Hermann Zapf, Major Contemporary Type Designer

  • West German designer made his first major contribution at 21
  • At the age of 42, Zapf has produced nearly 50 new type faces
  • Compared to W.A. Dwiggins because of his wide range of interests
Hermann Zapf

Hermann Zapf

The 1950–1960 decade witnessed the passing from the scene of a number of the great typographers and type designers; so many, in fact, that printers began to wonder who would take their places, particularly since emphasis has shifted from traditionally trained typographic designers to the product of art schools—young people without roots in the composing room or in the printer’s craft.

William A. Dwiggins, Bruce Rogers, Will Ransom, George Trenholm, C.H. Griffith, to name a few, are men who left their impression upon this industry and who will be missed for a long time to come.

Perhaps coincidentally, in this same decade there has emerged a type designer fully equipped to take his place with the best of our generation. He is Hermann Zapf, who at 42 has already produced close to 50 type designs, most of which have been issued b the Stempel Foundry in Frankfurt, Germany, and the German Linotype organization in the last 10 years.

Zapf’s entry into the international typographic scene began with the publication of Feder und Stichel (Pen and Graver) in 1950. This beautiful book was the result of experiments in letterform, primarily scripts, when Zapf was 21. He had so thoroughly grounded himself in the formation of 17th and 18th century scripts that without doubt he had mastered every facet of the form. Pen and Graver, printed from hand-cut engravings by August Rosenberger, was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. The American calligrapher, Paul Standard, stated in the introduction to the English edition that it ranked “among the finest calligraphic manuals known.”

The book was printed on Fabriano paper at the printing office of the Stempel Type Foundry. Jan Tschichold, the well-known European typographer, has stated that no book produced in the pasts 100 years can show a comparable perfection of printing.

Thus, Zapf’s career has been followed with a great deal of interest by everyone concerned with visual communication via the printed word. Among American designers, he can probably be most readily compared with the late W.A. Dwiggins—not so much for his style as for his breadth of interests. Indeed, nothing that Zapf has produced compares with the puckish quality of the Dwiggins’ decorations. However, in his ability to combine successfully calligraphy, typography, and type design, Zapf comes closest to the great American craftsman.

An examination of books designed by Zapf indicates his interest in the traditional aspects of the art of the book, both in the book itself and in the jacket. He is primarily concerned in his jacket design with the use of the type image, even when lettering is used. He rarely uses illustration in this specialty. All of his book jackets are remarkable for their dignity, making illustration seem superfluous.

It is in his work as a type designer that Zapf has made the greatest impact on the American typography, his types being in general use in a variety of printed material, primarily for ad typography and in hand-set lines for commercial printing.

These are samples of a few of nearly 50 types by Hermann Zapf, one of today's major type designers

These are samples of a few of nearly 50 types by Hermann Zapf, one of today's major type designers

The type which first attracted attention in this country in Palatino, a reconstruction of a Renaissance letter, and named for the Italian writing master who was a contemporary of Garamond. Palatino is the sturdy, well-constructed roman face with definite leaning toward the humanist letters. It is somewhat monotone in stroke with a hint of the broad pen. Typographers are lavish in their praise of the accompanying italic, a beautiful rendering of the Chancery form.

Palatino has been cut for the Linotype machine, and in a very short period has attained such popularity in Germany that it is now one of the types most frequently used for book composition. Here in the United States, the magazine, The New Republic, emerged last year in a completely new format, entirely set in Palatino.

Another book type designed by Zapf for the German Linotype is Aldus, also based on an early Italian form, and presently receiving wide use in Germany.

Two titling fonts followed Palatino both taken from Roman inscriptions. These types—Michelangelo and its bold companion Sistina—have been used extensively in this country. They are valued for their classic form. There are unfortunately too few types of this genre presently available.

Possibly one of the most interesting of the Zapf designs is the Melior type. After studying the so-called newspaper legibility faces, it was his intention to incorporate into a type all of the requirements for utmost legibility, such as large x-height, open counters, etc., common to these letters. His problem was to retain some of the characteristics of the classic forms of roman letters, and the extent to which he succeeded in the Melior design is still being debated among typographers. Certainly the type is clean and legible, particularly in the size range of 6- to 12-point. The somewhat squared effect in the design of the round letters is the feature most discussed.

The italic combines some of the features described by Stanley Morison in his search for “the ideal italic.” Melior italic is primarily a sloped, or oblique, roman and is therefore very legible. The major criticism is that, as in the Electra italic of W.A. Dwiggins, the slope is not sufficient to justify the use of italic in the ordinary manner; e.g., in single words or in phrases in roman lines. Even with this handicap the type appears to be heading for increasing popularity in this country.

Another type of Zapf’s which deserves close study is Optima.¹ This is what has been called a “stressed sans serif roman.” The designer has attempted to produce a sans serif, but without the strictly monotone characteristics. Many American printers are familiar with other experiments along similar lines prior to World War II. One of these is Stellar, designed in 1929 by Robert Middleton for Ludlow. Undoubtedly, the continuing popularity of the Lydian series is due partially to this departure in a sans serif style from dependence upon the monotone stroke.

1. The reader of this ASL Archive post should note the name “Alexander S. Lawson” in this website’s header image (above) is set in Optima accented with a later Zapf creation, Zapfino.

Optima, first shown in 1958, has been made available for Teletype operation. The tone contrast makes the type extremely readable, even in the smaller sizes, but unless the European trend to gothics for every printing use is adopted in the United States, Optima will remain primarily a European type.

Zapf has demonstrated his catholicity in design with the addition of such diversified faces as Saphir, a beautifully-proportioned decorative letter; an interesting script, Virtuosa; several Greek alphabets, and a number of fleurons and borders. All of this adds up to a remarkable achievement for a designer who is self-trained (he never attended art school), but who is nonetheless tho

This article first appeared in the July 1960 issue of Printer and Lithographer.


One Comment

  1. Mike Day says:

    Welcome back. Missed my daily and weekly reading. And Zapf is one of my heroes.

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