Roy R. Behrens is a Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches graphic design, illustration and design history. His most recent books include FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002), COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (2005), and CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009).
 
IN THE early 1940s, shortly after the novelist Henry Miller had moved back to the U.S. from Paris, he concluded that a noncommercial artist in America "has as much chance for survival as a sewer rat." 
	Refusing to borrow or to hire out for "stultifying work," he sent out a letter inviting support from the readers of The New Republic, requesting, among other things, "old clothes, shirts, socks, etc. I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, weigh 150 pounds, 15 1/2 neck, 38 chest, 32 waist, hat and shoes both size 7 to 7 1/2. Love corduroys." 
	The appeal worked and a number of curious mailings arrived, one of which contained a complete tuxedo. "What’ll I ever do with this?" Miller asked a friend, then used it to dress up a scarecrow that sat for a generation on the picket fence in front of his Partington Ridge house in Big Sur, California.
	Among the other gifts was a cash contribution from Merle Armitage, an Iowa-born book designer, civil engineer, set designer, concert promoter, gourmet, art collector, and author. Armitage was also living in California, and soon after, when he visited Miller’s home for the first time, he described his own profession as that of an "impresario." 
  "But I have heard that you were a writer?" replied Miller. 
	"If the truth were known," Armitage explained, "I write books so that I will be able to design them." In fact, by that time Armitage had designed nearly two dozen books, some of which he had also written.  
	But Miller was incredulous: "Does a book have to be designed?" he asked. "A book is a book, and I don’t see how you can do much about it."




















    Born in 1893 on a farm near Mason City, Iowa, Merle Armitage’s inclination toward design, engineering and problem-solving can be traced back to his childhood. His paternal grandfather had been a friend of J.I. Case, an important pioneer in the development of steam-driven farm machinery; while a few miles east of the Armitage home was Charles City, site of the invention of the first gasoline-powered farm tractor. 
	One day as the young Armitage and his father were helping a neighboring farmer named Wright with the repair of a windmill, a messenger rode up on horseback and handed the man a telegram. "He passed it around," Armitage remembered, "and my father read it aloud. It said: ‘We flew today at Kitty Hawk,’ and it was signed Orville and Wilbur." Armitage was just as impressed by the immediacy of the telegram as by its message: "The two were equally exciting to me: to fly through the air, to send a message over the wire. Both left me absolutely enslaved to things mechanical."
	His father, according to Armitage, was a dreamer who should never have become a businessman. Nevertheless, "he had great vision," and, at a time when steers ranged free to feed on grass, he made a fortune (which he later lost in a market crash) on the innovation of corn-fed beef: "Finding that corn grew luxuriantly in the new land," recalled Armitage, his father "conceived the idea that purchasing range cattle and feeding them all the corn they could eat for two months would produce new flavor."
	It was by his father’s influence that he became avidly interested in farm implements, steam locomotives and automobiles, and in engineering and inventing. At the same time, it was his mother (a school teacher) who encouraged his artistic abilities by the choice of the pictures she hung in their home, by the brazen act of painting the front door a bright Chinese red (thus creating "a neighborhood sensation"), and by reinforcing his early attempts at drawing.
	His mother’s parents, the Jacobs, lived in Mason City, which Armitage described as "a sweet Iowa town of tree-shaded streets and friendly people," the town that was later immortalized as “River City” in The Music Man by Meredith Willson. (It was also the boyhood home of Bil Baird, the puppeteer.) Today, adjacent to Willson’s birthplace is the Charles H. MacNider Museum, a majestic English Tudor Revival mansion that bears the name of an Armitage family friend, who was also the owner of the First National Bank.




















    When Armitage was still a teenager, it was a rivalry between MacNider and another Mason City banker that resulted in the hiring of a young Chicago-based architect named Frank Lloyd Wright (unrelated to the Wright brothers, apparently) to design a new bank, offices and an adjoining hotel for the City National Bank (which remains and is in process of being restored). Within the next decade, Wright (until he was discredited by eloping with a client’s wife), Walter Burley Griffin, William Drummond, and other gifted young architects designed innovative Prairie Style houses within a planned community, so that Armitage’s little hometown is now widely known as the site of a marvelous cluster of gem-like Early Modern homes.
	The ancestors of both Wright and Armitage had settled in Wisconsin, from which the latter had then moved to northern Iowa. Wright was commissioned to design the City National Bank in 1908 through the efforts of J.E. Markeley, a friend and Mason City businessman whose two daughters were students of Wright’s aunt at her Hillside School, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which was housed in buildings that Wright had designed. By the time the Mason City hotel project began, Armitage was 15 years old, and he and his family had already moved to a cattle ranch near Lawrence, Kansas, and then to Texas. 
	In one of his autobiographies, Armitage refers to the architect’s son, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (known as Lloyd), as "an old friend." In 1923, when the American press reported, incorrectly, that Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo had been devastated by an earthquake, Armitage (in his capacity as a publicist) was recruited by the architect to help to set the record straight. They remained what Armitage described as "casual friends" for many years, dining together for the last time in New York in 1953. Wright died in 1959.
      
