The Daily Heller: From the Printer/Connoisseur Who Reenergized Dwiggins

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W.A. Dwiggins spent 20 years writing a series of stories about an imaginary civilization he called Athalinthia; he drew and painted more than 100 illustrations for these stories, many of which have never been seen. Dwiggins tried without success to get these stories published in 1928. Now, nearly 100 years later, Bruce Kennett, Dwiggins’ biographer, is far along in his mission to bring the original output into print.

Kennett is among the leading Dwiggins scholars. In 2018, he authored and designed W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design, the first full-scale biography. It was published in trade and deluxe editions. As its publisher, Letterform Archive, notes, Kennett’s book “offers an engaging and inspiring overview of the designer’s wide-ranging creative output and lasting impact on the graphic arts.” Kennett’s meticulous exploration of the life and work of the artist-craftsman who some argue introduced the term graphic design into popular usage is a pleasure to read and view. Auspiciously labeled “Archive Publication No. 1,” Letterform’s editions are still available.

Thanks to the efforts of Dwig’s legion of admirers, his varied bodies of work—type and lettering, book and publication, stencil and decoration—have become known as touchstones in design history. But Dwiggins, while a master of graphics and a maestro at puppetry, was also an accomplished essayist, satirist and nonfiction and fiction author. He was a keen fantasist with a bottomless imagination. In 1915, one of his pieces was selected for Houghton Mifflin’s annual compilation, Best Short Stories. “Many people are, however, unfamiliar with this aspect of his work,” asserts Kennett. And this is where the current project fills a gaping hole.

Working from his clapboard studio in Hingham, Mass., from 1910–1926, Dwiggins created a series of pieces about an imaginary place he named Athalinthia—a place perhaps akin to Persia a thousand years ago, or Uzbekistan in the 1920s. “He never said,” notes Kennett. Dwiggins drew and painted more than 100 images expressly for this universe. “This is W.A.D. at his most fanciful, his most personal.”

Wise and witty stories, they are a pleasure to read, but to savor the line and color art is its own special experience. Dwiggins’ oft-changing experiments with styles and materials from 1910 until 1950 include pen-and-ink drawings, watercolor paintings, prints in multiple colors from woodcuts or stencils, and even split-fountain silkscreen. Three and fragments of a fourth of the 11 stories were published (but are extremely rare today). After his death in 1956 the work was filed away. While Kennett researched the massive amount of Dwiggins’ papers and artifacts in the Boston Public Library, he discovered that all of the Athalinthia stories and illustrations were intact. “I resolved that one day I would make this book for him,” he explains, “all 11 stories gathered together in one volume, with the pictures he’d made for them.”

Now, nearly 100 years later, Kennett is so ready to recreate the original limited-editions that you can virtually smell the inks. As he says, “in these troubling times, stories such as these are a comfort for all of us to have on our bookshelves.”

Thanks to crowdfunding, this goal is within Kennett’s grasp and the books are within your reach. For information about supporting the mission and reserving copies, click here.