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From Alphabets to Books
A Biography of Charles E. Skaggs
by Kimberly B. Marlowe, AC '01

Early Years | Influences | Teaching | Unique Characteristics

Among the letterforms of his beloved alphabet, Charles Skaggs has no favorites. From the proud spines of his Roman consonants to the joyful, full-billowed sail of a modified black Gothic letter "D," he is a steadfast steward of them all. "Our letter forms are pure abstractions," he wrote nearly thirty years ago. Yet, "these innocent little non-entities are used to transmit the truth, deceit, tragedy, humor, pain and joy of humanity. Use them carefully!" His fascination with the alphabet took root in childhood and has never waned. Now eighty-four, he has created a body of work remarkable for both its innate artistry and the valuable chronicle it provides of an important era in American calligraphic and design history.

The route Skaggs took to national recognition as a book designer and calligrapher was unusual, marked always by a passion for the art and an abiding respect for the well-executed use of it in publishing. It has taken him -- and the same old drawing board -- through decades of work in advertising, the newspaper industry and the most respected publishing houses in America. From a start in Louisville, his career took him through stops in Cincinnati, Chicago, New York City, Colorado and Washington State.

Unlike most of his peers, he did not spend his formative years breathing the rare air of a prestigious university or an art institute. Instead, at sixteen Skaggs apprenticed himself to "the best artist in my hometown" of Louisville, Kentucky. The younger man swept the studio owned by Bob Richey, washed brushes and learned from his mentor's meticulous work and commercial success. "I was determined to do lettering well," says Skaggs. "Which was about the only talent I had." The $3 or $4 a week he earned (at forty cents an hour) after school was needed in those Depression years.

Skaggs was also determined to get out of Kentucky. His voice still resonates with the conviction of a talented young man who felt trapped in provincial America. "I knew I would never achieve my real goals if I stayed in Louisville," he says. So he threw himself into polishing a variety of scripts and Roman styles and building a portfolio, and at eighteen landed a job in Cincinnati with the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, lettering advertisements and designing packaging.

During the 1930s Skaggs also worked for Chicago adman E. Willis Jones, bringing his lettering skills to projects for some of the biggest brand names of the day: Wrigley's gum; S.C. Johnson's waxes and polishes; Schlitz Beer, all appearing in national weekly magazines. When he was offered the then princely sum of $80 a week in 1937, "I knew it was an opportunity to get married." His marriage to Juanita ("Nita") Allen Skaggs, now in its sixty-fifth year, brought him the partner "who made it possible for me to do the work I have done," he says admiringly.

From the beginning of his career Skaggs showed a rare ability to meld the popular and practical with the classical and visionary. As his proficiency in hand lettering and knowledge of type styles grew, he came to understand and value the abstract nature of letterforms. He might not have named it as such at the time, but the abstract expressionism that would years later erupt in American art and design had already taken root in Skaggs mind and its influences emerged in his work by the 1940s.

"In the late 1930s and early '40s, I began to collect books and had this quite foolish notion of becoming a good book designer -- especially a book-jacket designer," says Skaggs. "I thought it was the best way to use my lettering in classical design that would out-last current advertising."

Again, once he had an objective in mind, Skaggs was tireless -- and direct -- in his pursuit. "I came up with the idea of doing an eight-page brochure about my work and sending it to the better publishers, presses and universities," he recalls with a laugh. "I called it: 'Some Pride and Many Prejudices.' " It worked. A year after its mailing, Skaggs began the work that would fill shelves with books of his own design from the most prestigious publishing houses in America. Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through four decades, Skaggs' work came out under the imprints of Alfred A. Knopf, Harcourt Brace, Pocket Books, Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, the Limited Editions Club, Story Classics, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as the university presses of Kentucky, New Mexico and Indiana.

But Skaggs made his move to New York with considerably more moxie than security; he had no real job offer, but his arrival coincided with a remarkable time in graphic-art history. "While mindful that nostalgia can be deceptive, I remember my arrival in New York in 1945 as a most exhilarating experience," he wrote in a 1984 article. "It was a time and place in which the ferment of opportunities and activity in new professional associations in book design spawned a period of professional growth and satisfaction that may never be repeated for young letter artists."

*****

The groundwork for this period of growth had been laid by several men whose work ignited the imagination of the young Skaggs, and held his respect as he pursued his own efforts in their field. Today, more than sixty years after first encountering the calligraphic and design work of William Addison Dwiggins, Warren Chappell, George Salter, Raymond DaBoll, Paul Standard and Oscar Ogg, Skaggs speaks of the men and their work with devout admiration. By the end of World War II, all were actively advancing the breadth and quality of book and jacket design for the more discriminating publishing houses. (DaBoll whose distinction lay outside publishing, was the notable exception.) This "outburst of calligraphic expression in book work," as Skaggs has called it, lasted some twenty years.

As soon as he came under the influence of Dwiggins et al, Skaggs began to study and collect examples of their work. Among the nearly six hundred books and related materials donated by Skaggs to the Mortimer Rare Book Room, is correspondence from DaBoll, Standard, Grushkin, Dwiggins, Paul Bennett and Sidney Jacobs; scores of examples of their finest work, and books on papermaking, printing and calligraphy are part of the collection.

Skaggs' own work was soon to find a place in the company of his heroes. While half his time was spent in design work on book accounts for the Franklin Spier Advertising Agency in New York City, he continued to have what he recalls as a "burning desire to do important literature." That dream came to reality with his first job for George Macy, founder and publisher of The Limited Editions Club books, who asked Skaggs to design a new edition of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to be brought out in 1948. Other books by Skaggs for The Limited Editions Club were: Dracula, Flowers of Evil, White Fang, The Canterbury Tales, Gogol's The Overcoat and bindings for Moby Dick and Brave New World.

