Our Literature and Rare Book currators recently hosted a talented class of UMD art students studying typography and book design.What better way to illustrate the meticulous work of designing letters and page layouts than giving them opportunity to examine books from our William Morris and W. A. Dwiggins collections!
William Morris (1834-1896) founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. He was already well know as an artist and author in England, as well as an avid socialist. His decorative arts firm Morris & Co. produced textiles, furniture, and stained glass to for decades before he ventured into book design. Towards the end of his life, he set out to create books that reflected his notion of an “ideal book”. He criticized the ugly, machine-made books of industrialized England, from both a design aesthetic and the impact on traditional craftsmen. His press highlighted the artistry and craftsmanship he admired from the medieval era of early printed books.
Kelmscott Press books have a distinctive look and feel, reflecting Morris’s specific design principles for space, layout, and materials. He designed his own typeface, including decorative borders and intricate initial lettering for use in the press. He also had a hand in selecting the handmade paper and ink used in the printing process.
The masterpiece of the Kelmscott Press is the Kelmscott Chaucer, completed just months before Morris passed away. His lifelong friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones wrote of the Chaucer: “Indeed when the book is done, if we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world”
William Addison Dwiggins (1880-1956) was an American illustrator, typographer, and book designer. Like Morris, Dwiggins lamented the decline in the quality of books being printed in his lifetime. In 1919, he published Extracts from an Investigation into the Physical Properties of Books as they are at Present Published, which included a humorous graph illustrating the plummeting quality of book design.
Dwiggins designed books that reached a more commercial audience, often working with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, a publishing house in New York later purchased by Random House.
Dwiggins’s designs are minimalist, utilizing stencil illustrations and playing with bold colors, a stark contrast to the heavily ornamented works by the Kelmscott Press. However, Dwiggins utilized several of Morris’s design principles, including proportional margins and two-page unified design. He designed several typefaces for his books, including Caledonia, Electra, and Metro. Dwiggins used his familiar stencil designed to produce equally beautiful bindings. This is another clear difference from Kelmscott Press books, which featured plain vellum or blue board bindings. The result is a unique and modern take on a well-designed book.
And that’s what makes these two collections such a great teaching tool for students interested in graphic design. Comparing the works of two very different, yet connected artists can inspire young designers. They question why the artists made the choices they did, explore what makes their work similar, and why they are unique. Of course it begs the ultimate question when comparing William Morris and W. A. Dwiggins- who designed the better book?