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Dear Old Dwiggins

Has anyone seen the Feb 2003 issue of I.D.—specifially page 50, where there is a type article attributed to “Hermann Puterschein”? What’s up with this? Who would be writing under W. A. Dwiggins’ pseudonym? The article is a little rough on Akzidenz Grotesk, but not enough to warrant the author’s anonymity.

But it’s an opportunity for some admiration of Dwiggins’s work. The man was excellent. His stencil designs (now partially available as Caravan) were sometimes considered Art Deco (Meggs says Cubist), but they’re asymmetrical, or personal, or just stranger than most Deco design—and more wonderful for it.

Some of his stencils and illustrative designs (in pop-ups windows):




Designer Spot

Chapter Headings from One More Spring:

Chapter 4

Chapter 14

Chapter 17

What Philip Meggs says.

I did not know he’d designed a stamp. Has anyone actually seen these?

And a nice little sidenote on WAD’s relationship to Dorothy Abbe here.

It seems like Dwiggins occasionally gets his due in the odd article of appreciation here or there, but he remains kind of elusive all the same. Electra, for example—it’s beautiful and unique and also quite odd. Or it may just be the case that book designers are considered less influential as designers (i.e., inflluential to the profession, not the general culture). I know of at least one dog named Dwiggins—that’s tribute.

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ARCHIVE ID 1329 FILED UNDER Designer/Design Firm Profile
PUBLISHED ON Jan.06.2003 BY Sam
pnk’s comment is:

It is for pieces like these, Sam, that I bookmark this site. Thanks for the intro to a designer I'd (somehow) never heard of but find immensely appealing.

I was going to ask you what you thought was odd about Electra, but after closely examining the examples in Bringhurst I see what you mean. The stresses in the lc G alone send this face into oddball territory...

On Jan.06.2003 at 10:37 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Indeed a great find. The "Designer Spot" is a beautiful piece of work. And the Caravan dingbats are quite exquisite.

This might be a dumb question, but what's Electra?

On Jan.06.2003 at 12:59 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Dwiggins was genial, and Electra is even more amazing than Dwiggins himself realized! His later work was less intuitive, and less remarkable. He needed the freedom of Fontographer instead of the limitations of a big fat font house. Study the man and his output, v e r y c a r e f u l l y.


On Jan.06.2003 at 01:30 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>but what's Electra?

Never mind, I figured it out.

On Jan.06.2003 at 01:49 PM
Gerald Lange’s comment is:

I’d agree, Dwiggins was one of the great twentieth-century typographic designers, albeit, somewhat neglected as such. But he actually started out as an illustrator. I have some very interesting pieces from 1909. Phenomenal. Updike championed him in this regard - a good and a bad thing´┐Ż Dwiggins would later abandon illustration after severe criticism.

Interestingly, Walter Tracy also slights his work in _Letters of Credit_. Dwiggins had a slight East-European taint that was not all that appreciated by the Anglo-American take. Still, in describing the work of his Continental counterparts (in the late thirties), Dwiggins proffered the defining, and deprecating, “graphic designers” - apparently the first use of the term.

Dorothy Abbe’s book, _The Dwiggins Marionettes_, is quite revealing of his multiple talents (published in 1976, the remaindered stock wasn’t released until some twenty years later, when it was apparently discovered in storage). It is truly a humbling experience for today’s reader. They don’t make them like WAD anymore.

On Jan.06.2003 at 06:58 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Tracy: I respect him immensely - a craftsman beyond anything we seem to have today. But he really had no "sense of humor", typographically.

> They don’t make them like WAD anymore.

Or Archimedes. Or daVinci. Or Erasmus. Too much specialization these days, not nearly enough polymaths. Too much focused money-making, no exploration for its own sake.


On Jan.07.2003 at 09:55 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Yah, I would put Dwiggins's coining of the term "graphic designers" not among his most auspicious achievements, though "Layout in Advertising" is.

The thing about Electra is is it has vertical lean to it, if such a thing is possible. It's a little like Baskerville in that way, but the letterforms themselves aren't really like Baskerville at all. I read somewhere a long time ago that Electra isn't based on any models. The lc G certainly is unique, and the serifs are different, more slablike, than other modern faces, or text faces in general. Tracy's book is a great place to see his other designs (Winchester, Tippecanoe, Eldorado, Hingham, and this).

Here's the man himself.

On Jan.07.2003 at 11:43 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Oh, but no leads on the I.D. magazine mystery? Puterscheinn was Dwiggins's "stage name" for the marionette plays that he wrote and produced. Weird to see the name in I.D.

On Jan.07.2003 at 11:45 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

And don't forget Kobayashi, his Japanese Samurai alter-ego... :-)

Aliases: I also remember somebody writing in Serif magazine using a name derived from "Paul Beaujon", Beatrice Warde's pseudonym in The Fleuron. Who was that?


On Jan.07.2003 at 12:12 PM
Stephen Coles’s comment is:

I'm sending in Tiffany Wardle. She did her thesis or something on WADdy and I'm she'd love to chime in. Stay tuned.

On Jan.08.2003 at 04:41 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Cool - Tiffany is a bone fide Dwiggins expert.


On Jan.08.2003 at 04:50 PM
Sam’s comment is:

I do not know of this Tiffany Wardle, but my ignorance is vast and I look forward to her comments. In searching for her, found this essay on Dwiggins by Vincent Connare.

I wrote a bunch of pedantic things about the different uses of "modernist" and philosophy versus aesthetic, but better to just quote this:

"If you don't get your type warm it will be just a smooth, commonplace, third-rate piece of good machine technique - no use at all for setting down warm human ideas - just a box full of rivets... By jickity, I'd like to make a type that fitted 1935 all right enough, but I'd like to make it warm - so full of blood and personality that it would jump at you."


This is exactly how I feel about the digital (Linotype) rendering of Electra. It's cold, and prints too finely. I wish it were heavier, like Fournier, rather than Didot or the finer Bodonis. A comparison of 1937 and the digital, at 36pt and shown 200% here.

On Jan.08.2003 at 06:21 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Hey, nice find. (Wait a second, have I read that already?... I hate it when that happens!) BTW, Tiffany and Connare were classmates at Reading U.

And yeah, I have a book printed in hotmetal Electra (with the original sloped Roman* no less, not the subsequent ideologically wishy-washy so-called "true" italic), and it's gorgeous.

* Morison was right (for a change), he just took the idea too literally.


On Jan.08.2003 at 08:52 PM
Tiffany’s comment is:

First, you need to know, I'm no expert on Bill Dwiggins. I've simply had the opportunity of studying someone that interests many people for many reasons.

If Dwiggins only had one thing to offer those with the wherewithal and the gumption needed to design type, it would be to never be afraid to work with your hands. He was a renaissance man of sorts. Designer, playwright, author, puppeteer, illustrator, printer, costumer, and the list goes on and on. I'm sure he had insomnia. His ideas probably kept him up late at night, begging to be realized.

From the tone of his letters to others and through all of his experiments in type design, you can tell he truly loved what he did. His love of marionettes and his stencil work, it can be shown, worked there way into his many type experiments. Surely, you've all heard about Falcon and the "M" Formula. Some type designers spend their entire careers whittling away at one genre and never venturing into the technical aspects, Bill did it all. From oldstyle to scotch, magazines to display, sans to script, typewriter to newspapers. He was a constant source of irritation or amusement I'm sure, to the offices at Linotype. If he were alive today, for instance, I'm sure he'd have a word or two to say on hinting techniques.

Maybe the real lesson to learn from Bill isn't about type or design at all. Maybe the lesson is to never let the humility and playfulness of youth die. He kept his sense of humor and that sparkle in his eye to the end. Or so I idealize. Allow the world to show you new things and open your heart to what you might learn.

As a side note, I'm working on a new website, where I would like to find a way to post my findings on and about Dwiggins. Should this ever come to fruition, I'll be sure to let you know.

On Jan.09.2003 at 11:24 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Thank you for your eloquent insights into Dwiggins the man, Tiffany. You describe as I've imagined him. Like Bruce Rogers, he seems like a a man of such refinement, but always with a twinkle and a few more ideas up his sleeve.

Please do send along your site when it's available.


On Jan.09.2003 at 09:54 PM
Tiffany’s comment is:

Not that it matters immensely, but I felt I should clarify for those of you that might someday do some of your own research that Dwiggins' M-Formula and Falcon were not part of the same project. Rather, Falcon was born out of an idea for using stencils in type design. The M-Formula was more intrinsically involved with his desire-cum-obsession with newspaper types. Although he did seem to apply this elsewhere.


On Jan.11.2003 at 09:26 PM
Joe VanDerBos’s comment is:

Thanks for the links to new Dwiggins material. He's one of my favorites as well.

I keep almost no reference material on hand but have managed to keep an issue of Baseline (published by Letraset in 1986) which featured a 7 page article on W.A.D.

Electra does look terrific in hot metal uses, as does Caledonia, and Metro remains a standby san serif.

He was a true renaissance man and an inspiration still.

On Jan.13.2003 at 02:58 PM
David Cuatt’s comment is:


My post is late, but I admire the man very much.

Somewhere I have a bookplate he designed for Laurance Siegfried, his cousin.

WHen I need a touch of WAD, I head to any library-- many decent old Knopf books are Dwiggins designed, and credited in the coplophon

On Mar.23.2004 at 11:12 PM