By the end of the decade, Skaggs had a demanding fulltime career as a book and jacket designer. He and wife Nita remember that as a time of frequent round-the-clock work. Nita and the couple's children, Joyce and David, would come down to breakfast after looking over the night's work on Charles' drawing board, often picking a favorite out of several different versions done for presentation to an art director at one of New York's esteemed publishing houses. "A jacket assignment was always a special little thrill," Skaggs wrote about those early days. "It was another chance to strut your stuff and to have your work reach a national circulation."

From 1948 through 1955, several of Skaggs' books were selections in the American Institute of Graphic Arts "Fifty Books of the Year," an annual juried exhibit recognizing design excellence. Skaggs' volumes for Story Classics included short stories by Longfellow, Checkov, Turgenev and Cervantes. Also, The Royal Hunt by Pierre Moinot with other candidates: L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between and Toscannini by Samuel Chotzinoff, from Knopf.

At about the same time, Skaggs' relationship with the venerable publishing house founded by Alfred A. and Blanche Knopf offered a collaboration with Dwiggins, whose failing health necessitated assistance from a like-minded lettering and design artist. The two worked together on many projects for Knopf, including Of Plymouth Plantation, Cotton Kingdom and some twenty other jackets and bindings.

Dwiggins' genius, and his generous interest in the younger man's work, provided Skaggs with a rare and glorious experience. Meeting Dwiggins in 1951 at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts, for the first time was "one of the best days of my life," says Skaggs. "I took a stack of his books and he autographed each one. He gave me his most gracious attention as we swapped reflections on projects we had shared. I can't tell you what it meant to me."

*****

Beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing through the '60s, Skaggs served as art director for text and trade publishers, shepherding several projects through production at a time, while doing original design work. (More than fifty book jackets among the hundreds Skaggs produced, and many entire books of his design, are included in his gift to Smith College.)

He produced dozens of calligraphic maps for various histories about the Civil War, Alexis Lichine's The Wines of France for Knopf and end-sheets for Harcourt-Brace.

From 1952-57, Skaggs was also giving back some of the expertise he'd acquired as a self-taught artist, teaching night classes at The Cooper Union in New York City where he introduced students to the symbiotic relationship between abstract expressionism and the alphabet. Skaggs urged his students to turn routine lettering exercises into positive personal expression. Later, in community college classes taught during a return to Kentucky, Skaggs' students were coaxed to include a subtle "surprise" in each creation.

He practiced what he preached, even as he created the timeless designs that define his work. The 1953 book jacket for Abraham Lincoln (written by Benjamin P. Thomas and published by Knopf) is one case in point. Its classic Roman lettering is set off by an arresting background that has the texture and depth of fabric. "I took a suit jacket, flattened it on a photostat machine," recalls Skaggs. Pulled off a shelf today, the book jacket has a clean, modern look that belies its half-century age. He also prodded his students to build their creative work on a solid foundation of research in the history of printing. Again, he taught by example: he was familiar with fifty or sixty typefaces by this point in his career, giving him an understanding of typography that few artists today may claim.

While he was living in Kentucky in the decade of the 1970s, work from New York continued to fill much of Skaggs' time, along with that from university presses. These productive years yielded three books for Limited Editions, all of Roland Barthes' book jackets and two of his books published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. At the same time, Skaggs designed some forty-three titles and their covers for an eclectic range of noted Kentuckians writing on historical subjects for the University of Kentucky.

*****

There is a wondrous irony to this career: a man whose formal education ended with high school, who became a designer of books written by some of the great minds of the past and innovative thinkers of the present. Skaggs' work, from the first, was a means to a unique continuing education, and he pursued it avidly. He absorbed literature and critical commentary as he pondered how best to present it tastefully and clearly on a page. He read of the accomplishments of history's great thinkers and leaders, pleased to proudly letter their names, draw their portraits, and convey by appropriate design their essence in graphic images.

Skaggs' work is, in many ways, of another era. Computer technology and the demands of a conglomerate-driven publishing industry have brought about great change in the world of book design. But he continues to explore new territory, on his own terms: a "daubing" technique that applies color evenly through his precisely cut stencils of Chinese characters and Roman letters combined in arbitrary combinations; or fonts of his own design - Grafik, Saxony, Cescrip -- developed for computer typesetting -- a pastime he continues to eschew in favor of free-hand design and calligraphy.

His own fine art, a small beautifully framed collection of which is hung in the Skaggs' Olympia, Washington, home, includes a bilingual calligraphic page of Dante's Divine Comedy, painting, stenciling, lettering and collage. Much of it, too, melds these classical and abstract influences in striking, unexpected ways. Some remarkable work remains in his crowded closets, including an as-yet unpublished series of thirty-two vivid acrylic/collage posters created in the '70s, that combine geometrics with "completely irrelevant combinations" of the entire alphabet and Arabic numerals in four different basic styles of letters.

In retirement, Skaggs has slowed down from the era of all-night design work and full days of art direction. But words still comprise his work and leisure, a solved crossword puzzle clue or a well-designed book spine delight him; the structure of a well-drawn letter lifts his heart. The fever of creativity continues, persisting until he pulls up a chair to his drawing board and clips a piece of clean paper to ponder some nascent visual idea, just as he has done countless times since boyhood.

"American calligraphy," wrote Skaggs years ago, "has a distinguished heritage from which to draw hope." Now, this gift reflecting his own remarkable work and its place in the canon of calligraphic and typographic artistry, will greatly enhance that heritage and the hopes of future generations of scholars and artists.

Capital letterforms taken from Skaggs' unproduced type designs.

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