Art, design, advertising, and mechanical engineering: In Armitage’s young imagination, these allied yet differing interests combined in the form of a breathtaking automobile, the Packard. 
	It was his childhood fascination with this motor vehicle, he recalled in 1945,"[which satisfied] esthetic as well as utilitarian demands," that led him to start a collection of Packard advertising material, publications that, like the machine they advertised, "reflected advanced design and a kind of artistic integrity. Brochures of other makes of that time usually contained retouched half-tone illustrations, hard and unlovely as those in heavy-hardware catalogs. Packard used distinguished line drawings, excellent typography, and hand lettering which would be acceptable today."
	He was also influenced by the "sleek and smart" styling of the passenger trains on the Santa Fe Railway (known then as the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad Company), which he noticed as early as 1902, when he and father drove to Lawrence. "The literature and advertising of the Santa Fe," he remembered, "even its world-renowned symbol (of Aztec origin) suggest discernment, and a sophistication seldom associated with a railroad." Having never attended college, it was the corporate image and advertising publications of Packard and the Santa Fe Railway, said Armitage, "together with the scant treasures of our library, [that] were in a very personal sense my substitutes for college and university…my first contacts with esthetic appreciation and the cosmopolitan amenities of life."
	Given Armitage’s childhood influences, it is fitting that his first two jobs (beginning at age 17) were as a civil engineer in Texas, apparently connected with the Santa Fe Railway, and then as a graphic designer in the advertising department of the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit. He remained in these positions for less than a year, and soon after decided that he should become a theatre set designer, a move that would lead inadvertently to a lucrative 30-year career as a concert impresario.























	Armitage is mostly remembered today as an extraordinary book designer who was also the art director of Look magazine (1949-1954), an art collector (Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Gauguin, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Marin, Klee, and Kandinsky), and a past president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (1950-1951). But during the first 50 years of his life (as he explained to Henry Miller), he earned an ample income as the promoter and manager of dancers, opera singers, and opera and ballet companies. Among his illustrious clients were Anna Pavlova, Yvette Guilbert, Feodor Chaliapin, Amelita Galli-Curci, Mary Garden, Rosa Ponselle, and the Diaghilev Ballet. 
	He was also the cofounder and general manager of the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association, a board member of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, and manager of the Philharmonic Auditorium of Los Angeles. He knew and authored books about some of the finest artists of the century, among them Igor Stravinsky, Martha Graham, George Gershwin, Pablo Picasso, Rockwell Kent, and Edward Weston.  
	Armitage’s success as an impresario, as noted by Jay Satterfield, was due in part to his willingness to promote "highbrow" performances by using "lowbrow" advertising ploys, including false scandals and erotic suggestion. At the time, announcements of concerts were usually made quietly through restrained, tasteful notices, in contrast to slapstick, flamboyant affairs like the circus. Armitage’s innovation was to stake out a middle ground: By promoting cultural events in much the same way that automobiles and railways were advertised, he believed that a much wider audience might "be led to realize that the arts, and their enjoyment, were reasonably normal activities…needing to be classified neither with afternoon tea nor epileptic fits." 
‘

















  As time went on, he explained, "I became more and more convinced that posters, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, as well as thousands of announcements and circulars used by a concert manager, must reflect the quality of the performer not only in the text, but more important, in the design. Soon I found myself laying out every piece of printing concerned with my concerts, opera or ballet seasons."
	It was this same philosophy that prompted him to become a book designer, resulting from his decision to use phenomenal books to promote artists whom he admired; not just concert performers, but visual artists, composers and writers as well. Determined "to work only with publishers who would give me a free hand in design," he not only often wrote or edited his own books, in many cases he was also the publisher. 
	Of the more than two dozen volumes that Armitage both authored and designed are Rockwell Kent (Knopf, 1932), George Gershwin (Longmans, 1938), So-Called Modern Art (Weyhe, 1939), United States Navy (Longmans, 1940), Notes on Modern Printing (Rudge, 1945), Rendezvous with the Book (McKibbin, 1949), Railroads of America (Little Brown 1952), and two autobiographies, Accent on America (Weyhe, 1939) and Accent on Life (Iowa State University Press, 1965). In addition, he designed more than 40 other books which he either edited or wrote essays for, and over 60 others by other authors. In the books of his own writings (his autobiographies, for example, or those in which he talks about the design of books), portions of the narrative are often recycled, if somewhat revised and reshuffled, so that their enduring significance is more as experiments in book design than as freshly written texts.

