The Definitive Dwiggins no. 1—A Year (and Counting) of Dwiggins Mania

Advertising insert for International Covers. Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

“Publicity: How to harness bill-board power with International Covers” advertising insert in Direct Advertising (vol. VII, no. 2). Design, illustration and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins, 1920.

I have been studying William Addison Dwiggins (1880–1956) for over three and a half decades. Interest in his life and work was at an ebb when I began my research in 1978, but it began to pick up in the mid-1980s and has steadily grown since. A watershed moment was 2006, the year that the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA) held its annual conference in Boston under the rubric The Boston T Party. TypeCon 2006 was saturated with Dwiggins-related events, including an exhibition organized by Kent Lew, a presentation on Metro Office by Akira Kobayashi, a visit to the Dwiggins Collection at the Boston Public Library that I led, and talks by both myself and Sibylle Hagmann on Dwiggins. A month earlier I delivered a talk on Dwiggins as part of Jobbing Printing—The Stuff of Life, a conference sponsored jointly by the Printing Historical Society and The Ephemera Society in Reading, England.

Now, fascination with Dwiggins seems to be reaching a fever pitch. Several days ago Rob Saunders, founder of the visually impressive Letterform Archive (which includes an excellent Dwiggins page), called to tell me that his nascent organization will be publishing a book by Bruce Kennett on Dwiggins. And that there was a rumor that design writer Steven Heller was preparing a book on Dwiggins for Princeton Architectural Press. And that Princeton Architectural Press was planning a reprint of the scarce Stencilled Ornament & Illustration: A Demonstration of William Addison Dwiggins’ Method of Book Decoration and Other Uses of the Stencil (Püterschein-Hingham, 1979) by Dorothy Abbe with a foreword by Kennett. Whew!

Rob was telling me all of this because I have been working on a definitive book about the life and work of Dwiggins since 1978. The news was simultaneously stunning and unsurprising. The notion that someone had beaten me to the punch seemed to come out of the blue—except that there had been rumors about such things since the early 1990s that had not come to fruition. And I was already on heightened alert after stumbling across Kennett’s 2012/2013 three-part series on the private press activities of Dwiggins for Parenthesis, the journal of the Fine Press Book Association. Online Kennett had indicated he had finished a manuscript for a full book as far back as 2010. So, Rob’s news was something that I had expected to hear sooner or later. I was just secretly hoping it would be later.

At first Rob’s news about the reprinted stencil book was the bigger surprise, until I recalled that it had already been reprinted once before, back in 1980 by the Boston Public Library. And that Kennett was a protégé of Dorothy Abbe, the “keeper of the Dwiggins flame,” and thus a logical choice to write a foreword to what I believe is the best book she ever designed or printed. (Oddly enough, the Abbe/Kennett stencil book, scheduled for release in March 2015, is listed on but not on the Princeton Architectural Press website.)

Given Steven Heller’s prolific output, the notion of a Dwiggins book by him does not seem farfetched, especially given that it may be no more than a compilation of the articles he has already written on the man and his work since the mid-1980s. Some of these texts are already available online from either or The catalogue for Typographic Treasures: The Work of W.A. Dwiggins, the 1986 exhibition at the ITC Center in New York organized by Abbe in collaboration with Heller and Louise Fili, is available as a free download.

One bit of Dwiggins publishing news that I knew and Rob didn’t was that Michael Russem of Kat Ran Press is planning a reprint of Towards a Reform of the Currency Particularly in Point of Its Design (Limited Editions Club, 1932), Dwiggins’ famous complaint about the design of United States paper money. Russem hasn’t divulged the name of the person who has written a foreword for the book, but I suspect strongly that it is Kennett. I learned about this when I was in Boston last September to lecture at MassArts.

Over the years, whenever I have had an opportunity to visit Boston, I have set aside extra time to continue my research into Dwiggins. Last September was different, however. I had been spurred to speed up my Dwiggins diggings after seeing Rob’s visually stunning talk on his extensive Dwiggins collection a month earlier at TypeCon 2013 in Portland, Oregon, a talk that served to inaugurate his Letterform Archive. (He has made it freely available online from the Internet Archive.) I subsequently took Rob up on his generous offer to see the Letterform Archive, flying out to San Francisco in January of this year for two days of intense immersion in Dwigginsiana. Unfortunately, due to snow, my first flight was cancelled and so I missed Rob’s Dwiggins talk on January 4th at the San Francisco Public Library. Fortunately,  “William Addison Dwiggins, Black & White Smith” is available on YouTube.

What seems to have kicked off the year (and counting) of Dwiggins mania was the release in July a year ago of Metro Nova (Monotype) by Toshi Omagari, a newer update of Dwiggins’ sans serif typeface. Last winter, at Stephen Coles’ request, I wrote a detailed review of it for Typographica and his new online venture Type Review. The text is scheduled to be posted sometime this fall.

At about the same time that I was working on my Metro Nova review, I received the latest issue of  Printing History (New Series No. 15, January 2014), the journal of the American Printing History Association, with an article on  “Jacobs, Dwiggins, and the Short Life of Linotype Charter” by Walker Rumble. It is a look at the use of Linotype Charter, one of Dwiggins’ unissued “experimental” typefaces, by S.A. Jacobs for two books issued by his Golden Eagle Press in the late 1940s.

But this is not all that has happened in the world of Dwiggins in the past year. On my end I have contributed to the heightened state of Dwiggins mania with two talks earlier this year and a third coming up. The first, the Justin Howes Memorial Lecture, was delivered at St. Bride’s Printing Library in London on February 27th and the second, part of the AIGA centennial celebration, was at the Type Directors Club in New York on June 3rd. I will be reprising the TDC talk on October 18th in a shortened form at Paper on the Press, the annual APHA conference that is being co-sponsored by The Friends of Dard Hunter at Mills College in Oakland, California. The day before, Rob will be hosting a “W.A. Dwiggins Pop-Up Show,” displaying items from the Letterform Archives.

Finally, the talk on Dwiggins and his relationship with Daniel Berkeley Updike I gave nine years ago at [r]Evolution in Print: New Work in Printing History & Practice, the previous APHA conference at Mills College, is scheduled to be published in Parenthesis 27.

Note: This is the first installment of The Definitive Dwiggins. It is intended to be a platform for disseminating my research on Dwiggins, examining the myths and misconceptions about him* and his work, reviewing writings and works related to him, and, in general, keeping abreast of the ever-widening world of WAD. 

* For instance, see my recent post on the claim that Dwiggins coined the term “graphic design.”