The Definitive Dwiggins no. 45—More on Metro

Three years ago, for the Typographica annual review of the year’s typefaces, I chose to write about the Metro Nova typeface family designed by Toshi Omagari for Monotype. But instead of the usual 300 word review I wrote an extended essay on origins of Metro, explaining how Metro no. 2—which most people think of as Metro—came about and indicating how little of Metro was actually designed by W.A. Dwiggins. Stephen Coles, creator of Typographica, liked the deep background but since my piece did not fit the usual Typographica year-end review format he held off publishing it. And held off, over and over again. year after year. I had come to assume that the essay, like one I wrote on Hans Meier’s Syntax in 2007, was going to be stuck in limbo forever. But I am happy to announce that my Metro essay has finally seen the light of day this week as, “The Evolution of Metro & Its Reimagination as Metro Nova.” Thank you, Stephen.


A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks by Aksel Sandemose (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936). Chapter opening using Gill Sans for title and Gothic no. 16 for the opening line. Typography by W.A. Dwiggins.

A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks by Aksel Sandemose (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936). Chapter opening using Gill Sans for the title and Gothic no. 16 for the opening line. Typography by W.A. Dwiggins.

A strange sidelight on Metro is that Dwiggins seems to have had little love for his typeface. In a letter to Harry Gage, following the completion of Metroblack and Metrolite, Dwiggins called the former, “A hellish letter when you really stop and look at it….” [1] And in an undated letter from early 1930 he claimed that the latter was the worst of the four weights of Metro. These are Dwiggins’ only known views on Metro.

But the fact that Dwiggins, for whatever reason, did not like Metro is evident in his design work. He never used it for any of the books he designed for Alfred A. Knopf, choosing instead either Spartan or Gill Sans if he needed a sans serif. [2] However, he did use Metrolite for the covers of Linotype Decorative Material (Brooklyn: Mergenthaler Linotype, 1937) and Linotype Faces (Brooklyn: Mergenthaler Linotype, 1939), commonly known as “Big Red.” But those were acts of corporate loyalty.

Linotype Decorative Material (Brooklyn: Mergenthaler Linotype, 1937). Cover design by W.A. Dwiggins. (The checkerboard pattern is part of a library label and not part of Dwiggins' design.)

Linotype Decorative Material (Brooklyn: Mergenthaler Linotype, 1937). Cover design by W.A. Dwiggins. (The checkerboard pattern is part of a library label and not part of Dwiggins’ cover design.)

I have no explanation for Dwiggins’ antipathy toward Metro. In his design work he rarely used sans serif letters and when he did they were almost invariably capitals. But why not use Metro capitals rather than those of Gill Sans, Spartan or Gothic no. 16? This may be an unsolvable mystery.

NOTES
[1] W.A. Dwiggins to Harry Gage, 28 November 1929; and n.d. [early 1930] Dwiggins to C.H. Griffith. University of Kentucky, C.H. Griffith Papers, Box 6, Metroblack Folder.
[2] Dwiggins used Gill Sans for the title pages of A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks by Aksel Sandemose (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936) and The Escape of Socrates by Robert Pick  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954). For the chapter headings of the latter, though, he switched to Kabel Light. For the running  heads of One Day at Beetle Rock by Sally Carrigher (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944), Dwiggins used Spartan Medium.