Readers have said they enjoyed the B&H interview with Dr. Püterschein and have asked to read more of his writings. Dr. Püterschein was highly esteemed in his time, but few of his publications have survived, presumably because the fashionable punditry of one era seems embarrassingly outmoded to members of the next generation who know they really do know everything.
Fortunately, we are able to republish here one of Dr. Püterschein’s classic essays, “A Note on the Designer”, which graced Linotype’s 1939 introductory specimen book of Caledonia, an admirable typeface by William Dwiggins, the influential American type designer, lettering artist, book designer, marionettist, and humorist of the first half of the 20th century.
Readers sensitive to literary nuance will perceive several differences between the prose of Dr. Püterschein’s classic 1939 essay compared to his recent 2015 interview on the B&H blog.
In the 1939 essay, Dr. Püterschein alleged that Dwiggins had misappropriated several of his (Püterschein’s) ideas and designs, but after sniping at Dwiggins, Püterschein wrote magnanimously (i.e. before Dwiggins could protest), “let it be forgotten.” Indeed, he does seem to have forgotten; problems of priority and misappropriation of ideas and designs remain rampant in type design, but Püterschein does not make a peep about them in his recent interview. Perhaps with maturity comes wisdom.
Püterschein’s prose in his 1939 “Note” on Dwiggins is straightforward, relaxed, and fluent, but in his recent interview it is sometimes terse and staccato but other times rambling and prolix. There may be several reasons for this. One is that in the interview, Dr. Püterschein was shooting his mouth off from the hip, as he might say, and didn’t have a chance to re-wrestle his prose into submission. Moreover, his recent interview was communicated via Ouija Board, and as is well known from posthumous writings of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain recorded by psychic amanuenses in spiritualist séances, automatic writing, and Ouija boards, the literary faculties decline in the Astral Plane, where Dr. Püterschein now resides in retirement.
Third, Germanic phraseologies occasionally spring up in Dr. Püterschein’s recent remarks, yet were absent in his earlier writings. These might be recollections of suppressed syntactics from his boyhood job as a sub-assistant “Wasser-Spritzer” at the Baden-Baden spa, cooling vacationing aristocrats, composers, and writers with mists of seltzer waters. But, our opinion is that the fault may lie in the Ouija board we used to communicate with Dr. Püterschein. It was printed by the Leipzig font foundry of Schelter & Giesecke in 1906 to promote the ultra-legible typeface, Schelter-Antiqua, and is a pristine example of pre-WWI precision print engineering so sensitive that it appears to be picking up German syntax and vocabulary from cross-talk in the Astral Plane, randomly inserting them into Püterschein’s prose, thus distorting Püterschein’s actual message. Modern information theorists will immediately grasp that the Germanisms are a form of noise in a communication channel of insufficient bandwidth, akin to the “jaggies” in under-sampled, low-resolution digital type. Additional investigation is needed before we can definitively identify the source.
A few final notes. As part of his scholarly endeavors, Dr. Püterschein served as the officer of the Society of Calligraphers, an organization that included as members William Dwiggins, Frederic Goudy, Rudolph Ruzicka, and other notable lettering artists. It is telling that Dr. Püterschein calls Dwiggins an “artist” and says he and Püterschein are engaged in the “fine arts”. This should gladden the hearts of many typographers and type designers today. A “drummer” in this context is a traveling salesman, and “traps” is an abbreviation of “trappings” - things the salesman carries. As an aside, it is perplexing that Dr. Püterschein claims that Dwiggins “has no humor”, because certainly there is nothing in Püterschein’s writings to indicate that he would know what a sense of humor is.
Now, without further ado, here’s the essay.
A NOTE ON THE DESIGNER
by Herman Püterschein
Dear Mr. * * * * * :
Your suggestion that I write a note about the work of my friend W. A. Dwiggins falls in happily with my mood. I have been mulling over an idea about contemporary design that can be discussed in connection with the work of this artist — moreover there are one or two points about his association with me that need to be cleared up and this will be a convenient opportunity for that also.
