Charles Skagg, letter man

Charles Skagg, letter man

Charles Skagg sits in front of some of his work on display at the Lillian Pratt Art Gallery at Franke Tobey Jones.

Charles Skaggs began his career early.  “When I was in high school, I arranged my schedule so I could get off at noon.” He apprenticed himself to illustrator, Bob Richey in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.  “In those days, good typesetting was expensive,” Skaggs said.  “My hand lettering was less expensive.”  He left Kentucky for Cincinnati after high school to work for Kroger Grocery and Baking Company.

From Cincinnati, Skaggs went to Chicago to work on advertising including ads for Wrigley gum and Schlitz beer.

“It was an exciting, fertile time for the graphic arts,” said Skaggs.  In Chicago and later New York right after the war, hundreds of talented young people “eager to do something” entered the city.  “There was this creative explosion of music and drama.”

Skaggs worked on book jackets for Knopf and for a “very fancy and exclusive publisher called Peter Pauper Press” as well as Simon & Schuster, Harper Row and Macmillan publishing companies.  His favorite book  to design was “Dracula” although he also loved designing “The Go-Between” by L.P. Hartley and David B. Wharton’s “The Alaska Gold Rush”.  “A lot of people looked down on lettering,” but Skaggs loved absorbing the history of typography and forms.
During this time he became acquainted with Frederick Goudy and W.A. Dwiggins, leading figures in calligraphy, type and book design.  Dwiggins was Knopf’s prime book designer.  “Fred Goudy and W. A. Dwiggins became my idols.  They were a treasure beyond description. I like to say that it was like sitting at Christ’s left elbow,” said Skaggs.

Skaggs said, he had designed and collected books since I was about 30.  He also collected wood engravings and etchings.  In 2001, Skaggs donated his considerable library of books, printed materials, articles and letters to Smith College.  The school exhibit includes an online exhibit located at

A retrospective exhibit of more than 60 years of the art of Charles Skaggs is on display until Aug. 3 in the Lillian Pratt Resident Art Gallery at Franke Tobey Jones, 5340 North Bristol in Tacoma.  The eclectic exhibit includes book covers, articles and abstract artwork, is free and open to the public.

“All of these were an excuse to include different styles of the alphabet,” Skaggs said as he waved his hand indicating the two walls of displays.  “The layman image of an artist is someone who does pretty pictures and I don’t do pretty pictures.  I’m appreciative of extraordinary illustrative as distinct from fine art.  I love using colors.  I love the feel of burlap and canvas.  When you choose to do brushwork, those surfaces are so receptive to the brush work,” he said.  burlap and canvas.  When you choose to do brushwork, those surfaces are so receptive to the brush work,” he said.

Cover illustrations by Charles Skagg
Book covers designed by Charles Skagg Photo by Ruth Daugherty