In Memoriam: Hermann Zapf

by Sumner Stone


This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave on June 12, 2015 at the Typographics conference. It is brief tribute based on my personal encounters with Hermann Zapf. It is not intended to be a comprehensive look at his many achievements. I’m going to begin with an excerpt from my Foreword to Rick Cusick’s recent book about Zapf’s work for Hallmark Cards.

The lights went down and the film began. There, standing in front of a blackboard, a thin, upright man in a dark suit made a sweeping gesture with his right hand, and behind the hand there appeared a vapor trail of blue chalk, and then another, and another. It was the letter A. I was, in the argot of my student life, blown away — by the controlled but graceful movements, and simultaneously by the beauty of the form. Then came the equally elegant B. With each stroke my attention became more firmly riveted. Within a few minutes a magical dancing alphabet creature had been conjured on the blackboard by this genius of letters. I was in a trance. Then, using different tools, more gorgeous letters appeared from his firm but delicate hand. Finally, when the lights came up I came back to earth. I was sitting in my first calligraphy class watching a film showing Hermann Zapf at work. The film had been made by Hallmark Cards.

That was over forty years ago. The vivid impression has lasted. I can still run the movie in my mind’s eye. Not only did watching Professor Zapf’s performance broaden my perspective on making letters, it set off a chain of events which started me on my career as a professional letter maker.

I recall one episode in which he was asked to design the stationary for the President of Hallmark. It consisted very simply of the name, Don Hall set in Optima, centered at the top of the page. Hermann pasted up each letter. He then put the paste-up on the floor and stared at it for a long time. Then he made a tiny adjustment followed by another long stare at the piece on the floor. This time he was standing on a chair. Then another tiny adjustment. Then more staring ...”

The entire process consumed a morning. I learned something very important that morning. Attention to detail was an important part of the process even for a master. Whatever it took, that’s what you did.

Beautiful letters flowed out of Zapf’s hand. It did not seem to matter which letter-making tool he used, he managed to coax out new subtleties of form. He was equally at home with a pencil, edged pen, pointed brush, or ballpoint. The letter­forms were in the best tradition of fine letter making and yet at the same time they seemed new, fresh. His exaggerations and extensions always seemed balanced. He caressed and nudged the letters into new harmonies. The swelling of strokes, the slight rounding of interior joins, the refined balancing of the counter shapes were combined with classical features to make letter­forms that attained a level of integrity and refinement seldom seen in our tradition.

Letter sketches on an Italian banknote

Sketches that ultimately became Optima.

Letter sketches

More sketches from Florence, 1950.

“Die Tradition der Schrift” lettering
Pencil lettering

Pencil layout for a medal.

Manuale Typographicum

Optima in use.

One of the less well known things about Hermann’s career is that he was a prolific book designer. These are some of his book jacket designs.

Book jackets

He did a number of books for Hallmark.

Favorite Bible Verses

His best known typeface designs are Palatino, Optima, and Zapfino, which you have all seen, but he did many more. I won’t attempt to show them or even name them all here. There are too many, but to show just a few, there are the marvelous companions for Palatino – Michaelangelo and Sistina.

Michaelangelo and Sistina type samples

And the wonderful calligraphic Hunt Roman.

Hunt Roman type sample

The designs he did for Stempel were punchcut by August Rosenberger. They resulted in typefaces with a special quality that was graciously acknowledged by Hermann in his book August Rosenberger 1893–1980; A Tribute to one of the Greatest Masters of Punchcutting, an Art Now All but Extinct. Their collaboration on Feder und StichelPen and Graver in English – is a striking demonstration of the remarkable level of craftsmanship they both achieved.

Feder Und Stichel original artwork

Zapf’s original design for the title page.

Feder Und Stichel engraving

The title page printed from Rosenberger’s engraving.

Feder Und Stichel alphabet

A page from Feder Und Stichel.

For several years I tried in vain to copy his letter­forms. I practiced the varying of pressure on the metal nibs endlessly, and I did attain a modest level of skill. Hermann admonished us to make letters that were appropriate for our time, not just copy from old sources, and his own work was an exquisite example. After a great deal of practice, I ultimately I realized that I needed to follow my own path, just as Zapf himself had done. So his ultimate gift to me was liberation. I did not have to make letters that were imitations of Hermann’s. I set off in my own direction, just as he had, and I am very grateful.

In 2001 a celebration of the work of both Hermann and his wife Gudrun was organized in San Francisco. We called it Zapfest. Both Hermann and Gudrun were honered with an exhibition at the library, a lecture series, and numerous other events, including ultimately a book titled Calligraphic Type Design in the Digital Age.

Gudrun & Hermann Zapf

Gudrun is, of course, a fine calligrapher and type designer in her own right. She is also an accomplished bookbinder. I designed the logotype for Zapfest using Gudrun’s beautiful Diotima italic and one of her Ariadne initals.

Gudrun Zapf von Hesse
Type sample
Diotima-Kursiv type sample
Ariadne-Initialen type sample

On the morning of the initial meeting for the Zapfest I sat at breakfast contemplating what I should say to introduce the Zapfs. I was reading a newspaper and there was an article about a lawsuit over the right to use the letter O as the title of a magazine. It seems that besides Oprah’s magazine named O there was also one in the UK that had the same name. I then knew what to say.

I began the introduction by relating what I had read in the newspaper and then I said, “There may be a dispute over who owns the letter O, but there is no dispute over who owns the letter Z.”

Hermann worked through his 70s and 80s on a variety of type designs which included the very popular Zapfino digitized by Gino Lee, and a number of new and revised versions of his famous typefaces in collaboration with Akira Kobayashi.

Optima Nova type sample
Palatino Sans type sample

His legacy is a truly grand body of work in calligraphy, type design, and book design. Today, it serves to remind us of the bar he has set. It is high, and it will not be forgotten. His work is bound to inspire many people for many generations.

The great majority of the images you have seen were sent to me by Julian Waters, and he sent many more. I am grateful. Also thanks to Cara Di Edwardo, Rick Cusick, Susie Taylor, Gerry Fleuss, and Carl Rohrs for sending me images. I wish I could have shown them all.

Hermann Zapf portrait

Bibliography from Wikipedia: