June 5

Across Harvard Yard at the commencement exercises on this June day in 1947 came the sonorous phrases of a recitation citing a printer for an honorary degree: “William Addison Dwiggins: Typographical designer whose skill and creative imagination have left a lasting impress on the pages of time.” Thus America’s oldest university honored with a Master of Arts degree a man who without question, of all living graphic designers, most deserved the accolade of “Master of Arts.”

Many years previously Dwiggins had written out for Carl Rollins, Printer to Yale University, a standard biography: “Dwiggins, William Addison, Typographer and Carpenter-Artist; Black and WhiteSmith. b. Martinsville, Ohio, 1880; Richmond, Ind., Cambridge, Ohio; Chicago, Ill., Boston, Mass. Res. Hingham, Mass. Mem. Boston Art Club, Boston Society of Water Color Painters, the Society of Printers. No school. Secretary, the Society of Calligraphers . . . that is all.”

That is all—except for the place in the hearts of everyone who knew him, personally or through his work, or through the expression of his ideas by means of his most facile pen. No one can properly recount the history of printing in the firsthalf of this century without discussing his competency. As a typographer Will Dwiggins was one of the best of his time, primarily in the area of book design. He had said in 1925, “I want to make a few books—somehow—into which I can put the best I have. Do as finished and competent a job as I know how.”

The “few books” turned out to be many hundreds, and a “competent job” resulted in thirty-seven of these being honored by selection in the Fifty Books of the Year Exhibitions sponsored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. This group also made him its medalist in 1929. Most of these books were designed for the firm of Alfred A. Knopf, who still publishes a score of books each year with the colophon note: “Typography based upon the designs of W.A. Dwiggins.”

Dwiggins’ reference to being a Carpenter-Artist no doubt springs from his ability to create patterns of design using hand-cut templates. In themselves they were simple, but as combined into finished art they were WAD’S trademark, and so completely individualistic as to be inimitable. No doubt it was his use of decoration which prompted one of George Salter’s students to ask the question, in 1956, “Is Dwiggins supposed to be good?” In Salter’s judgment Dwiggins was a genius in his work. “The character of his line is entirely his and only his. It does not derive from any existing style, past or present. Yet in an intangible way it is related to either.”

As a Black and White-Smith, Dwiggins was a great calligrapher, and through the medium of lettering he became a type designer of note. Most of his types were for book composition—probably the most challenging form of letter design since the artist must merge his individuality to his design. There can never be a “look at me” attitude in a good book face, and the Dwiggins’ types meet the test. Caledonia, designed in 1939, is now one of the most widely used types and would be on any compilation of the fine types available to modern printers. Also widely admired is Electra, his first book type, while his sans serif Metro is still most popular with newspaper printers for heads and advertising display.

The whimsical scrap of biography written for Carl Rollins by the future Harvard Master of Arts was then but a whispered outline of a great career, which made a lasting impression in every area of endeavor he chose to enter.

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