You will understand, at the outset, that I have no illusion about the importance of what I have to say. I should be the last person in the world to insist that the branch of activity in which Mr. Dwiggins and I are engaged — the fine arts — is an activity of much importance in the nation’s great total of enterprise. All the work of all the artists in America working for a hundred years is a small thing when placed by the side of the performance of a single one of your baseball experts during a single year. What Mr. Dwiggins has done, or what I have done, or how we may have seen things differently — those are affairs that happened in a lonely backwater; and are shrunk to a further ridiculous micrography through the fact that they concerned only himself and me. Nevertheless, if you think the subject will be of interest I shall be glad to discuss it.
[Here follows an account of the collaboration of the two men in a number of undertakings; together with a recital of evidence advanced by Dr. Püterschein to prove that his colleague misappropriated various ideas and designs. It has been omitted as irrelevant.]
But let the matter stand. Let it be forgotten. What will be of much greater interest to your readers is my estimate of the value of the man’s contribution to the art of book design.
His contribution is considerable. One of the things that have made it appear considerable is the background against which his work is seen. Any relatively competent design looks important if you set it up in mediocre surroundings. The design of books in the United States has never been forceful. Consequently this artist’s designs, which have a kind of original force, are conspicuous. . . . That, in a nutshell, is my estimate of the position of Mr. Dwiggins’ work in the contemporary field.
But, how far is he really original, or forceful? That is the question to concern us if we are actually trying to arrive at facts. He appears to you to be working out a “contemporary” style of his own. Where did he get it?
I have known the artist for a long time. Probably I know more about the steps of his development than any other individual. I am able to say without any hesitation whatever that the features of his style which appear “contemporary” and original are results of his association with me.
Left to himself he would have gone on as he started: a student of historic design, conservative, timid. My ideas opened up a prospect. He is clever at adapting. By surrounding his conservative schemes with a shell that had the appearance of novelty (a shell that he made out of fragments of my practice) he has achieved a kind of style of his own.
But his “style” misses the real essence of the true contemporary feeling. And what may that essence be?
Modern aesthetic design is a repudiation of the human animal in toto. It denies that anything is shaped by human hands — that anything possibly could be shaped by human hands. Its very life-source is a strenuous and perpetual denial of the fact that any such soft mammals are alive on the earth. Its life is a life of metal; hard, square-edged, unyielding. It turns away in disgust from the suggestion that any material object could grow, or be punctured, or eat, or bleed, or digest. . . . There are certain glyptic emblems in the East, frank admission of the Way of Life. A western European viewing these images turns away with a feeling of surprise, disgust. . . . In the same way modern aesthetic design turns away from mankind. . . .
Dwiggins leaves all that out of his “contemporary” style. He creates an illusion of machines. But his machines are a masquerade. There are men inside them.
And that is the point about contemporary “modernist” design that I wanted to bring out with this artist’s work as a text. Here you have in the United States a large company of designers of all kinds: architects; graphic artists; designers of house furnishings, printed fabrics; etc., etc. — all set agog by the arrival of a new fashion. Practically all of them had their habits formed in the Victorian era. They see that they have got to train themselves in a radically new set of habits if they are to go on earning their pay. They try to straddle the two worlds, the old and the new. . . . And of course they fail to grasp the implication of the new age of machines and metal. They insist on dragging man into the formula — and on dressing him up in a fancy costume of triangles and other geometrical absurdities — thinking that thereby they have fulfilled all the requirements of the “modern” style. Is it not so? The brass works of an alarm-clock could make better modern designs than these émigré Victorians.
Dwiggins pretends to love steel. He deceives nobody who thinks steel. He deceives his friends — Victorians like himself. He does not deceive me. . . . Dwiggins loves the forms of his youth — split-rail fences, the dust of the road, shady farm lanes, hills, clouds, sunshine, rain, a simple breed of semi-barbaric rural morons — all the sentimental hogwash of the days when he was young. With a rack of drummer’s traps like that for his equipment he undertakes to to express to you the sonorities of this era! A sense of humor would have saved him from some of the contradictions and absurdities of his “style” — he has no humor. A word from a discerning friend at the right time ought to have shown him where his real ability lay — he would not listen. . . .
January 3, 1939