Hermann Zapf obituary | Typography

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In 1963, Hermann Zapf entered an American design school, snapped a piece of chalk in half, and with its side edge drew a perfect lowercase g on the blackboard. He then gave an inspired talk on the different angles a calligrapher uses when holding a pen and on the differences in stroke between calligraphy and typography – all illustrated, not with slides, but with hand drawings. impeccably executed chalk.

Zapf, who died at the age of 96, exhibited these sumptuous drawing skills time and time again throughout his long life, not always with the calligrapher’s usual tools, namely the pen or the fine brush. He could draw a flawless line with both chalk on a blackboard and ballpoint pen on a school pad and was chosen in 1960 to write the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, kept at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. . He also brought his calligraphic talent to designing a series of typefaces spanning seven decades, a period in which the industry rapidly shifted from hot-stamping to photocomposition to digitization. Zapf is one of the few people who designed letters for all three methods.

Immediately after World War II, Frankfurt became the center of the West German book trade. His type foundries needed new Roman type because the black letter, the traditional script once considered by the Nazis to be uniquely German, had been replaced by the Roman alphabet as the standard in 1941. Zapf worked for the Stempel foundry and in 1949 he designed the Palatino typeface for this.

Palatino was quite unlike anything produced in pre-war Germany. He was clearly influenced by the forms of Italian letters, although at this point Zapf had never been in Italy. It has become one of the most widely used typefaces in the world.

Zapf was born in Nuremberg three days before the fighting in World War I ended. In 1933, when he left school, his father lost his job in an automobile factory because of his union activities. Zapf was thus prevented from studying engineering and became an apprentice retoucher in a printing house. There, he was inspired by an exhibition of the work of Rudolf Koch, the German typographer, to get down to calligraphy, which he studied in his free time with such intensity that his parents criticized him for overuse electric lighting late at night.

In 1938, with his apprenticeship completed, Zapf was introduced to the Stempel Foundry and began working on his first typeface, a black letter called Gilgenhart. Then, in April 1939, he was mobilized and sent to a work unit reinforcing the Siegfried line. He was found medically unfit for forced labor and was given a clerical job, writing black letter files and certificates. Later in World War II he became a cartographer.

In the decade since Palatino’s success, Zapf designed over a dozen typefaces for Stempel and Linotype. This culminated in 1958 with the launch of Optima, which had slight bulges at the end of its letters rather than serifs (crossed lines). Zapf called him a “sans serif Roman”. Optima divides opinion in the typographic world, but few would deny its sculptural quality, perhaps best seen in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, completed in 1982, for which it was chosen as the typeface for the names of the dead. .

Hermann Zapf was chosen to draft the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations. Photography: Linotype

In the 1960s, Zapf was a frequent visitor to the United States. He was a typographic consultant at Mergenthaler Linotype and Hallmark, the maker of greeting cards, and a frequent lecturer at various design colleges and universities. In 1976 he was invited to become a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, specializing in computerized composition programs, and during this time he worked on character composition software in collaboration with his students, as well as with IBM. and Xerox.

In 1985, Apple made the first laser printer to use the PostScript page description language, and the 10 type families provided with this release included three designed by Zapf. One was Palatino, but it was the other two – Zapf Chancery and Zapf Dingbats – that would bring him worldwide recognition, since they bore his name. The latter brought to the public’s attention all the small symbols that printers have known for centuries as “ornaments.” Zapf has designed over 1,000 of them, but only about a third appear in the digitized font.

Zapf’s understanding of the computer engineering skills used in typography today was demonstrated in his last major project, the Zapfino typeface. This has its origin in a page of calligraphy that he drew in a sketchbook in 1944, but the number of alternate characters needed to reproduce the ornaments and ligatures – flourishes and otherwise contradictory letter combinations – could not be managed. by the first digitization methods. The development of OpenType font technology from the mid-1990s made possible its release in 1998. It was then reworked by Zapf himself in 2003.

He is survived by his wife, Gudrun von Hesse, also a calligrapher and type designer, whom he married in 1951, and three granddaughters. Their son, Christian, died in 2012.

Hermann Zapf, typographer and calligrapher, born November 8, 1918; passed away on June 4, 2015


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