Monday, August 27, 2018

Simons, Dwiggins, and the Modern Letter

If the modern typographic revolution can be said to have been born in London, the it ought to also be said that it came of age in Germany. The turn of the twentieth century saw the arrival of Edward Johnston to the Royal College of Art and to the calligraphic craft. Johnston explored the use of broad-edged pens for his lettering, renewing the dried-up nineteenth-century penmanship practices with flourishes and individual creativity, and considering the letters themselves, not just their collective referents, worthy of beauty. His teachings influenced the likes of Eric Gill and Percy Smith, but found their greatest hold on the young German, Anna Simons. The simple fact of Simons' attendance at the Royal College of Art was notable, since she matriculated at a time when women were not admitted to Prussian Arts and Crafts schools, and Simons improved upon her standing by becoming one of Johnston's star students.

After completing her training, from 1905 to 1910 Simons taught at Dusseldorf's Royal School of Arts and Crafts, thereby teaching at an institution that in turn had refused to instruct her. During that period she brought exhibitions of English book arts to Weimar, Berlin, and Hamburg, and translated several works on lettering, including Johnston's own Writing and Illuminating and Lettering into German. Yet equal in influence to Simons' determined dissemination of new principles of letter design were her own artistic contributions to the Bremer Presse. Over the course of her career, Simons produced some 1400 titles and initials for the Presse, each one epitomizing new design for a new post-Great War Europe. Doffing the strictures of traditional order and industrial simplicity and conformity, Simons' designs, like Johnstons', presented letters and art themselves, pushing the optics of what they could be and where they could sit on the page.

While Simons engaged the German art world in Johnston’s new concepts of lettering and herself applied them to the tangible design of books and their pages, W. A. Dwiggins was doing much the same in the United States. The connection between Simons and Dwiggins is more explicitly laid out in the inscription inside the front cover of our copy of Titel und Initialen fur die Bremer Presse, Simons’ portfolio of titles and initials employed in the first eight-odd years of her efforts for the press: “Presented by the publishers to WAD, and given by him to Edward A. Karr”. Whereas Dwiggins was primarily a type- and book-designer, Karr, a teacher at the Museum of Fine Arts School and fellow Boston artist, was more concerned with penmanship and lettering, closer to the craft of Johnston. But this second relationship ought not to obscure the first, that Dwiggins was given Simons’ portfolio by its publishers, in a clear acknowledgment of the stylistic similarities and vision of the two artists. Both are responsible for ushering bookmaking in their respective countries to meet the style and technology of the twentieth century; Simons’ influence is heavily felt in the Weiner Werkstatte corpus and in the subsequent rise of Art Deco themes, and Dwiggins’ himself designed the typefaces for the clean layout offered by the new Linotype machine.

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