When Armitage was four years old, Frank Lloyd Wright had collaborated with one of his own clients on an "artist’s book" about esthetics, the soul and domestic architecture, titled The House Beautiful (Auvergne Press, 1897). The text was derived from a popular talk by a nationally-known Unitarian minister, William C. Gannett. Wright designed the book, while his client, William H. Winslow, set the type and hand-printed an edition of ninety copies in the basement of his new home, only twenty of which now survive.
	Thirty-five years later, Wright wrote and designed a second extraordinary volume, titled An Autobiography. The first edition was published in 1932 by Longmans, Green and Company, based in London and New York; the second, which came out in 1943, by Duell, Sloan and Pearce in New York. Both editions are much sought after by admirers of book design, largely because of the boldness with which Wright treats the section openings as continuous spreads, not just single facing fields that happen to be juxtaposed. Perhaps the most stirring example is the magnificent title spread for "Book Two—Work." Wright approached book designing with the same "organic form" philosophy that governed his architecture, with the result, as a critic declared at the time, that the design of his autobiography "compares in brilliance and originality with his buildings."


















	As Richard Hendel pointed out in On Book Design, "Designers are to books what architects are to buildings." Merle Armitage designed his first book in 1929, and in subsequent years, he designed at least nine books for Longmans, and thirteen for Duell, Sloan and Pearce (including several of his best known titles), the publishers who were responsible for Wright’s autobiography. In light of their contacts, one wonders to what degree Armitage, the enfant terrible of book design, was inspired by the work of Wright, the bad boy of architecture, and vice versa. While Armitage admired Wright’s architecture, he also liked to make it known that "on the prairies, and long before Frank Lloyd Wright became an influence, the Santa Fe [Railway] had constructed its stations on a horizontal motif." 
	One wonders too to what extent Wright and Armitage were influenced by W.A. Dwiggins’ Layout in Advertising (1928) or that designer’s celebrated interpretations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (Knopf, 1929) and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (Random House, 1931). Anyone who cared about book design in those days, wrote Armitage, "was aware of the Nonesuch and the Golden Cockerel Presses and the work of Eric Gill, Francis Meynell, Stanley Morison, and others in England." He himself collected the books of Bruce Rogers ("perhaps the greatest designer of them all") and "had long admired the distinguished work of such Americans as W.A. Dwiggins, with its Oriental influence." 
	In Dwiggins’ layout for The Power of Print—and Men (Mergenthaler, 1936), there is a geometric sweep and use of the tactics that Armitage called "my inventions" that "stirred violent criticism" and caused him, in certain circles, to be reviled as "the destroyer of book tradition, the bad boy of typography, the usurper of the placid pools of bookmaking": "i.e., use of the endsheets, double-page title pages, large readable type, generous margins, etc." Other notable aspects of Armitage’s books, as Hendel has said, are "his ‘cinematic’ treatment of the opening pages" and his "exuberant typography." 
	Armitage was just as direct and outspoken as Wright, and if he was despised or avoided (George Macy called him "that bull-in-our-china-shop"), it surely was partly because of the tone with which he communicated. He was, as described by a close friend, Robert M. Purcell, "a mercurial man in the truest sense. He was like quicksilver, and no thumb could hold him down. He was quick to joy, quick to anger, quick to create. He, like most of us, liked appreciation of what he did, and was quick to take umbrage if he was crossed, although he was a good resounding arguer and would take his lumps if he lost a point, or bellow with laughter when he won."
	In photographs, Armitage is a big man with a huge head and broad smile, who often wore a cowboy hat and string tie, a person who would not be popular now in an age of political correctness and disingenuous double-talk. According to Purcell, "He had a mammoth lust for food, and the build to prove it; he liked hearty food, no nincompoop lemon jello salad with shreds of lettuce for him. He lusted after art, art that dominated and spoke out, no pastels and chalk for him. A lust for good music, not a tinkling piano and chaminade, but Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, and among the neo-moderns, Satie, Ravel, and Stravinsky. A lust for good conversation, and in no way detouring away from a hearty argument with rolling thunderous opinions."
	He must have been literally lusty as well. He used up four marriages, the last one ending sadly in an annulment, lasting no more than two months. A few years later, when Armitage was close to 80 years old and living alone on his Manzanita Ranch near Yucca Valley, California, his friend Purcell “happened to comment on having seen him with a very nice looking widow of about forty, four decades his junior. He said, ‘Oh, yes. She comes out to the ranch and services me.’ I had never heard that term in that context. It came probably from his Iowa farm youth where his father ‘covered’ cows in order to breed tremendous herds and became one of the first major ‘feeders’ in Iowa, where feeding now is a bigger business than breeding.” 
  Frank Lloyd Wright was short and slim. It must have been more than amusing to see the huge figure of Armitage, looking even larger by comparison, at the feet of the elephantine ego that lived in the undersized physical temple of the self-described "world’s greatest architect." 
	At their last luncheon together, Wright complained to Armitage that some people believed that his school at Taliesin West produced only "little Frank Lloyd Wrights." "But just remember this, young man," he said to Armitage, "there are no little Frank Lloyd Wrights."  
	Nor was there anything puny about Merle Armitage. His was a boisterous ego that lived in a spacious body, a bombastic tree of a figure that fell from a fatal stroke on March 15, 1975. Years earlier, the always impish Wright poked fun at the expansiveness of Armitage, both physical and social, when he gave him a signed photographic of himself by Yosef Karsh: It is inscribed "To Merle, the Armitage" and dated February 30—a day of course that doesn’t exist.


