Alexander S. Lawson: A Biography

Alexander S. Lawson

Alexander S. Lawson, lover of fine books and fine printing, devoted his knowledge, his time and his energy to educating young people in the absorbing history of printing. He taught not only in the classroom, but by example in the laboratories of the Rochester Institute of Technology and by publication of scholarly books and articles. A scholar-printer in the tradition of Isaiah Thomas, Theodore Low De Vinne, and Daniel Berkeley Updike, Professor Lawson was acknowledged throughout the country as an authority on the history, design and development of printing types.

His interest in printing types began in 1928, when Professor Lawson went to work as a copy boy on the New York American newspaper. Soon afterward, however, he decided that printing was much more attractive than news reporting so he took an apprenticeship in the composing room of Guide Printing Company in Brooklyn, New York, where he subsequently earned his journeyman’s card.

While in the U.S. Navy from 1941 to 1945, Lawson served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He was serving as Captain of the seagoing tug USS Ganadoga, when honorably discharged. He came to R.I.T. in 1946 as a student enrolled in the Department of Publishing and Printing. His outstanding talent was soon evident and in 1947, he was appointed instructor in the evening division and, just one year later, he was named to the full-time faculty. It was clear to the Department’s Director, the late Byron G. Culver, that here was a dedicated man of superior intellect with an uncommon ability to motivate students toward a deep interest in typography and the art of the book.

Professor Lawson’s erudition made his lectures amongst the best attended ones in the School of Printing and his labs the busiest. He instilled in his students an appreciation of the people responsible for the making of great books from Johann Gutenberg to the present, and he demonstrated his own awareness of design and superb craftsmanship in every detail of production by founding the student journal Typographer and by establishing The Press of the Good Mountain. The Press, dedicated to Gutenberg (and hence the name), was the publication arm of Lawson’s widely acclaimed typographic workshop. Some notable books have been produced under its imprint including American Type Designers by P.K. Thomajan; Type Design, A Homily by Frederic W. Goudy; Bodoni, The Printer of Parma by T.M. Cleland; and Two Essays on the Grabhorn Press by Gregg Anderson. Among many works, in retirement his “labor of love” was a history of the School of Printing written at the request of Dr. Mark Guldin, Dean of the College of Graphic Arts and Photography. This volume, titled The School of Printing, Rochester Institute of Technology: The First Half-Century, 1937-1987, was published under the imprint of The Press of the Good Mountain in 1987, on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary.

Teaching what is best in typography and printing—and how to attain it—had been Professor Lawson’s raison d’être, his success is evident in the number of R.I.T. graduates still practicing what he first taught them.

As an advisor to the Wallace Library, he helped build their outstanding collection of books on printing. He counseled students on the great printing texts and the outstanding personalities of printing. Most students first learned of Daniel Berkeley Updike, Bruce Rogers, Frederic W. Goudy, T.M. Cleland, W.A. Dwiggins, Elmer Adler, and the Grabhorn Brothers from him. His admiration of Fred Goudy was derived from his knowledge of Goudy’s types and a fortuitous meeting with the great designer.

In 1960, The School of Printing prevailed upon Mrs. Howard Coggeshall of Utica, New York to donate her late husband’s collection of memorabilia relating to the American type designer, Frederic W. Goudy. This marvelous collection includes many of the “lost” Goudy types, alphabet designs and correspondence.

In 1969, as a living memorial to Melbert B. Cary, Jr., an importer and distributor of printing types, and a private press printer, the trustees of the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust donated the Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Graphic Arts Collection to R.I.T., created an endowment for further acquisitions, established a professorship, and provided funds for student scholarships. The trustees also funded an annual award and lecture to honor the friendship between Mr. Cary and Frederic W. Goudy. Professor Lawson was instrumental in this effort and was appointed the first Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Professor in Graphic Arts, a post he held until retirement in 1977. In 1979 he was awarded the eleventh Frederic W. Goudy Award.

Over the years, Professor Lawson authored a number of books including the widely acclaimed Printing Types: An Introduction and A Printer’s Almanac, as well as Anatomy of a Typeface and Printing Manuals, from Moxon to the PIA. He also wrote the “Composing Room” for Inland Printer and “Typographically Speaking” for Printing Impressions. He received many awards including the Golden Key Award from the International Club of Printing House Craftsmen, the Outstanding Teacher Award from R.I.T., the first Award for Distinguished Service to Typography presented by the National Composition Association of Printing Industries of America, the Friedman Medal for Service to Printing Education presented by the New York School of Printing, and the Individual Award for Distinguished Achievement presented by the American Printing History Association in 1981.

With encouragement of his son Doug, Mr. Lawson traded his composing stick for a computer at age 82 and continued his work under the name Dingbat Press. His wife and proofreader, Evelyn, was “treated to a full two-year course” and became resident computer repairman.

On 6 May 2002, Alexander S. Lawson passed away in Sun City Center, Florida, leaving his wife Evelyn, two sons Ken & Doug, friends and thousands of R.I.T. printing students whom he mentored. His parting message to all his friends was that he did not want them to mourn, but instead to drink a Bombay Sapphire martini (his favorite) in toast to him and to celebrate the many years of friendship.

Many years earlier Professor Lawson proposed that R.I.T. establish a university press for the purpose of publishing the work of faculty and such other publications as might be related to R.I.T. and to the various courses of study pursued there. David Pankow, as curator of the Cary Collection, had the idea to make Professor Lawson’s dream a reality by creating the Cary Graphic Arts Press and by establishing it within Wallace Memorial Library in a dedicated space named for the person who inspired it. On 10 May 2007, R.I.T. dedicated the Alexander S. Lawson Publishing Center, a newly renovated space on the second floor of the Wallace Library featuring an exhibition gallery, a sales area for press titles, office space & expanded production offices for the Cary Graphic Arts Press. Its striking design is based on the golden section, and its glass walls are inscribed with some 30 famous quotations about reading, publishing and typography, designed by Lawson’s Cary Professorship successor & friend Hermann Zapf. Award-winning calligrapher & graphic designer Jerry Kelly, prepared the typography for the center’s glass wall, and Valerie O’Hara ’76, owner of Pike Stained Glass Studios in Rochester, handled the glass fabrication.

The greatest tribute to Professor Lawson is, no doubt, the number of fine young people who have received from him the impetus to pursue careers in fine printing, typography, book design, and writing on the history of printing.

Almost the entire biography above was excerpted from Twenty Years of the Frederic W. Goudy Award and a tribute written by Howard Hansen ’67 for R.I.T.’s University Magazine. It is to my delight that Professor Herbert H. Johnson, Professor Lawson’s former student, colleague, and a former Cary Professor himself, has agreed to write a biography of Alexander S. Lawson especially for the Lawson Archive, something I am very much looking forward to posting.