The Book Designer Who Was Bruce Rogers


Bruce RogersThe art of the book as practiced in the United States over the last 70 years has been advanced by several typographers and printers of notable reputation. But one stands apart from his fellows at the pinnacle of accomplishment and is recognized as the most distinguished book designer of the 20th century. Indeed, his preeminence in his field is international and will undoubtedly remain so for a long time to come.

The name of Bruce Rogers is of such immediacy that it probably comes as a surprise to many of us to learn that 1970 is his centenary year. And it is just 13 years ago that he died, on May 18, 1957, four days after the celebration of his birthday.

Quantity and Quality

The bare facts of his career relate that he produced over 500 books, some 400 to 500 pieces of ephemera, and two typefaces. This output, in itself, is not remarkable in an employment spanning 65 years. What is noteworthy is the superb quality of practically everything he designed, from bookplates to folio volumes.

We are currently living in a time when the book arts are in somewhat low esteem, with most of the emphasis being placed on printing for the marketplace. Perhaps there is some justice in the dropping of the term art from its association with graphic and substituting the euphemism, graphics, to describe the contemporary design scene. Rogers would surely be amused with this modern world of graphics.

And with some reason, since he lived through a few trends himself and survived them all, to continue the manner in which he was most effective, i.e., the continuation of the great traditions of the printing craft.

Many persons endowed with creative talent in abundance, have yet failed to achieve greatness because of the accident of having lived at the wrong time. Bruce Rogers was fortunate in matching his natural ability as a typographic designer to the demands of a renascent era in the art of printing.

Morris and Rogers

The excitement engendered by William Morris and his contemporaries during the period of the 1890’s coincided with the emergence of Bruce Rogers into an awareness of what he wished to do with his life. The influence of Morris upon printing seems to many to have been vastly over-emphasized, there having been a good deal of controversy about the role he played in the typographic revival which occurred at the turn of the century.

Without getting into the pros and cons of the private press movement inspired by the Kelmscott ideal, or its relationship to the art nouveau in book illustration and decoration, the fact remains that some of the finest typographers of our own times received their earliest creative impulses from Morris’ efforts to make of printing in the 90’s an art comparable to its great 15th century origins.

Daniel B. Updike, Frederic W. Goudy, and Will Bradley, for example, have all written about examining Kelmscott books and rising to the challenge offered by the craftsmanship of Morris.

Uncertain Start

Bruce Rogers, born in Linwood, now a suburb of Lafayette, Ind., studied art at Purdue, graduating in 1890. Like many young men, he couldn’t determine exactly what he wished to do. First he tried newspaper illustration in Indianapolis but found that he was not temperamentally suited to the over-exuberant pace of the daily press. He drifted into a job with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, becoming a telegrapher.

His only graphic arts production in this period was the design and illustration of a portfolio to contain the annual report of the railroad.

Following trips to San Antonio and New Orleans, he returned to Indiana. Most fortunately he became associated with Joseph M. Bowles, at that time engaging upon a new enterprise, the publishing of a quarterly magazine, Modern Art, which was then trumpeting to American readers the enthusiasm of the Arts and Crafts movement.

At the age of 15, Rogers had hand-lettered, decorated, and illustrated a William Cullen Bryant poem, A Forest Hymn. Thus, when Bowles asked him, in 1894, to produce decorative designs for his periodical, Rogers immediately felt an affinity for such artistic production.

A Kelmscott Book

Bowles showed the young artist a Kelmscott book which he had just acquired, The Story of the Glittering Plain—the first book to be issued from the Press. It was this work which profoundly interested Rogers, prompting him to consider the designing of books as a career.

He later (1903) wrote that while he had great admiration for the Kelmscott books, he had no great desire to follow in their footsteps, “even if I thought myself capable of it. My criticism of them is that the ‘Art’ element stands out too strongly in them all—they are objects of art first—books to be read secondly—and somehow I would prefer to have my work primarily bookish—the art concealed or subordinated to the literary quality.”

Nevertheless, the Morris influence was very strong in the first book upon which Rogers collaborated with Bowles—R B. Gruelle’s Notes: Critical and Biographical, published in 1895. In the same year he drew decorations for Homeward Songs by the Way, published by Thomas B. Mosher, in Portland, Maine, which became the first book in which the name of Bruce Rogers is noted in the colophon.

To Boston

In 1895 the art publisher and printer, L. Prang, invited Bowles to reside in Boston, then a center for fine printing, and one which offered great promise for a young designer excited about the new and imaginative typographic arts so widely discussed at the time.

It was at this point that Bruce Rogers began the vocation which was to bring him to that international eminence of which the late Beatrice Warde spoke, when she asked in a letter to the designer, “Who is Bruce Rogers, What is he, that so many intelligent people in so many countries should have to know so much about him? Those questions can be answered, not by any of the monographs or articles about you; but by looking at what you have done.”

Next month I hope to continue this brief account, commemorating the Centenary of Bruce Rogers.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the March 1970 issue of Printing Impressions.

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