will Bradley, Bruce Rogers, and D.B. Updike were all Modernists “in the sense that they express their own personality freely in type—yet they surely reverse tradition.” He then went on to promote the designer’s “duty to make the page or the message supremely legible” and to urge useful modernism in which experimentation was only acceptable as long as it did not violate legibility. In Gage’s view type could not be as wild as illustration or decoration. [14]

Cover of The Linotype Magazine (January 1929). Design by Lucian Bernhard.

Cover of The Linotype Magazine (January 1929). Design by Lucian Bernhard. (Note the swastikas—symbols of good luck—in the upper left.)

Gage continued to expound his view of modernism in other venues, including The Linotype Bulletin. In the January 1929 issue—coming between the publication of Layout in Advertising and the beginning of Metro—he approvingly quoted Dwiggins as saying that “Modernism is not a system of design, it is a state of mind.” He lifted the quotation from the Postscript to Layout in Advertising. Here is the full text of Dwiggins’ remarks on modernism:

“Modernist” printing design? “Modernism” is not a system of design—it is a state of mind. It is a natural and wholesome reaction against an overdose of traditionalism. The average citizen calls it “futurist” or “cubist” or just plain crazy—and doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t want to; but notices it, nevertheless. The exploiter of sensational novelty seizes upon it as a fine chance for making a noise, and tries to imitate it—fails—because he doesn’t understand it; is too superficial to sense the impulse behind it—but floats an imitation, notwithstanding, that passes as “modernist” and serves his purpose well enough.

Most masquerading quasi-modernist printing is revived 1840. Actual modernism is a state of mind that says: “Let’s forget (for the sake of the experiment) about Aldus, and Baskerville, and William Morris (and the Masters of the ‘forties), and take these types and machines and see what we can do with then on our own. Now.” The graphic results of this state of mind are extraordinary, often highly stimulating, sometimes deplorable. The game is worth the risk….” [ellipses in the text] [15]

Much of Dwiggins’ text was derived from his remarks in Direct Advertising.

Dwiggins’ comments on quasi-modernism were amplified by Gage, in the January 1929 issue of The Linotype Magazine who made a strong distinction between “false” and “true” modernism:

…whether you like it or not, there are customers for every plant and advertisers for every publication who seek novelty. Too often they think it is to be had only with new and different types. False modernism gives them novelty at the expense of orderly arrangement. Shingle-mill explosions of type and triangles, uncouth lettering, and meaningless design do not constitute modernism. If they get attention, so does a 1912 flivver done in seven colors and chalk.

True modernism discards formulae but retains thoughtful design. So for every page of this magazine there has been a plan and layout. Vigor of color has been sought, hence the black types. None of us believe that the Gothics are beautiful in their own letter forms, but they carry color and it is with masses of color (or tone) and abrupt contrasts of very light and heavy type that the modernist works. [16]

The Linotype Magazine (January 1929), pp. 2–3.

The Linotype Magazine (January 1929), pp. 2–3.

Gage’s jab at “the Gothics” was probably one last effort on his part to remind C.H. Griffith and his superiors at Mergenthaler Linotype that the company needed to add a modern, geometric sans serif typeface to its library. [17]

It is ironic that from a 21st century perspective the January 1929 issue of The Linotype Bulletin would be considered “false” modernism (i.e. Art Deco and not modernism in the new typography manner). The design is by Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972), the émigré German designer, who—according to Gage—believed that, “The type page should be readable and the home should be livable.” The design includes two “pictures” made of typographic material, the cityscape on the cover and a ship on p. 11— ”pure fun” in Gage’s words.

"Thought Travels on Type" by Lucian Bernhard in The Linotype Magazine (January 1929), p. 11. Typography and illustration by Lucian Bernhard.

“Thought Travels on Type” by Lucian Bernhard in The Linotype Magazine (January 1929), p. 11. Typography and illustration by Lucian Bernhard.

Bernhard’s views on modernism were as conservative as those of Gage and Dwiggins.

Modernism is essentially a cutting loose from tradition—from classic materials and methods…

Modernism is not to be shunned and damned because of its excesses. Nor is it to be embraced as the universal formula for every layout. It can be very effective and it can also be very ridiculous. Use it where it can serve you but keep a firm grip on your good taste, your common sense and the everlasting fitness of things. [18]

Elsewhere in the magazine he posited five modern typographic axioms:

  • Different purpose demands different style.
  • The modern reader has no leisure.
  • Gutenberg left no rules for automobile ads.
  • Today’s reader doesn’t read—he glimpses.
  • Lucidity, clarity, fitness is the aim. [19]

They all stress that modern typography is for advertising or commercial printing more than for books and thus needs to forge new rules. What those new rules are is left unsaid. But—if the design of The Linotype Magazine is any indication, they include the use of Bodoni, heavy sans serif types, bars and bullets. Asymmetry, white space, grids and flush left/rag right setting are not considerations.