•     •     •

http://www.bobolinkbooks.com/Iowa/Home.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0
A tribute to
Merle Armitage (1893-1975)
Iowa-born American book designer








“Impresario, collector, manager, publisher, writer, epicure and booster, Armitage had more single influence on the arts in Los Angeles than anyone else.” 
                                                   —Victoria Dailey
                                                                            LA’s Early Moderns:
                                                                            Art, Architecture, Photography

an essay by Roy R. Behrens
This essay was published initially in Ballast Quarterly Review, Vol 16 No 3 (Spring 2001), then reprinted in Steven Heller and Georgette Balance, eds., Graphic Design History (NY: Allworth Press, 2001). It was reprinted a second time in booklet form in 2002, in connection with a lecture at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American University Presses. Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2007 by Roy R. Behrens. All rights reserved. author’s collection “Through the medium of the book, the musician, architect, painter, engineer, industrialist, scientist and writer may become permanently articulate. Here they meet on common ground.”
                                                            —Merle Armitage “In the world of lust, [President Jimmy] Carter was a peanut compared to Merle Armitage.”
                                                            —Robert M. Purcell, Merle   
   Armitage Was Here! “Mere type legibility 
is to a book as mere shelter is to an architect.”

—Merle Armitage
    Notes on Modern Printing
                                                         “To design a book, first read the book, get a very clear idea of the meaning of the text. Then through reason, intuition, what you will, let that meaning permeate every step that is taken; let it guide every selection that is made; give it freedom to be original; let the meaning of the book speak through its physical characteristics and its space relationships.”

—Merle Armitage “Allow the subject of a book to determine its design and format.”

        —Merle Armitage 
            Notes on Modern Printing
                                                           “As Merle would lecture around the country he would evangelize the beauty of Manzanita Ranch and it would not be unusual for a professor in one of the arts to ask if he might bring a field trip to the ranch. Merle was in his glory, he loved the stimulation of young minds and the chance for interchange. In would come a caravan of college students and a seminar would instantly materialize. Sleeping bags covered the studio, the outbuildings, and the ground around the campfire area. Here the morning star frequently looked down upon the close of a philosophical give and take that had, wine-lubricated, gone through the night.”

—Robert M. Purcell
   Merle Armitage Was Here! A colorized postcard showing Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous City National Bank in Mason City, Iowa (restoration completed in 2011). author’s collection “Others talk, Merle acts.”

—Edward Weston, quoted in Victoria Dailey, From Z to A: Jake Zeitlin, Merle Armitage and Los Angeles’ Early Moderns (UCLA Library, 2006).
                                                           “Armitage hated the mediocre, detested the bland. He drove a Packard touring car. He dressed well. He wrote cookbooks. He was a connoisseur. And he was an expert in modern art—he collected Picasso, Klee and other modern artists. He wanted to make Southern California modern.”

—Victoria Dailey
   From Z to A: Jake Zeitlin, Merle
   Armitage and Los Angeles’ Early
   Moderns (UCLA Library, 2006).
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