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Dard Hunter: The Graphic Works

by Lawrence Kreisman
Pomegranate, Petaluma, CA, 2012
112 pp., illus. 120 col. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0764961854.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa

roy.behrens@uni.edu

In 1903, an Ohio chalk talk artist named William J. (Dard) Hunter (1883-1966) was touring the U.S. as an assistant for his brother, a stage magician. On a terribly hot day in California, their act was scheduled to follow a lecture by orator William Jennings Bryan (now famously remembered as the villain in Inherit the Wind). All the show props were in place when Bryan arrived, but backstage as he groped for the curtain, he became hopelessly entangled and ripped out wires, strings and threads. Annoyed by the great man’s clumsiness, Hunter secretly dumped red chalk dust into Bryan’s hat, which he had left backstage. After the talk, Bryan jauntily placed his hat on his already perspiring baldpate and walked out into the blazing sun, where he became—literally—red-faced.

I got that from Hunter’s autobiography, My Life with Paper (easily one of my favorite memoirs). That story is not in this welcome new book because its space is limited, and it is an effort to try to zoom in on his achievements as a graphic designer. In fact, it may be the first book to focus so intently on that aspect of his life, because he is far better known as the last century’s foremost authority on handmade papers, an interest that led him to travel the world and to write twenty books about the craft and history of papermaking. There is even a group that meets annually called Friends of Dard Hunter: American Contemporary Hand Papermaking.

Dard Hunter had come from a family of Ohio job printers and newspaper publishers, so, from a youthful age, he was well acquainted with type, inks, paper and printing. During that 1903 tour with his brother’s magic act, he stayed at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, an early Arts and Crafts landmark. To see that building (and its interior furnishings) piqued his interest and changed his life.

In 1904, he moved to East Aurora, New York (near Buffalo), where he joined the Roycroft Workshops, headed by Arts and Crafts guru Elbert Hubbard. While there (he was allied with Roycroft, off and on, for about six years), he was able to experiment (without having to earn a living) with a range of handicraft media (especially jewelry, furniture and stained glass) and the design of such hand printed items as letterheads, business cards, postcards, advertising booklets, catalogs, bookplates, initial letters, title pages, and entire books. This book reproduces about 85 full-color images of his designs for print and stained glass, the majority of which most readers, even die-hard Hunter fans, are unlikely to have seen before.

During and after his years with Roycroft, Hunter was able to make two research trips to Europe, initially to Vienna in 1908 (newly married, the trip was also a honeymoon), where he witnessed first hand the work of artist-designers allied with the Wiener Werkstatte. He met briefly with Vienna Secession leaders Josef Hoffman and Otto Wagner (neither of whom spoke English), and with architect Adolf Loos (who did speak English, and was especially gracious).

Returning to East Aurora, Hunter was excited about the possibilities of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Almost immediately, he began to prepare to return to Europe in 1910, this time not just as a tourist, but to stay longer and to study in Vienna, to visit Arts and Crafts centers in Germany, and lastly to live briefly in London, where he worked as a designer. In late 1911, he returned from Europe with his wife, distanced himself from the Roycroft Workshops, and soon set up a paper mill in Marlborough-on-Hudson in New York State, where he committed himself to the handmade production of paper. He eventually resettled in Ohio, where, in essence, he devoted his remaining life to the art, craft and science of papermaking.

But wait. We should back up momentarily, because in truth his later life took shape more slowly than that. While living in Europe, Hunter had become persuaded by a belief among artists-designers called Gesamtkunstwerk (German for “total work of art”). Derived from the philosophy that designs (architectural or otherwise) were “total works of art in which all of the components worked in harmony,” it was dutifully promoted by Kolomon Moser, Hoffman and Wagner at the Wiener Werkstatte; Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the Glasgow School of Art; Henry van de Velde and Peter Behrens at two Kunstgewerbeschules (“schools of arts and crafts”) in Germany (forerunners of the Bauhaus); and, last but not least, by Frank Lloyd Wright, who renamed it “organic form.”

I think Dard Hunter was trying to make (as the author of this book implies) a bound, handheld Gesamtkunstwerk, a “true harmony of paper, type, and printing” when, in 1916, “he became the first person in the history of printing to single-handedly produce an entire book,” from beginning to end. The title of that pivotal, arduous effort—which became an inspiring model for the Private Press Movement—was The Etching of Figures.


Last Updated 1 January 2013

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