The American response to modernism in the late 1920s was bewilderment, confusion, resistance, diffidence and, for a few, cautious embrace. Many American designers were still engaged in the Arts & Crafts fight against the 19th century. Modernism—both Art Deco and the new typography—caught them by surprise. One explanation may be that the United States, although engaged in World War I, was at a remove from the social, political and cultural tumult that had been convulsing Europe for over a generation. There was awareness of the various -isms of art, but at a remove. The United States was as mentally isolated from Europe as it was physically. Furthermore, the notion of American exceptionalism seems to have influenced the way a number of designers viewed modernism—as something that did not concern them or the United States.

Given this environment it is not surprising that Dwiggins’ views on modernism were a last-minute addition to Layout in Advertising. The necessity for their inclusion must have been sparked by Gage’s Boston talk and/or the two Direct Advertising symposia. Layout in Advertising was a groundbreaking book, yet it was  almost instantly dated. It looked back. The future lay with another book that came out that same year: Die neue Typographie by Jan Tschichold. A comparison of the two books will be the subject of a future Definitive Dwiggins post.

[1] The art historical term Art Deco was coined by Bevis Hillier. See The World of Art Deco by Bevis Hillier (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1971)
[2] For an introduction to the reception of “modernism” in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s see The Machine Age in America 1918–1941 by Richard Guy Wilson, Dianne H. Pilgrim and Dickran Tashjian (New York: The Brooklyn Museum / Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1986). The first reference to the Bauhaus in The American Printer does not occur until 1929. See “The Bauhaus Movement” by Robert Foster in The American Printer vol. 89, no. 2 (August 1929), pp. 76–78.
[3] “Report of the Commission Appointed by the Secretary of Commerce to Visit and Report Upon the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art, in Paris, 1925” [18 March 1926],  p. 16.
[4] ibid.,  p. 5. Richards was the Vice-President of the American Association of Museums; Creange was an industrial artist and the technical advisor to Cheney Brothers, a silk manufacturing company; and Holmes was the chief designer at Lenox Inc., a porcelain producer.
[5] ibid., p. 88.
[6] See ”Can We Create a Modern American Style of Printing?” in Direct Advertising vol. XII, no. 4 (1926), pp. 4–14 and “Service of Mammon Never Yet Produced Art, and Never Will” in Direct Advertising vol. XIII, no. 1 (1927), pp. 18–24.
[7] ibid., McFarland, p. 10; Currier, p. 14; Calkins, p. 14; Ruzicka, p. 12; and Dana, p. 8.
[8] ibid., Cole, p. 9; and Annable, p. 13.
[9] ibid., Kittredge, p. 7; and Harris, p. 11.
[10] “Service of Mammon Never Yet Produced Art, and Never Will” in Direct Advertising, vol. XIII, no. 1 (1927): Currie, p. 21; MacFarlane, p. 23; and Taylor and Weyl, p. 22. Rollins, p. 20.
[11] ibid., Dwiggins, pp. 18–19.
[12] ibid., Dwiggins, p. 19. Dwiggins had a fixation on the style of 1850 (or 1840). He returned to it in Layout in Advertising and again in Towards a Reform of the Currency… (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1932).
[13] See “On Decorative Printing in America” by Paul Beaujon [Beatrice Warde] in The Fleuron, vol. VI (1928), pp. 69–93. Regarding Dwiggins, she wrote, “Far from relying on ancient sources of inspiration, he is almost alone in his country in championing modernism in printing  and in rejecting… traditional motives of decoration.” p. 73.
[14] The text of Gage’s talk was reprinted as “Modernism in Typography” in the New England Printer vol. V, no. 1 (January 1928), pp. 14-15.
[15] Layout in Advertising by W.A. Dwiggins (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), pp. 193–194.
[16] The Linotype Magazine (January 1929), p. 3.
[17] Although Gage hired Lucian Bernhard to design The Linotype Magazine, there was no consideration of asking him to design a modern sans serif for Linotype. This is because Bernhard was already working on Bernhard Gothic for American Type Founders.
[18] “Thought Travels on Type” by Lucian Bernhard in The Linotype Magazine (January 1929), p. 11.
[19] ibid., pp. 8–9.

Bernhard Gothic Medium specimen cover. American Type Founders, n.d.

Bernhard Gothic Medium specimen. American Type Founders Company, n.d.