When Book Jackets Were Bad, Hawkins’s Were Good

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Arthur Hawkins, Jr. (1903-1985) was the longtime toastmaster of New York Art Directors Club galas (he was also the Club’s president from 1945 to 1946). I saw him in that role for the first time at an awards evening at the Waldorf Astoria in the early ’80s. He was an old man then and his jokes were a bit stale, but it was clear to me that everyone on the dais had great affection for him. Nonetheless, I had no idea who he was. Then a week or so later, as if destined by fate, I came across a short article about the book jackets he designed in a 1933 issue of Advertising Arts magazine, an important resource for designers of that period. The jackets were highly stylized, most remarkably poster-like with a European accent, at a time when jackets were considered an extraneous yet necessary marketing encumbrance.

The range and consistency of Hawkins’s jackets, their visual strength and graphic intelligence, caught my eye. Was this the same guy I heard telling jokes, I wondered? A year later I read an obit for him in The New York Times and decided to pursue his ghost. I found out that, commencing in 1927 until the ’40s, Hawkins had done almost 1,500 jackets on a freelance basis—some very memorable, like The Postman Always Rings Twice. He developed an unmistakably eerie look for a series of murder mysteries that are as fresh today as they were when he invented his three-color conceit. His type was contemporary for his time, and for 50 years later.

But he gave up book jacket design because the fees for them were awful, even then. In 1940 he earned first prize for the best poster submitted in the Stop Hitler Now poster contest conducted by the women’s division of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Turning to advertising, he art directed and designed billboards for the Outdoor Advertising Company, and later designed ads for the Alley & Richards Company and Rutherford Platt.

He returned to freelance life with promotion design for McGraw-Hill and other companies. And with his wife Nancy he authored and designed over fifteen cookbooks. He was stricken with a nerve disease that limited his output, but it did not put an end to his passion for graphic design—or his sense of humor.