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Hermann Zapf, A Tribute

Few, if any, individuals have exerted as much influence over the interlinked worlds of calligraphy, type design, and typography in the past century as Hermann Zapf. His death on June 4th, 2015, at the age of 96 in Darmstadt, Germany, comes during a period when type design and book publishing are experiencing an accelerating shift towards the digital presentation and distribution of text. Yet, throughout his long and productive career, Zapf never became an anachronism. Many of his typefaces, including Palatino, Optima, and the ubiquitous Zapfino, are more popular than ever.

Hermann Zapf grew up in a period after the First World War when type and book design were enjoying a remarkable renaissance. As a young man, he gave himself over to a concentrated study of the work of master calligraphers, classic letterforms, and early printing. Though humbled by the work of his predecessors, Zapf developed into a surpassingly talented calligrapher and type designer who never allowed his respect for the models of the past to cramp his imagination or to overtake his gift for innovation. His first commercially successful type designs were produced shortly after the end of World War II at the Stempel Type Foundry in Frankfurt and were rooted in technologies that dated back to Gutenberg. Types like Palatino -- now common on every computer -- were originally brought to life as gleaming, three-dimensional lead characters that could be composed by hand and printed on letterpress machines.

By the 1950s, the venerable technology of punch, matrix, mold, and molten metal alloys was already nearing obsolescence. As newer typesetting technologies, including machine composition, photocomposition, and digital typesetting, increasingly and, each time more rapidly, supplanted those of the past, Zapf studied the possibilities, as well as the limitations of each new system, and adapted his designs accordingly. “New types for new technologies,” was one of his favorite aphorisms. Even into his last decade, Zapf was still guiding sophisticated new digital versions of his types thought the design process.

What better place than RIT for Zapf to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the future? A visit by Zapf to RIT in 1957 led to a long friendship with Alexander S. Lawson, a distinguished faculty member in RIT’s School of Printing and, as of 1969, the first Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Professor of Graphic Arts. One of Lawson’s first acts as Cary Professor was to nominate Hermann Zapf for the School’s newly created Frederic W. Goudy Award, culminating in a formal ceremony on October 10, 1969. In the address that Zapf delivered that day, he declared:

“There is a permanent movement in so many fields toward the future. We often look too much backwards in our love for the oldtimers in type; we are sometimes still captured by false romanticism and we should spend more of our activities in new developments. . . . In spite of mechanization and rationalization, it will be our task as book artists and alphabet designers, together with the technicians, to maintain the artistic aspects of progress in the evolution of printing.”  (From: “Future Developments and Alphabet Designs”)

Hermann Zapf’s relationship with RIT blossomed. Following the retirement of Lawson in 1977, Zapf succeeded him as Cary Professor and initiated a series of dynamic courses in calligraphy, type design, and typography. He immersed himself in the holdings of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, advised on acquisitions, and revelled in the warm Rochester summer.

Though Zapf’s tenure as Cary Professor lasted only one year (he was commuting from his home in Darmstadt, Germany!), he stayed on as a part-time adjunct professor. In 1979, he launched an annual two-week summer workshop for master calligraphers that continued for ten years. These workshops attracted an international group of accomplished calligraphers and designers whose hours spent with Zapf became treasured memories. From intensive classes in the mornings, to afternoon sessions in the Cary Collection examining specimens of medieval calligraphy and early printing, to evening gatherings of storytelling, these workshops brought great pleasure to Zapf.

Though the last calligraphy workshop was held in 1988, Hermann Zapf’s connection to RIT only grew stronger, and his generosity over the years was extraordinary. He extolled RIT’s programs in printing and graphic design far and wide and made increasingly signifiant donations to the Cary Collection. These included typeface sketches, original calligraphy, specimens of his book and design work, posters, and more. His gifts even extended to several thousand Christmas cards he and his wife Gudrun Zapf von Hesse received over the years from colleagues in the international graphic arts community.

Gudrun Zapf, who survives her husband, has also been a generous donor. An accomplished bookbinder, calligrapher, and type designer in her own right, she herself received the Goudy Award in 1991. Her gifts to the Cary Collection have included calligraphic manuscripts, exemplars of her type designs, and breathtakingly beautiful vellum and leather bindings.

Among the most valued treasures presented by Hermann Zapf to the Cary Collection are the original calligraphic drawings for his influential model book Feder und Stichel (1950), the layouts and proofs for the two versions of his Manuale Typographicum (1954, 1968), and the complete layouts and correspondence for the typographic broadside collection Orbis Typographicus (1990). Zapf considered RIT as one of two formal depositories of his work; the other is located at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenb├╝ttel, Germany.

As ambassador for the Cary Collection, Hermann Zapf played a major role in the acquisition by the library of the extensive graphic arts library and correspondence collection of Paul Standard, Zapf’s most ardent American advocate and friend. Standard’s carefully cultivated relationships with hundreds of calligraphers, type designers, and typographers make this collection crucial to any scholar interested in the 20th century graphic arts scene. In 1993, the Cary Collection published Calligraphic Salutations, a collection of letters from Zapf to Standard that Zapf embellished with exquisite calligraphic quotations.

Hermann Zapf authored two additional works published by RIT: August Rosenberger (1996), a personal tribute to the punchcutter and close friend who first cut his types in metal for the Stempel Type Foundry, and Alphabet Stories (2007), an autobiographical chronicle of his typefaces and the technical developments which accompanied them.

In 2007, Hermann Zapf’s largest typographic work was dedicated at RIT. This monumental project consists of 27 eight-foot-high glass panels bearing a series of inspirational quotations from famous authors and designers about the alphabet and the cultural importance of books. The texts were typographically arranged by Zapf in a variety of different typefaces (or original calligraphy) and sandblasted onto the panels by the Pike Stained Glass Studio of Rochester. The panels are laid out in a spiral based on the proportions of the golden section and surround the editorial offices of the RIT Press, located next to the Cary Collection on the second floor of the Wallace Library building.

Though one of the undisputed titans in the world of calligraphy and typeface design has now laid down his pen, Hermann Zapf’s accomplishments live on in ways that would astonish anyone who paused and looked around. In every place where letterforms communicate in printed or digital forms -- the verse of a poet, the prose of a novelist, the headline of a movie poster, or even the text on a postage stamp -- Zapf’s sure touch will be found. His influence is global, his reach extended each time a keystroke is recorded in one of his many typefaces, his alphabets as personally meaningful as an email message composed in Palatino and sent to a friend.

—David Pankow
Cary Collection Curator Emeritus