History 301: Bruce Rogers was a preeminent book designer

Bruce Rogers got his professional start in Indianapolis.
John Fass Collection of Bruce Rogers Ephemera.

By Connie Zeigler Contributing editor

Did you know that Bruce Rogers, considered the modern world’s most important book designer – whose most-admired work, the Oxford Lectern Bible, is protected behind the golden doors of the rare book room of the Library of Congress – was a Hoosier who started his career in Indianapolis? If not, continue reading.

Born Albert Bruce Rogers in 1870, in Linwood, a town later absorbed into Lafayette, Rogers attended Purdue University. While there he became interested in illustration and worked on the university catalogs and the College Quarterly Magazine. He teamed with John T. McCutcheon, who later became a great political cartoonist, to produce the university newspaper.

Upon his graduation with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1890, Rogers moved to Indianapolis, according to the book, The Noblest Roman, and took a position as an illustrator at The Indianapolis News. The book says that Rogers also worked as “a railroad clerk before stumbling into designing for J. M. Bowles at Modern Art Magazine.”

From 1893 to 1895, J. M. Bowles produced the cutting-edge Modern Art Magazine in Indianapolis, with Rogers doing both design work and lettering, including initial letters (those big decorative letters that start the first sentences of book chapters).  Local artists, including J. Ottis Adams and Brandt Steele (see Urban Times, November 2020), also had designs in the magazine, which featured art from around the world. One Modern Art Magazine in the Library of Congress has cover art by painter Arthur Wesley Dow.

While Rogers was working for The News, Modern Art Magazine, and apparently a railroad, he was further honing his illustration chops on pro bono designs for various clubs and organizations in the city. For instance, Rogers designed programs, reports and other items for the Portfolio Club whose members included Hoosier Group artists T. C. Steele and William Forsyth, writers James Whitcomb Riley and Meredith Nicholson, and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, among other creative folk.

In June 1894, Rogers was one of several Portfolio Club artists who designed “souvenir cards” for the farewell dinner of a member couple who were moving to Europe. Rogers’s card was given to the guest of honor and Steele’s went to her husband, suggesting that these two were the most desirable souvenirs of the lot.

In November of the same year, the Indianapolis Journal reported that Rogers designed a special magazine for the Flower Mission fair, a philanthropy for the city’s poor. About the magazine called The Impromptu the newspaper wrote: “The artistic cover is in gold and white, the design of Bruce Rogers. The typographical appearance of the book is all that could be desired.”

Not surprisingly, a man of Rogers’s talent soon found opportunities outside of Indianapolis. In October 1895, The Indianapolis News reported that Rogers would follow J. M. Bowles to Boston, lured by the famed Louis Prang publishing company, which had purchased the publishing rights to Modern Art Magazine.

Modern Art Magazine soon folded, but Rogers’s career exploded. By December 1895 he was freelancing for Houghton, Mifflin. The Chicago Tribune ran advertisements for books published with covers by Rogers. One, the perhaps unfortunately titled Nim and Cum, and the Wonder-Head Stories, a children’s book, notably featured both “cover and decorations by Bruce Rogers” according to the ad. [If you find a copy of this book, your fortune is probably made.]

In 1900, according to the authors of The Noblest Roman, Rogers was heading the Department of Special Bookmaking at Riverside Press, producing fine limited editions. During this time, he began to revive and reuse old typefaces, or fonts. He traveled to England to learn more about printing and became a follower of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

When he returned to the U. S., he took a position as the in-house designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1912. He began to noodle around with historic and centuries-old typefaces. Out of this creative research Rogers famously (to historians of typeface design) developed a new version of a 15th century type, imbuing it with decorative serifs and the slight irregular appearance of a hand-drawn type. He used this type for the first time in 1914 on a book of Maurice de GuÈrin’s short story, The Centaur. [If you find a copy of this book, your fortune is made] And that limited edition publication of about 100 copies gave the typeface its name. Centaur.

If Rogers’s career had ended after he created Centaur type, he would be famous in design circles (FYI, an updated version of Centaur, now called Arrighi, is available for computer keyboards). But he didn’t stop there, although being more or less perpetually underpaid, he sold the type designs to the Metropolitan Museum in 1914 for $500, according to The Noblest Roman.

Rogers took a position as printing advisor to England’s Cambridge University Press in the late 1910s where, according to an article in Harvard Magazine, he breathed “new typographical life into that ancient institution.” In 1920 he started a part-time position advising Harvard University Press. Over the years he designed about 30 books for that press.

The year that his wife, Anne, died, Rogers designed a publication of Homer’s Odyssey for which he hired T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) as translator for 800 pounds. He printed it in Centaur. Harold Orlans, biographer of T.E. Lawrence, wrote of that book published in 1932: “I believe that the Bruce Rogers Odyssey is indisputably among the most beautiful books ever produced.” 

When the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article on the fame that Rogers had won as a book designer it reported, “In London, Prague, Florence, in all the Old-World fine book centers, the name of Bruce Rogers is ranked with those of the early printer artists of the Middle Ages [such as] Gutenberg.”

The reference to Gutenberg became more direct upon the printing of the Rogers-designed Oxford Lectern Bible in 1935. A headline in the Washington D.C. Evening Star newspaper said of Rogers and that project, which he printed in England, “An American Modern Creates World’s Finest Bible.” The Library of Congress supported that claim by housing it with its rare books.

Rogers continued working, always working. In 1943, at age 73, he wrote and designed his own book, Paragraphs on Printing. A copy of this 199-edition book is for sale at Oak Knoll Books for $750. 

Never wealthy and endlessly creative, Bruce Rogers completed the design of the first book to be published by his own publishing firm shortly before he died in March 1957, according to his New York Times obituary.

Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.