Bruce Kennett on W. A. Dwiggins at The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto

On March 20th about 100 people turned out to hear Bruce Kennett talk about W. A. Dwiggins, book designer, type designer, calligrapher, and master of marionettes, and Kennett’s recently published biography entitled W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design. The Alcuin Society was a co-sponsor of the event along with The Typographic Hub at Sheridan College, the Association of Registered Graphic Designers, Canada Type, and Letterform Archive, the book’s publisher.

Bruce Kennett and W.A. Dwiggins

Bruce first started collecting Dwiggins-designed material in 1972 after meeting Dorothy Abbe who was Dwiggins’s assistant. They first me at the Boston Public Library where Abbe and the Library established rooms that they filled with works representing the full range of Dwiggins’s creativity. About 15 years ago, he started working on this biography. His relaxed delivery demonstrated his complete mastery of this subject.  His talk was illustrated with many examples of Dwiggins’s works – book design, type design, ornaments, graphic design, calligraphy, marionettes, and more.

Dwiggins, or as he was sometimes known “WAD”, was born in Ohio in 1880. In 1899, he moved to Chicago to study at The Art Institute of Chicago. He also studied at The School of Illustration in Chicago.  There he met Frederic W. Goudy and Dwiggins began to work with him. When Goudy moved to the Boston area in 1904, he followed. Dwiggins’s early work was in creating advertisements, mainly for paper manufacturers. Although he wanted to design books, at first, he was only retained to design parts of books. In both the advertisements and the title pages, he often incorporated his own calligraphy.

Bruce Kennett with spines of books designed by Dwiggins

Eventually, he was commissioned to design books for the Limited Editions Club, Knopf, Random House and other major publishers.

In 1928, Dwiggins received the opportunity to design two-line initials for D. B. Updike’s Book of Common Prayer. In the following 27 years, he designed the Metroblack series, Electra, Caledonia, Falcon, Eldorado and other types for Linotype.

In some circles, Dwiggins is most famous for the marionettes that he created, the plays that he wrote for them, and the theatres that constructed for the performances.

Bruce Kennett and WAD and WAD as a marionette

Bruce created for the audience a complete picture of a multifaceted individual although I have only touched on a few. His audience was rivetted.

Bruce Kennett, a picture of a sign carved by Dwiggins surrounded by areas of his accomplishments

I can only describe W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design with superlatives. Bruce Kennett also designed the book. The book measures 28.5 cm by 23 cm. and contains 484 pages. Eleven chapters cover his life with each chapter devoted to a particular studio. Following those, are chapters devoted exclusively to his type designs, his marionettes and a chapter reproducing seven selections of his writing, each article set in a different type face designed by Dwiggins.

The text is engrossing. It is clearly written and supplemented by full colour illustrations with notes on every page. Many of the examples of Dwiggins’s work are reproduced size-as. There are 14 pages of Notes and Sources, a Bibliography and Suggested Reading plus a detailed Index of 6 pages. The text is set in LfA Aluminia, a revival of WAD’s Electra types that Jim Parkinson created especially for this project. Letterform Archive deserve to be commended for this publication. The edition consists of only 2,200 copies. I understand that the edition is not sold out as yet and those wishing to purchase a copy should contact the publisher.

Bruce Kennett and Stencil decorations used in Paraphs published by Knopf (1929)