June 7, 2015

Remembering Hermann Zapf

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Hermann Zapf, a master of typography and legendary type designer, passed away on June 4, 2015.

zapf with book squareI first met Hermann Zapf in 1988 at a calligraphy conference in Washington DC, within a few years of receiving a design degree, and early in my career as a designer and lettering artist.

He astounded us by drawing the most exquisite alphabet composition — on the blackboard with a piece of chalk — something he did multiple times for students around the world.

For the last 35 years, his influence upon my career is at the deepest level of my thinking on design, letterforms, and composition. I’ve surrounded myself with his work, from the magnificent limited edition reproduction of his alphabets on gold leaf (shown below), to limited editions of his books and manuscripts.

My first introduction to letterforms was inspired by the lettering artists of the Speedball era; but my lifelong passion and love of type was inspired by the work and craftsmanship of Hermann Zapf. His influence on my work can be found in my typeface designs Veritas and Lucerna; in my (little-known but prolific) hand lettering work; and in my approach to design as a craft.

In 2003, I was invited by Tamye Riggs of SoTA (The Society of Typographic Aficianados) to introduce Herr Zapf in Chicago, Illinois, as he was honored with the first SoTA Typography Award..

While a brief retrospective of highlights of his work played behind me, this was my introduction of Hermann Zapf, a man who inspired many—yet remarkably gave more credit to the skills and accomplishment of his wife, Gudrun Zapf von Hesse:

Hermann Zapf has been and still is both inspiration and teacher for generations of calligraphers, graphic designers, typographers, and type designers.

These are four distinct but inter-related groups of individuals, each with their own discipline—yet each find a common bond in the person and work of Hermann Zapf.

Many of us practice all four disciplines in the course of our work, the lines between each discipline indistinct as we create letter forms, choose a typeface for a design project, or even design a typeface for others to use.

It is evident from the body of work of Hermann Zapf that the distinctions between the disciplines are non-existent.

From an early age, until now, letterforms have flowed from his hand, his head and his heart – to pen & paper, the printed page to sculptural letterforms and the screen. That he was self-taught in the art of calligraphy is inspirational to those who seek to make the pen dance across a page. That his calligraphy is disciplined restrained and yet filled with joyful exuberance, encourages us for whom the discipline of the art is constantly teased by the desire to “cut loose” and let the ink flow.

As designers, we study how Mr. Zapf composes the page. His design work—calligraphic and typographic – remind us of the most basic elements of design: contrast, balance and unity.

In studying his compositions, we learn how to compose a page, how to create point and counterpoint, theme and variation, and how to exercise design restraint.

We are surrounded by the typeface designs of Hermann Zapf.

These typefaces speak to us as typographers and type designers of relationships.

The relationships are many: we who use the typeface designs of Hermann Zapf in our work have the opportunity to embrace the spirit of the man who created them.

Visually, we see the relationships between form and counter, stroke and space, volume and shape, restraint and exuberance.

Even when the typeface designs are symbols and shapes, as with his dingbats and ornaments, do we establish a relationship with the information itself.

Optima especially establishes a relationship with history from the inspirational reference sketched on 1000 lira notes in Italy. A timeless typeface of classic proportions, it communicates quietly and thoughtfully.

Optima communicates so thoughtfully that it opens a relationship with memory. As the typeface chosen for the Vietnam Memorial, it bears the weight of over 40,000 names, and the memories of all those who visit.

I suggest that more than we are aware of, we are surrounded by his work – as each day we can find examples of his type design everywhere. This was very evident to me this past weekend as I traveled by car to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Several of the trucks that passed us had corporate logos on their sides set in Optima. It is very evident that the US transportation industry has also been influenced by Hermann Zapf.

In addition, the University we visited, Cornerstone University, used Palatino for their logo. The auditorium was of course, dedicated to an individual, and the bronze plaque was set in Optima and Zapf Chancery. In the program of the Grand Rapids Symphony that evening, was an advertisement for the US exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls… set in Optima. Not only are we surrounded by the work of Hermann Zapf; this is evidence that there is almost no way to avoid it, which of course is a good thing.

letterforms gold Hermann ZapfThe last few examples shown on screen are some of my favorites. A quote from Paul Standard, a palindrome, a design for a tapestry. The most stunning is a piece on gold leaf that is included in my personal art collection. It is such a beautiful piece, exquisitely lettered quotes about writing that surround an alphabet. (Later that year, I was fortunate to see the original on display in a calligraphy exhibit in London, England).

This piece reminds me of Hermann Zapf everyday. I spoke of the inspiration that he has been to many, and that includes myself. I still recall the impression he left with me as a gentleman and craftsman, when I first heard him speak in Washington around 1988. I remember his admonition to “not hang your own work on the wall so as to not to think too highly of yourself.”

So from myself and the design community, thank you Mr. Zapf for inspiring me to become a type designer, for teaching me about letterforms, and for setting an example that is worthy to follow.

Brian Sooy
Chicago Illinois
20 May, 2003

Hermann, the breadth of the foundation of your work will serve to hold the weight of all our memories.

12 years later, thank you for a lifetime of letters. You will be missed. Your visible legacy will remind us that our lives should have grace and beauty in themselves, as do the letterforms we create.